Oz Clarke: Britain’s talented wine writer’s new books
The former actor believes in telling the story behind the wine
Grapes & Wines offers an in-depth view of the major varieties, including where and how each is grown, its history and very usefully, the best producers.
First published in the Irish Times
Sat, Sep 26, 2015, 17:00
Most of us are familiar with that broad smiling face on television, making some wisecrack to James May as the two travel around Britain, France or California in a very expensive car. More mature readers will remember his partnership with Jilly Goolden on the BBC’s Food and Drink programme, where they vied with each other to come up with the most outrageous wine descriptions. Either way, Oz Clarke has been a familiar face on our TV screens for the best part of 30 years.Behind the cheery demeanour, he is incredibly hard-working, knowledgeable and a prodigious writer. I have copies of his books on Bordeaux, Australia, and new classic wine regions, as well as his excellent Encyclopedia of Wine. There are plenty more. I spent several days in his company earlier this year travelling around Austria and Romania. He was always the last one tasting wines and making notes, full of questions for every producer and a font of information. This autumn, Clarke publishes three books, one in conjunction with Margaret Rand, the other two his own work.
Clarke is very proud of his Irish roots. His mother was an O’Leary from Graiguenamanagh (he is a cousin of writer and broadcaster Olivia O’Leary) and growing up, he spent many happy times there. “It gave a rich emotional quality to my childhood,” says Clarke. “All of the best summers of my life were spent there. The Barrow is one of the most beautiful rivers to have in your childhood memories.” He even thought seriously about going to TCD. “I knew I would have a wonderful time; and it was four years instead of three. I think it would have been a huge struggle to ever leave Dublin actually.” Instead he studied psychology and theology at Oxford. It was there that he first came across wine, captaining the wine-tasting team. Having started a career in acting and singing (he appeared in the 1978 film Superman, and played Gen Juan Perón in the musical Evita in the West End) he moved into writing about wine when the BBC was looking for an actor who knew about wine.The History of Wine in 100 Bottles is not really a history book, rather 100 chronological mini-histories of bottles, people, events and other milestones that have helped to shape the wine we drink today. “Wine writers aren’t telling the stories any more,” says Clarke, “and they need to – this is what people want to read. I worked very hard to cut each entry down to 500 words.” One entry takes a look at the use of resin as an anti-oxidant in wine in ancient Greece and Rome, a practice that continues today with retsina. Apparently Pliny was a connoisseur, preferring Calabrian resin, and enjoyed the way it stuck to his teeth with its tart taste. There is a separate entry for retsina in the 1970s along with Gallo’s hearty Burgundy (1964), the first bag-in-box (1965 would you believe?) and Marlborough sauvignon (1983). The final entry brings us up to 2014 and the story of fine wine fraudster Rudi Kurniawan.
It is tempting to see the second book, Grapes & Wines, written with Rand, another formidable writer, as Jancis Lite, a lesser version of Jancis Robinson’s magnus opus Wine Grapes. That is to do it a disservice. Grapes & Wines offers an in-depth view of the major varieties, including where and how each is grown, its history and very usefully, the best producers. The major varieties, such as cabernet and chardonnay get a dozen pages and lesser grapes a short paragraph. This is an incredibly handy, easy-to-use reference book.I am sure my copy will become dog-eared as the months go by. “The challenge with this book,” says Clarke, “was to make it interesting for people who don’t know that much about wine but at the same time useful to those who work in the business.” The final book is the Pocket Wine A-Z, a handy annual guide to producers, grapes and wines.
Le Grand Blanc 2012, Côtes de Thongue, Comte de Bertier
Peaches in custard with a smooth mellow texture. Delicious. With creamy chicken dishes.
Stockists: Molloy’s Liquor Stores
Cusumano Shamaris Grillo 2014, IGT Terre Siciliane
Lifted floral aromas followed by captivating refreshing nectarine and cantaloupe melon fruits on the palate. A very appealing wine.
Ottomarzo 2012, Tenute Dettori, Sardinia
Stunning wine. Warm ripe soft dark fruits with hints of liquorice, warm earth and herbs; full, voluptuous and rounded with real complexity.
Stockists: 64wine, Glasthule