What do you make of the wine business in China? “It’s getting there. That said I’m blissfully protected from the 90 per cent underbelly of fake stuff. LVMH gave Australian wine scientist Tony Jordan four years to go around China and find somewhere suitable for red-wine production and hence [the Moet Hennessy Shangri-La (Deqin) Winery opened in] Yunnan. It’s not easy. It’s not accessible; if something breaks down in the winery, it’s a four-hour drive to get a spare part and you can’t quite rely on the electricity.
“China is the fourth biggest grower of grapevines in the world, so it’s good to know there’s some decent stuff being made there.”
When did you have your first glass of wine? “Probably as a teenager at a Christmas dinner, but I wasn’t brought up with wine. My first good glass of wine was at Oxford University and it was a Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1959 and it was so good that I realised how sensually satisfying it could be. Before that I only drank water. In Britain, people in the 50s and 60s didn’t drink wine. It was a very exotic beverage and they only got into wine from the 70s, when they started going abroad.”
How did you start writing about wine? “When I graduated, in 1971, the subjects of wine and food in Britain were seen as frivolous so I didn’t bother telling my friends I was looking for a job in this field because they would have thought it was a waste of an Oxford education. After working for three years in the travel business, and a year in Provence, I managed to get a job as assistant editor of a wine trade magazine. The timing was great because it was just as the Brits were falling in love with wine.”
Was getting the master of wine certification a natural step for you? “When I started working for the magazine I knew nothing about wine formally so I immediately enrolled in WSET [the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, which provides industry training] and I got the top diploma in 1978, which was nice. In those days the reward was a small wooden shield and I still have it. These days you get the Vintners’ Cup and a trip to Australia.
“I was the first person not in the trade to get the master of wine [certification]. Before you had to be a wine merchant but, in 1984, they altered the rules and allowed those associated with the trade to take it. It was a great time to do the master of wine because the wine world was less complicated. Now there’s so much uniformity and things like chardonnay, that people make all around the world. I really admire anyone who gets the master of wine nowadays. One thing that was more difficult then than it is now is that there were no textbooks in English. I had to mug up oenology by reading Professor [Emile] Peynaud in French. And I did my master of wine exam while five months pregnant, which might have helped, being more sensitive to taste.”
You have the job of helping Queen Elizabeth with her wine list. “I’ve been doing it since 2004. The committee is made up of a representative of each of the four royal warrant wine merchants and one or two other people. It’s fun. We once had an intimate lunch with the queen at Windsor Castle, but she’s not really interested in wine. The money for the wine cellar comes largely from the public purse so we have to spend it wisely because if we overspent, the British press would get all over it. So for the large receptions, we choose decent stuff, and good stuff for small, high-level meetings. We conduct blind tastings and also include non-royal warrant suppliers as a kind of benchmarking exercise. The wines are given marks and then submitted. We also go over the budget and have a very nice lunch. That’s our perk because we do it voluntarily.”
You’ve been writing about wine for 40 years. How has that job changed? “Probably like most specialist writers, the big change for us has been the rise of social media and the consumer voice. In the old days, I thought of me and [Robert] Parker sitting on a mountain handing down bits of knowledge, but it’s absolutely not like that anymore; people can throw stones at us and so you have to work much harder to make sure people think you’re worth reading. And I’ve embraced the new media, instagramming and tweeting. Fortunately my taste in wine is becoming more prevalent. I’ve always liked subtlety more than mass, and that seems to be the direction that many consumers are going in.”
How did the book The 24-Hour Wine Expert come about? “There are far more people who like wine but just want to know the essentials. It had its genesis in our 24-year-old daughter, Rose, who thought she would write a guide for wine for her friends, and did a focus group with what they all wanted to know. I fed the book to her and occasionally she gave comments. Topics include: what vintage is; the ideal wine glass; cork versus screw cap; which wines are worth storing; myths [about how] wines improve with age; and how to get the most out of each glass.”
Would you want to make wine? “Absolutely not. I am a bit of a control freak and the thought of being enthralled by a hailstorm fills me with dread. I was never a gardener.”
What do you like to drink? “I would hate to drink nothing but first-growths and grands crus, much as I love them. I love exploring the world of wine – if there is a new wine country, I want to try it. I’m a huge fan of blind tasting because I think we have many prejudices. I might find that some Chilean cabernet knocks the socks off a fancy Bordeaux and that’s great.”
Is there a new wine region that interests you? “Yunnan is interesting but it’ll never be a big wine region. I want to see what’s happening in Mexico, near Baja California. Funnily enough, there’s a very good Syrian wine. The Lebanese brothers who are responsible for it can’t get to it because of the war. They make it by telephone. But maybe they can’t even get it out. The vintages I’ve tasted have been relatively mature. It’s called Bargylus and it’s really good, made on the site of an old Roman vineyard.”