Kent-born Oz Clarke’s new book explores the vineyards of England, the newest new world wine country
Here he talks to The Southern Quarter about his fun-packed career, his love for his home county and his favourite wine memories.
First things first, what are you drinking?
I’m doing some video tastings this week and so on the stone floor of the cellar ready to open is a Gusbourne 2016 Rose, made by a lovely guy – Charlie Holland.
Tell us about your wine journey…
We didn’t drink wine at home. I grew up near Canterbury and my dad was in control of the coal mines in Kent so he didn’t have much time for drinking wine. But at university I thought that if I became a wine expert, it might get me a girlfriend. It didn’t. I took four different girls to wine tastings, none of them ever spoke to me again so it was a complete washout. But it did get me interested in wine.
While I was acting, a friend of mine heard they were getting a wine tasting team together in London and suggested I try and get on it, which I did and before I knew it we were doing our first match against France, in Paris. Of course, [the French] thought they would absolutely slaughter us but we absolutely wiped the floor with them. Le Figaro [newspaper] has only ringed its front page in black twice in history, one was when President de Gaulle died and the other time was when we beat the French at wine tasting in Paris!
A year later we did the competition in Germany and won again. At that time, I was acting as Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane and so there was a picture of me in costume with my razors on the front page of all the newspapers back home. The next year we won again and again and so I became known as the actor who knew about wine.
When Food & Drink was starting up in the 80s they wanted to do a blind wine tasting live on TV but the guy who was supposed to be doing it dropped out at 24 hours’ notice. So, the producer, Peter Bazelgette, just said, ‘get me that actor who knows about wine’ – he didn’t even know what my name was. But I did it and I played the audience as though it was a pantomime. Peter said he had no idea wine tasting could be showbiz and asked me if I wanted to come and be a regular on the programme. So, it all began like that.
Then of course I started working with Jilly Goolden and we’d go out on prime-time TV telling millions of people not to get so upset about wine, that it was easy really and we’d teach them how to pronounce this and that grape. It meant that I wasn’t worried about not going on the stage any longer because I was on a stage every time I stepped out with Jilly and then continued with James May, Hugh Dennis and now I’m doing it with James Martin on Saturday Morning.
Then of course there’s the newspaper columns and books, which I write and judging at the International Wine Challenge, so the wine world has really become the complete heart of my professional world.
Why did you decide to write your book on English wine?
I’ve been interested in English wine since day dot. Growing up in the countryside, my mother took me to my first English vineyard, which was Staple Vineyard, just outside Wingham in Kent, and the first English wine I ever tasted was Biddenden Ortega. I was trying to impress a girl I liked. I enjoyed the flavour but was left drinking it by myself!
England is now very much a wine-drinking country (85% of us now drink wine compared with only 5% in the 60s) and while we still don’t drink a lot of our home-grown wine, massively more people enjoy English wine than they did even just two years ago.
The 2018 vintage brought English wine into the mainstream, every newspaper editor said, ‘please give me stuff about English wine’, it went on the front pages of the broadsheets and the tabloids and was at the top of the television news programmes. It wasn’t just wine people writing about it, it was normal journalists around the world. Consequently, the momentum of the harvest last year, caused by the summer of the previous year, was so strong, and I just thought, ‘you’ve got to write a book about this. There’s no real consumer-first book about English wine and that’s the world you like to live in so write it now’.
And so, the book is really part of trying to keep that momentum going in what is, and will continue to be, an incredibly challenging year for English vineyards. Local is so important to me – of course I want people to drink English and Welsh wine if they can but if you’ve got a local vineyard, support them.
How do you think English wine has changed over the past few decades?
When I started to write about wine, I always kept my eye on what was happening in the English market and I used to turn up at one or two parochial English wine festivals each year, at places like Leeds Castle in Kent and Alfriston in Sussex and you could see the shock on their faces that someone, from London, had actually made the effort to come down and taste their wines. There were always a few shining examples showing that, if people did it properly, there’s no reason why we couldn’t produce nice wine in this country.
Back then, in the 80s and early 90s, the Germanic grape varieties were the bedrock of everything that happened in England and they were making quite a few nice, delicate fresh wines but nothing that you thought would change the world. Then Nyetimber came along.
The first time I tried Nyetimber, which was in 1998, I just knew the world wouldn’t be the same again. I thought, ‘this is a world beater and if we can take Nyetimber’s example then it’s possible that England can become a world-class wine producer’. Things ambled on for the next few years but it was in the middle of the noughties that things really started to speed up – people began to believe we could make the best sparkling wine in the world and wanted to be a part of that.
Now of course people are making more still wine. Simpson in Canterbury for example, they never meant to make still wine yet they have and last year at the Canterbury Food Festival they sold more still wine than sparkling, as did Chapel Down. Partly because it’s cheaper [than sparkling]. I think still wine is going to play a huge part in English wine moving forward.
Do you have a favourite English wine region?
Well Kent really is my heartland. It’s a county full of wild differences, I think it’s an absolutely marvellous county. You’ve got places like Biddenden, which has been there for 50 years but then there’s a lot happening at the moment on the chalk and the anticline around Tunbridge Wells, which is pretty similar soil to that which Nyetimber is on, so that’s exciting.
What English vineyards do you think have really got it right?
Well Biddenden has been getting it right for over 50 years! The Barnes family were solely apple growers until the wife heard something on Women’s Hour about planting a vineyard and just thought it would be something they could do to bring in some extra income. The sons are now taking it over and growing an agricultural business too.
And then there’s Hush Heath. Richard Balfour is a business man, a hotellier and knows you’ve got to provide an experience, you can’t make a living just by selling the wines elsewhere. The winery he’s got is pretty impressive, it’s like being in Nappa Valley or something; it’s a really nice environment.
Chris White at Denbies [in Dorking] is also impressive. He’s really got into his stride and is doing great things with the new hotel and re-doing the restaurant.
Where’s your favourite place to drink wine?
When people ask me about where I fanaticise about, they expect me to say New Zealand or Sicily or California but it’s Kent and Sussex. The marshes down by the River Stour, the Eden Valley, bits of the Weald, little cricket pitches at Cranbrook and Hawkhurst or the South Downs, those lost, savage hills.
But if I had to name one place it would the White Cliffs of Dover. I still go there with my brother and it’s my mum’s favourite place for a picnic – either just above the docks because you can see France and look down on and just about hear the dockyard. If it’s too busy there, I like going on the old railway line that used to go to St Martin Mill.
What’s your favourite wine memory?
It wouldn’t be to do with the quality of the wine. I remember when I was probably still a student and I eloped with a girl. We took the train to Florence and then a bus to the edge of the town, where we walked to the first village along this dusty road.
We went into a shop and bought some salami and tomatoes and that strange saltless bread they have in Tuscany and I asked for some wine. The chap said “where’s your bottle?” I replied that I didn’t know I needed to bring a bottle and so he went out the back and came back with this dusty old bottle that he filled from an old vat, squirting a litre of this purply, pinky frothy liquid into it and then charged me less than a bottle of water for it.
We drifted off in the warm afternoon and found a meadow above the village, set out our picnic and drank this bottle of sharp, half fizzy, sweet/sour but vibrant wine as alive and as bursting with vitality as any wine I’d ever had and then drifted off into a beautiful adolescent afternoon in a meadow in the Tuscan sun. What was the wine called? It didn’t even have a name. But that nameless wine is up there with some of the most precious wines I’ve drunk.
Finally, if you could only drink one wine for the rest of your life, what would that be?
I wouldn’t ever only drink one wine for the rest of my life. The world of wine is too exciting. I’m always looking for new things I haven’t tried. My cellar is full of single bottles. Lots of people have cases of this and cases of that, I just have hundreds and hundreds of single bottles.
Oz Clarke English Wine From Still to Sparkling: The newest new world wine country, is published by Pavilion Books on September 3, RRP £16.99.
Oz will host Gin & Phonic with the Armonico Consort in Canterbury on October 26 as part of his Oz & Armonico Drink to Music programme. Enjoy a glass of gin or two whilst listening to the incredible music of Purcell, Handel and Dowland and learning about the relationship between gin, music and humans over the centuries.