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Oz Clarke – ‘I’m Still Looking Forward to the Best Wine I’ll Ever Taste’

The charmed life of a world-class wine expert.

Oz Clarke has been the reigning world wine tasting champion for 34 years. It’s one of the easiest international titles to defend, because the world wine tasting championships haven’t been held for 34 years. “If someone came up to me and asked me to defend it,” says Clarke, “I think I might develop a sudden attack of bronchitis. No, actually: I would be a contender. I still massively enjoy tasting wine and I’ve been so lucky to be around it all this time.” Clarke, a former actor on stage and screen – West End musicals, Royal Shakespeare Company, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part in the original Superman film –was speaking after making the case for New World wine, against Old, at a special debate hosted by THE STAND in London. “The general feeling is that the greatest vineyards in the New World have not been discovered yet.”

Where will those ‘greatest vineyards’ likely be?
Global warming means that vineyards in the ‘new Europe’ could come into their own. Some of them will be in England, in Sussex, Kent, Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey. Poland has a lot of places down towards the southeast that are potentially quite good. The bottom end of Holland is pretty good, down where it meets Belgium around Liege. It’s not very big, but it’s good. Denmark and the islands already have a thousand grape growers. They make rather good chardonnay.

Can you remember your first-ever taste of wine?
Absolutely. I was three. My dad was finishing his doctorate at Cambridge and we were on the river Ouse having a picnic, my brother was drowning in the weir at St Neots, my father was trying to rescue him, my mother was having hysterics, no one was looking – I got the bottle of my mother’s damson wine, down it went. My brother having survived, my father finally got out and looked at me, turned me upside down and gave me a whack on the stomach and out it came. Any wine that tastes of damsons since then, I love.

The pleasure I get from wine also comes from the people I’m with, the things I’m doing, the places I go to taste it

Is your ability to taste wine an instrument, like a singer’s voice?
In a way. Now, I have a lot of experience, which makes it better, but one of the things about experience is that it can make you less inquisitive. So as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself less absolutely focussed on the minutiae. I’m a slow taster, going backwards and forwards looking for flavours. The more you know, the stronger you are as a taster in some respects, but the weaker you are in others, because the sheer thrill of discovering new stuff is just not quite so likely to knock you sideways. And I love being knocked sideways by new stuff.

Did you really become a full-time wine expert by chance?
Absolutely true. I was in the English wine tasting team at the time [1984], and because I was an actor, when the papers wanted a picture – because the papers loved the English wine tasting team – the picture was always of me. If you are a picture editor, and you can choose between a paper merchant in Guildford or a chap who’s playing General Peron in Evita, who do you choose? You choose General Peron. The first time it happened was at the National Theatre. One time I was doing Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane. The next time I was doing The Mitford Girls with Patricia Hodge. Then I was General Peron. The producer of this new BBC show, Food & Drink, Peter Bazalgette, needed a wine expert when his dropped out the day before filming, and he remembered the actor from the wine tasting team in the papers.

What is the best wine you’ve ever tasted?
I like to say that I’m still looking forward to it. The pleasure I get from wine also comes from the people I’m with, the things I’m doing, the places I go to taste it. What a marvellous, classless, irresponsible, bright, ageless world I live in.

Oz Clarke is an award-winning wine expert, the author of Let Me Tell You About Wine and the Pocket Wine A-Z series, and is a regular contributor to TV and radio.