Thursday, October 05, 2006

First Glass Travel

The following interview appears in a Fine Wine supplement to the Guardian newspaper.

2006 has been a busy year for Robert Joseph. Since January when he handed over the reins of the International Wine Challenge, the world's biggest wine competition which he launched in 1984, the controversial critic has been busily revising new editions of his guide to French Wines and his Ultimate Encyclopedia of Wine, editing the first global guide to wine tourism, the Wine Travel Guide to the World and preparing his next book, a study of the future of wine.

FW: You have been writing about wine for around a quarter of a century. What are the biggest and most surprising changes you have seen?

RJ: The wine world has gone through a complete metamorphosis. The most obvious change is of course the fact that most of us now drink wines with grape names on their labels, produced in countries no one thought grew vines, and more than likely poured from a bottle with a screwcap or a box with a tap on the side. And then of course, there's the fact that far more wine than ever before is branded in some way or other – from Hardy's two-bottles-for-the-price-of-one efforts to Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc which still has a cult status nearly 20 years after it was first produced. Over the last five years, wineries have been opening in the New World, at an extraordinary rate of one every three or four hours. I used to find that a pretty dazzling thought – until I took a look at what has been happening in France. In the autumn of 1989, an extraordinary 494,000 French winegrowers completed forms to say they had harvested grapes for wine. Last year the figure was 183,000. So, by my calculations France alone has been losing two winegrowers an hour for the last 15 years. There's no longer any room for the producer of just another Muscadet or Beaujolais.

But I think that all those obvious changes are actually symptoms of way that, like food, wine has become more than something you simply consume; for a growing number of people, it's a lifestyle pursuit. For some, it may simply be a matter of showing off a bit of sophistication by offering guests the smartest, newest wine on the block. But there are plenty of others who want to know a bit more about the background to what they are drinking. I get far more requests than in the past to host private tastings and to talk about wine at dinners, and there's a definite boom in wine tourism.

FW: So we're all becoming wine buffs?

RJ: Far from it, thank goodness. Wine anoraks are no more fun to be with than hi fi buffs Рunless you happen to share their single-minded obsession. To be honest, I don't think that there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who want to study wine and to take courses and to learn all about the difference between St Emilion Grand Cru and St Emilion Grand Cru Class̩. That's where the French who think that the answer to the woes of their wine industry lies in "wine education" get it so wrong. I think that for most people, wine is like classical music. They build up their knowledge and discover what they like piecemeal - in all sorts of ways Рfrom a newspaper article here, or a radio feature, or by wandering around a wine cellar while they are on holiday. And just as some people collect several of recordings of the same opera, others are perfectly happy with a single cd of Mozart's greatest hits. And that's where the New World wines with their immediate drinkability and informative labels have definitely scored. Their producers have done their utmost to remove the mystique from wine and to make it accessible to everybody. And that open attitude is just as apparent in the way they welcome visitors to their wineries.

FW: How do you define New World?

RJ: Actually, having just referred to the New World, I'd far rather that the terms Old World and New World were dropped; they smack of Animal Farm's "Four Legs Good; Two Legs Bad". In fact they're a convenient form of shorthand for two different philosophies: the one whose producers are driven by tradition and local custom and the other that tries to be in tune with what its customers enjoy. There are some stubbornly arrogant Old-Worlders in Australia and South Africa and some innovative New Worlders in European countries like Spain and Italy.

FW: I notice you left France out of that last list. The French are having a hard time at the moment against competition from the New World. How do you rate their chances of fighting back?

RJ: Let me start by saying that I love France, and I love French wine. That's why I find the current plight of the French wine industry so exasperating. It's like watching your best friend sinking into the mire. My best effort at a prescription is to suggest that the people who run France's wine industry (and it is horribly centralized), get the wax removed from their ears so that they can hear what people want from their wines and their labels. They could also invest in a few round-the-world airline tickets and take a look at the way wine producers in other countries receive visitors. Am I the only person to find it extraordinary that the Denbies vineyard in Surrey offers a better experience than almost any chateau in Bordeaux? In France, all too often the only way to gain admittance to a cellar is by appointment, and once you re inside, a knowledge of the French language and the likelihood that you might buy some wine can seem almost obligatory. The trouble is that nowadays, more and more of us visit wineries in pretty much the same way as the characters in the movie Sideways – as a weekend or holiday activity. That's why the exceptions to the French rule like Georges Duboeuf's Hameau du Vin in Beaujolais and Olivier Leflaive's winery restaurant in Burgundy are so welcome.

FW: Where do you think does wine tourism best?

RJ: Well, as I discovered when I was researching the book, there are some tough competitors out there. The Americans - by which I don't simply mean the Californians - are a hard team to beat. If you go online to, for example, you can find out about the nearly four dozen wineries in that state, restaurants, wine festivals and so on in a way that isn't possible for most of Europe's classic regions. The only negative thing to say about the Napa Valley is that, maybe it is a victim of its success as a tourist attraction. Around 15 million people visit the wineries there every year and, it's big business. You have to buy tickets for the tours and tastings and in some of the larger wineries it's easy to imagine that you are in part of Disneyland rather than in a place where wine is actually produced. The wine regions of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand are all great places to visit. In Marlborough in New Zealand, for example, there are at least a dozen winery cafes and restaurants, not to mention vineyards where you can be taught to prune vines and wineries where you can sample all of the smells associated with wine. Elsewhere in the New World, it's more hit-and-miss, but Chile and Argentina have some great winery hotels and one of the best wineries in the world for tourists is in Venezuela.

FW: And what's the best way to go about being a wine tourist?

RJ: It depends on your level of interest – and on that of the person or people with whom you might br travelling. When I'm in a wine region, I'll try to visit six or maybe even more wineries in a day, provided distances between them aren't too great. But I'm on a mission: I have a limited amount of time to cover a certain amount of ground. For a keen wine tourist, I'd recommend four wineries as a maximum and for those with a more casual interest, maybe one or two before a leisurely lunch. As a rule, I'd recommend being as honest about your knowledge or lack of it as possible. Don't let the winenmaker or guide talk over your head, but by the same token don't let them talk down to you if you already know about how wine is made, for example. Say what you think when you're given a wine to taste, but say it politely. If you let a winemaker know that you didn't like a particular wine – and why, it might help him or her to find something that would be more to your taste. On the other hand, expressing the right kind of intelligent appreciation can be like moving onto a new level in a computer game: it could lead to your being offered a taster of something better and/or older.

FW: On a broader topic, which countries do you think are producing the most interesting wines?

RJ: That's easy. Italy is the most exciting wine country on earth at the moment because it's the one place where tradition and inventiveness are coexisting side by side, and often in the same wineries. But there are all sorts of things going on in Portugal, Austria, Spain and Southern France, so the New World is going to face a lot more competition.

FW: Does the New World really make wines that match the best of Europe?
RJ: It depends what you mean by the best. If you ask whether I have ever tasted a New World wine that is quite as good as Chateau Margaux 1953 or Mouton Rothschild 1945 or indeed Haut Brion 2005 and the answer is probably not. But that's a bit like saying that there aren't any composers who have matched Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. The far more relevant question is: can the Antipodes, the Americas and South Africa make wine that is as good as or better than the 97% that most mortals actually get to drink, and the answer to that is a resounding yes.

FW: So how do you see the future?

RJ: Well, I'm still working on the book, but there are all sorts of factor that we'll have to take into account – from global warming, which has already helped to raise the alcoholic strength of the wine we drink, to GM – which, if permitted, might enable winemakers to reduce it. If we've lost some of our reverence for the icons of the past, I wonder how long some of the newer icons will retain our interest. All I do know is that we're on a roller coaster that I for one would never have imagined 25 years ago.

The Wine Travel Guide to the World is published by Footprint at £19.99
The Complete Encyclopedia of Wine is published by Carlton Books at £19.99
French Wine is Published by Dorling Kindersley at £12.99

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