Oz Clarke entered the Vinopolis auditorium with a big smile, wearing jeans and an informal jacket, holding an open bottle of Tasmanian sparkling wine in his right hand and chatting about the rugby championship games. “Is it anybody’s birthday today?” A young man with a mischievous smile raised his hand. “Are you sure it’s your birthday?” “Yes.” Are you quite sure?” “Yes.” So, Oz topped off the glass of the man with the mischievous smile with more Tasmanian sparkling wine. Looking around the room, has asked “Is it anyone else’s birthday today?” A gentleman in the front row raised his hand. “Is it your birthday, then, too?” “Well, not exactly.” The gentleman explained that this tasting event was his 60th birthday present. “When was your birthday then? Sixty-five days ago! Has anyone else had a birthday this year?” By now, all 40 of us in the room had become friends with Oz.
Our tasting began with NV Jansz Premum Tasmanian Rosé Sparkling Wine ($21), made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I was happy to try this, as I had been unsuccessful locating any in New York. Oz happily described the wine’s pale salmon trout hue, strawberry and hazelnut aromas, light body, lovely foam and acidity that nips the edge of the tongue. To me, it felt like a perlant, with perfectly delightful and delicate bubbles. In the interests of accommodating a large audience in a short time, the wine had been opened and poured into each of our glasses a half-hour prior. Oz explained that the great pleasure of Champagne or sparkling wine is when the bubbles explode in your mouth. He described Champagne as more than an appellation, rather an image, one of excess and celebration. He also noted that the English, not the French, invented the méthode Champenoise: Christopher Merret, writing for the Royal Society in London in 1662, years before Dom Pérignon, explained that wine could be made to sparkle by adding sugar and creating a second fermentation. Nevertheless, it is the French who hold a great history of winemaking, and the British who hold a great history as merchants and critics. The fierce competition between British and French discoveries and conquests was also a pervading theme during a tour of the British Museum.
Our second wine was 2009 Donnafugata Polena IGT from Sicily, a white wine made from an unusual blend of Catarratto and Viognier ($21). Catarratto is the white grape used to produce Marsala, it keeps acidity in the heat, and has a bit of a lemon flavor. Viognier is much better known, grown in the New World, and has a rich texture and apricot aromas. A very enjoyable wine! IGT, indicazione geografica tipica, is a category outside the DOC system that accommodates rule-breaking. It was most interesting to hear Oz describe Sicily as the New World of the Old World. New World, by his definition, is a state of mind, an attitude: New World is about pleasing the consumer rather than following tradition, and is more easily controlled when there is more sun and less rain than needed.
Our third wine was 2007 Milton Opou Vineyard Chardonnay from Gisborne, New Zealand ($19). This is a biodynamic wine grown on the east coast of the North Island, in a rainy, warm climate, which would seem difficult to control given potential fungus and disease. It was fermented in oak, has a creamy and viscous mouthfeel and a nutty and vanilla taste. Oz asked the audience to raise their hands if Chardonnay is their favorite wine, and very few hands went up. Apparently Bridget Jones’s Diaries has had a negative impact on Brits’ perception of Chardonnay, which the heroine drank in self-pity when her romantic pursuits failed once again. Oz then followed up by asking how many people like white Burgundy, and far more hands went up.
Our fourth wine was 2007 Viña Falernia, Elqui Valley Carmenère Reserva ($23). Carmenère has grown alongside with Merlot in Chile, and has a plum and dark berry flavor and low acidity. This wine had a slight sweetness from a process called passimento -when grapes are slightly shriveled on the vine before harvest. This concentrates the grapes’ natural sugars and here resulted in a wine with 14% alcohol. Chile has the benefit of being one of two wine regions (the other being South Australia) that was not affected by phylloxera during the 19th century. Thus the vines grow on rootstocks originally transplanted from European rootstocks. Chilean vineyards have the additional benefits of the cooling Humboldt Current from Antarctica, cool air shooting down from the Andes at night, and snowmelt from the Andes as a source of water for irrigation. The sunny Elqui Valley is located at the southern portion of the Atacama Desert, has such clear light that it has become an important site for astronomical observatories. Oz is quite impressed with Chile as a wine region and called it the land of opportunity.
Our fifth wine was 2006 Tim Adams Shiraz, Clare Valley, Australia ($20). This was a bright, full-bodied, juicy, fruity wine with pepper notes and 14.5% alcohol. Very tasty! This was my favorite wine of the day. Clare was established by English and Irish settlers in the mid 19th century, and flourished with the mining of copper, slate and silver and cultivation of wheat. Englishman John Horrocks planted its first vines at Hope Farm. There are no native vines in Australia, all European imports that have thrived here.
The Q&A began with a 30-year old man with a wrinkled olive green T-shirt and “show-me” posture: “I love Meursault. But it’s not something I can afford. What else could I buy to get something that approximates that taste?” Oz rattled off a number of lesser-known appellations that border or are on the fringes of Meursault, such as Pernand-Vergelesses are more attractively priced, and also said that First Growth Chablis is a good deal.
A man sitting next to the man with the mischievous smile who had claimed it was his birthday asked why someone would pay so much for French wine. After the usual cost of production, supply/demand explanations, Oz described the Chinese who love Lafite, but not Latour, and that for them, offering such a prestigious wine is a sign of respect. First, there is the respect shown to a guest by offering Lafite, then there is the respect reciprocated by the guest to the host who has the means to offer such a fine wine.
I asked about English wine. Most vineyards are in the southeast, and mostly white grapes are grown. He said that Bacchus, a German crossing, is a light, aromatic wine with a lovely scent of elderflowers, and that English sparkling wine is particularly prized. Southern England shares the same chalky soil with Champagne, which is promising for quality sparkling wine, and global warming is impacting places where vines can be grown. He also said that Scotland has similar soil to the Mosel in Germany, and that a South African has begun to grow vines there.
Five interesting and affordable wines from different continents were presented and none were French. But at the end of the presentation, I purchased his book, Bordeaux – The Wines, The Vineyards, The Winemakers. I already own and studied his Encyclopedia of Grapes and his buying guide to wines. While the author came to life for me at Vinopolis, the TV personality came to life for the Brits in the audience. They know our wine expert from the TV show, “Oz and James Drink to Britain” in which the duo travels around the country trying various tipples. His buddy, James May, is co-presenter of “Top Gear,” a car show. Our friend has quite a bit of acting and singing experience, having appeared in West End shows “Evita,” “Sweeney Todd” and “The Mitford Girls.” Vinopolis presents Oz Clarke twice a year as a special event, and even for those who know more about wine than the man with the mischievous smile, it’s a pleasure to watch such a pro in action.
Vinopolis is at the London Bridge tube stop and adjacent to Borough Market, a bustling, not-to-be-missed outdoor food market.