So if one the world’s most respected wine writers invites you for dinner, what do you bring? That’s the situation in which I found myself recently when I was invited to spend the evening with Jancis Robinson at her summer home in the south of France.
Seeing as I’d been living and tele-working in Germany prior to my vacation in France and dinner with Jancis, and knowing that she, like many in the wine trade, is an ardent Riesling lover, I took along a bottle of Bopparder Hamm Ohlenberg Edition MM Riesling Trocken from Matthius Muller, one of the MittleRhein bright lights and one of my favorites from this lesser known region in Germany. Jancis seemed to like the wine well enough since she rated it 16.5 on her site.
For those who’ve been living under a rock for the last several decades, Jancis Robinson is a Master of Wine, one of the world’s most well-known and prolific wine critics, as well as the Eminence Grise of wine writing. She has been been responsible for many of the go-to wine reference books for students of wine such as the Oxford Companion to Wine, the World Atlas of Wine (7th edition available in October), the massive tome Wine Grapes, which she co-authored with Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz, American Wine (co-authored with Linda Murphy) and many others throughout the past several decades.
Jancis is also the publisher and principal writer for JancisRobinson.com, her long running website which she updates immoderately and provides complete access to the online version of the Oxford Companion to paid subscribers.
I first met Jancis in 2006 when I, along with Toronto sommelier Zoltan Szabo, organized a tasting of Canadian wines during her book tour stop in Toronto. We’ve kept in touch since, with a subsequent shipment of Canadian wines sent over earlier this year for the 7th edition of the World Atlas of Wine, for which I was also asked to serve as the independent consultant for the Canadian section.
Jancis, Max and the shorts!
By chance, I happened to be on holiday in the Languedoc during Jancis’ annual visit to her summer home and was pleased to accept her invite to dinner. While the weather had been hot and sunny for my entire vacation, my son Max and I were caught in one of the region’s well-known torrential summer rainstorms during our drive over for dinner. Luckily the rain let up shortly after we arrived so that Max was able to enjoy a swim before our lovely al fresco dinner with Jancis and her spouse Nick Lander, author, Manchester United fan and restaurant critic for the Financial Times.
While Max swam, and subsequently jumped in the pool with his regular shorts (and ended up wearing and “borrowing” an old pair of Jancis’ jogging shorts, which I jokingly said I’d sell on Ebay), Jancis and I sat down over a glass of Clos Perdus, a local white from Muscat and Grenache Blanche, for a chat on wine criticism, the global wine industry and her desert island wine.
Janet Dorozynski: You’ve been involved in writing about wine for several decades, what are the major changes you have witnessed in terms of wine criticism?
Jancis Robinson: There is now much more reviewing of individual wines which is a relatively new thing. I remember when I was just starting out, in my first journalist post as the wine correspondent for the Sunday Times in about 1980, doing a blind tasting of various Riojas and feeling I was really breaking new ground because people back then weren’t generally comparing like with like, rather what you would see would be an article about how La Rioja Alta is a jolly good company, here’s why and these are their best wines. So I would say that comparison of wine is a relatively new thing.
Another change is that there are far more wine lovers around the world and there have been periods where they are fighting for allocations and want instant advice and opinions on primeur releases, which is ridiculous because they are half formed liquids.
I suppose that actual criticism itself has evolved, which is a good thing, as opposed to just saying that everything is marvelous. There is also much, much more technical stuff information in the public domain now than there used to be. When I started in 1975, a lot of people didn’t know grape variety names, but would have known Chablis, Puligny and things like that, but not Chardonnay. It’s been so long that I’ve been doing this, 38 years, so it’s quite difficult to sum up the many changes that have taken place. Of course there is the whole change in media, which used to be just the written and published word, whereas now you’re expected to be tweeting from a wine tasting, as soon as you’ve spat out a mouthful.
JD: When you started writing and critiquing wine, did you use scores?
JR: Yes, you’re right, scoring is also a new thing. What did I do when I first started writing? When I first start writing I was definitively evaluating wines next to one another, so I must have had some system but it‘s so long ago that I can’t even remember the exact methodology.
JD: There was some heated debate recently about wine criticism or tasting as “junk science”, or the futility of wine critics. Your thoughts?
JR: The original piece and article about the man who researched the accuracy and reliability of judges at American state or local wine shows was actually quite good and looked at a very specific situation, though it certainly wasn’t a recent article. However, the media somehow resuscitated the article and leaped on the chance to say that all wine writers are fakes, as they love to do whenever they can. In my mind however, it didn’t seem that anyone has really proven that respected wine figures were pulling the wool over the eyes of the public.
JD: What’s the most important asset or credential for those wanting to become a wine writer or critic, since everyone wants to do that now?
JR: (Chuckles) Honesty and independence. Try not to listen to what everyone else is saying and take notice of what your palate is saying instead. Be true to your own taste and partialities. Be honest and if you come across a wine that isn’t to your taste, but you can see is well made, express that and try to describe the style of it, so that people who do like that style will be directed towards it. I think personally you also need to entertain a bit, as it’s very boring to simply have a whole load of tasting notes. So I suppose ideally, the most important assets are to be literate, entertaining, dependable and independent.
JD: What role and importance do you see wine bloggers playing in wine criticism and reviewing?
JR: Well, they’re a very heterogeneous group and very, very varied. Some are great and some aren’t so great. I think there was a time when established wine voices, some at least, were rather cross that bloggers were read at all and felt rather negatively and antagonistically towards bloggers. But you can’t actually say that bloggers are one group, as there are some great new voices who’ve come to be heard because of the new media.
I think the healthy thing about, not just bloggers but the whole social media phenomenon, is that we’re no longer sitting on our top of our mountains, throwing bits of knowledge to the grateful public at our feet, but that we too are criticized and up for grabs. We’re all fair game now and only as good as our last articles and this keeps us on our toes. Overall, I think the new media and bloggers is pretty healthy and has democratized wine criticism.
JD: Is there a difference between American/North American and European wine criticism and tastes, and if so, why? Are we witnessing the globalization of wine criticism and opinions on wine?
Jancis in Marseillete
JR: I’d say the difference is actually less in terms of how we write, although there are perhaps a few little differences. I would say, and I’m saying this as someone who has just finished updating the World Atlas of Wine, 7th edition and getting feedback from all around the world of wine, that in every single other part of the world, other than North America, and particularly the United States, everyone is saying that we’re moving back at great speed from great big alcoholic obvious wines to wines that are much more subtle, to wines that express vineyard rather than cellar. There is a certain segment of American wine lovers who don’t share that sentiment and who still love the really big wines. Even in Argentina, which because of its natural characteristics, say Mendoza anyway, has tended to make pretty big, full on wines, has witnessed a perceptible movement towards making slightly more elegant Malbecs.
But with a few exceptions, I’m still not really seeing that in California, certainly not in northern California. Yes, you have the Kathy Corisons and a few others, but not really the majority of producers, and the mass market or majority of wine buyers, still seem to be happy with power rather than finesse in wines. Perhaps it’s because the US is such a big market, that it has the mass to stick its heels in and say that they are resisting a trend that is obvious everywhere else, which I find quite interesting to see. Even in Europe, and certainly in Britain, there is sentiment against the big, powerful wines, as there has been in Australia, where we’re witnessing a complete U-turn in terms of big wines.
JD: Twitter or Facebook? And why?
JR: I suppose I feel that have time for only one and I understand Twitter a lot better. In my television career, I’ve always loved writing scripts and the puzzle of having 13 seconds for an intro and on the 7th second you have to mention the guys name as he’s coming into the shot. So Twitter suits me very well with its 140 characters and trying to get a literate sentiment into that.
I started on Twitter thinking it was a nice complement to the website and to use it for the various bits of information or opinion, which were too slight to make an article but worked rather well on Twitter. My children think that Facebook is their territory and tell me not to go on it (laughs) though I do have a small presence but don’t do it myself or have time to keep up with it. I think that if you’ve got a product, or if my business was selling a wine, I’d probably work quite hard at Facebook.
JD: What are the major issues facing the wine industry today?
JR: There are two issues that face all of us and are inter-related, climate change and sustainability. Just as a small example, it does seem crazy to me the proportion of wine sold in glass and transported long distances in glass, and I think surely that’s got to change. Technology is developing and getting better all the time so that pouches are better and don’t taint the wine. And anyway, so much wine is drunk young and not intended for aging. I think that the means and way wine in which wine is transported is a major change that needs to happen and I understand why so much wine is now transported in bulk, especially since the technology has improved enormously. In terms of climate change, just keeping pace with the weird weather events is a major, major challenge, which with I’m sure most growers would agree.
JD: If you could give one piece of advice to those making and marketing wine in the competitive global wine market, what would it be?
JR: Try and have a story to make yourself stand out and also never forget that labels are your chief means of communication with consumers. It just amazes me how many uncommunicative and uninformative labels are out there, both front and even back labels. The front label can be your statement, but for heaven’s sake, let the consumer know and make clear what your wine is. You’ve got to put yourself in the shoes of the consumer and realize they’re trying to work out why they should buy your bottle rather than thousands of other ones. Also, the back label is where you can really tell people about what’s in the bottle so don’t just say the same old stuff, like drink this white with fish. You’ve got to tell them a story, tell them what’s in the wine and tell them why your wine is different from other wines. One tiny but obvious thing, which not everyone does, is that if you’ve spent money on a website, make sure that you have the website address on the label!
JD: You taste a lot of wine. Which countries or regions hold promise right now?
JR: I certainly think that some of the best value is in the Languedoc, because it’s full of hand-crafted wines with real personality, for both whites and reds. Unfortunately everyone puts most of their efforts into making the wine, rather than selling it, which is true for so many regions. Similarly in Portugal, there are some great, great wines, full of personality with really interesting grape varieties.
The fact is that with every vintage in every wine region I can think of, quality goes up. You can only stay in the game if quality goes up, which is great for us consumers and rather scary for producers.
For completely new regions, I’ve had some quite nice wine from Mexico suddenly and Cyprus is also suddenly making some decent wine, which hasn’t been the case for ages. Oh and Croatia is also making some interesting wines to keep an eye out for.
JD: If I recall the very first tasting you ever attended was at Canada House in 1976. Canadian wines have changed a great deal since then and you’ve had the opportunity to taste a fair bit of Canadian wine over the past year. What grapes/regions/styles stood out for you?
JR: I tasted nearly 50 wines at Canada House in May, though unfortunately due to time constraints, edited out the fizz and Icewines. For the others, the wines were very mixed actually and it was obvious that this tasting was much stronger for Ontario relatively speaking, than for BC, as the BC wines seemed stuck on at the end and because there weren’t as many.
I found some really nice Pinot Noir, some really nice Chardonnay and the odd very nice Bordeaux blend as well as some very good Riesling. In the end, it seemed to come down to producer and who was most skilled, so I’d say that generalization is difficult for the moment, or probably too early. I did also find some of the wines, particularly the Chardonnays and Bordeaux blends, to be a little like something you had tasted from elsewhere two years earlier, that is to say still obviously too oaky and leesy, though that’s certainly not the case with all of the wines that I tasted at Canada House.
JD: Desert Island Wine?
JR: My desert island wine, which I’ve been asked about many times, is Madeira, because you don’t know for sure if your island is hot or cold and here are three great things about Madeira. One is that an open bottle lasts forever, so if you’ve only got one bottle you can eek it out over a nice long time. Also, if it’s really hot, Madeira has that lovely acidity, so it’s very refreshing. But if your island is cold, Madeira also has that warming alcohol and richness so it will warm you up. Madeira is a wonderfully versatile desert island wine and such a great wine that is dramatically under-appreciated.
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With visions of desert islands and madeira still echoing, we adjourned into the garden for a lovely dinner of stuffed peppers, cod and “patates” by Chef Nick, accompanied by a delicious bottle of San Leonardo 2000 (Bordeaux blend from Trentino) and discussions on less weighty topics such as wine world personalities and Premier League soccer. All in all a most fulfilling mid-summer evening.
Principal critic and Partner, WineAlign
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