A British expert talks about U.S. wines

By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Oz Clarke began performing as soon as he came through the door.

"Do you know Tammy?" he asked, his British baritone echoing through my house. "I was on the ferry to Tangier when I was 16 years old, and I met a lovely young girl named Tammy, from Silver Spring, Maryland. Only met her for an hour, but I've been thinking of her ever since."

Well, Silver Spring is a rather large area, I explained, and no, I don't know anyone named Tangier Tammy. So I offered him a glass of wine as consolation.

Clarke toured with the Royal Shakespeare Company before turning his energy to wine in the mid-1980s. Since then, he has authored dozens of books and hosted numerous television series, putting him alongside Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in the ranks of Britain's most prolific wine writers. His "Grapes & Wine" (co-authored with Margaret Rand), published in 2001 and revised several times since, was just released for the first time in the United States. Another book, "Oz Clarke's Let Me Talk to You About Wine," will debut on this side of the pond in October. (Disclosure: I contribute entries on eastern U.S. wineries to Clarke's annual "Pocket Wine Book.")

Clarke writes in an energetic and engagingly personable style that enlivens what can too often be a very dull genre. My other guests and I received the full Oz over an evening that included a tasting of more than 30 wines from Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio and Arizona. Here are snippets of a very wide-ranging conversation in which he discussed U.S. wines from an outsider's, but expert, perspective.

On terroir: "Terroir is an excuse for wine tasting like an armpit. 'Oh, that's how it's supposed to taste, old boy!' "

On minerality: "Minerality is one of the great canards. I love minerality when it's rocks and pebbles, like you rub your tongue against wet stones and you taste the minerals, the chalk, the granite. But a mouthful of wet mud is not the minerality you want. Unless it's Pomerol, of course."

On overripe wines: "Phenolic ripeness is another canard. People make wine so ripe 'because we can,' and then they water it down to reduce the alcohol. They say it's the pure ripeness of the grape. No, it isn't: It's the death throes of a grape that is shriveling on the vine."

On buying local wine: "When you have a developing wine culture, you have to be willing to pay a few dollars more for a boutique wine, as an investment in the future. And stop saying it should taste like something else. "Should" is a word that shouldn't be in our vocabulary when you have people trying to make a go where no one has done it before."

On innovation in wine: "The wine world is coming up with new classics all the time -- New Zealand sauvignon blanc, Argentine malbec, Virginia viognier. In the last two years I've tasted enough Virginia viognier that I'm convinced they can match the best viogniers in the world. If Virginia has a few more vintages like 2007, look out. And the 2005 nebbiolos -- a new classic? No, it was only one vintage. But, wow, boys and girls, what were you thinking when you planted that grape? Those wines are terrific."

After so much talk of canards, I was tempted to open a bottle of Duckhorn merlot, just to keep the evening going further into morning. Instead, I waved the white napkin of surrender. I could not outperform the great and powerful Oz.

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