Many wine enthusiasts or professionals will own a copy (or indeed several editions) of The Oxford Companion to Wine, or the World Atlas of Wine, or both. For some these may have been the first wine books they read.
Others may have started with lighter reads (literally), like one of the various pocket guides that have been available since the 1980s. I fell somewhere in between these two extremes.
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I had been exposed to wine at an early age via the family duty-free shopping runs across the English Channel. For my 18th birthday, my best friend bought me a bottle of Penfolds Kalimna Bin 28 Shiraz.
Then at university I realized that I could get a rather nice bottle of wine for the price of an eight-pack of Breaker lager. My wine-loving college principal tipped me off about cheap, oak-aged Bairrada from Portugal. Halfway through my studies, in 1991, Oz Clarke's New Classic Wines was published.
The book was written as a challenge to the idea that classic wines can only come from the great regions of France. It profiles a number of small and medium-sized producers, plus giants like Robert Mondavi, Antinori, and Torres, via the Cave de Buxy cooperative in Burgundy.
Australia provides 20, plus Max Schubert, legendary winemaker of Penfolds, and pages on the Yarra Valley and Coonawarra. Another eight wineries come from New Zealand, and 13 from Europe (the Lebanon’s Chateau Musar is included here), with profiles of Pomerol and White Bordeaux.
The work was recommended by the London-based Wine and Spirit Education Trust, and is very familiar to many wine professionals of my generation. At the bottom of this piece I'll discuss how the information looks nearly 30 years on, but, at the time, I had just purchased the first routemap for my (serious) drinking life.
While at university I was lucky to have a supermarket with a fine wine section, where I was able to hunt out very decent wines that cost less than a big beer session.
Coincidentally, one of the first wines I managed to knock off the list during that time was a Kumeu River Chardonnay. From the Kumeu region of New Zealand, just to the north of Auckland. I now live around a 15 minute drive from the winery.
Tim Adams' powerful Clare Valley Shiraz was also bagged early on (and later a magnum of his epic Aberfeldy cuvée of which memories are hazy). Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay was a tropically flavored staple.
And around that time several wines from Navarra giant Raimat were drank on family holidays to Andalucia in southern Spain. One of the later family duty-free trips across the channel bagged my first Pomerol, Château Bourgneuf.
In 1997 I started my wine trade career with the Oddbins chain in the UK. While I the book was no longer my main guide to exploring wine, I began to tick off the names more rapidly. Ticks achieved there included Petaluma from Coonawarra, Marlborough's Cloudy Bay, and the Volpaia Chiantis and Balifico supertuscan of Maurizio Castelli.
Ridge Vineyards holds a special place in my heart. The first bottle which really blew my mind as a nascent wine professional was the 1995 Ridge Geyserville. Coffee, chocolate, leather, licorish. I slowly polished off my half of the bottle with a colleague, while together creating a 100-word tasting note.
Not only did Oddbins sell various Bonny Doon wines, but also some exclusive collaborations with Randall Grahm. I also had the pleasure attend one of his tastings for the first time (and have turned up at a few more over the years – the man speaks so well that the wines are almost a bonus).
Sonoma County's Laurel Glen was another highlight. I was intrigued by the story of Patrick Campbell, winemaker, ocean kayak racer, philosopher and much more, pictured in the vineyard with his crutches, a legacy of childhood polio.
Through most of the 2000s I flitted in and out of the wine trade while continuing to teach evening classes and run wine events. From Australia I managed to knock off Henschke and Yarra Yering, from Tuscany Tignanello and Sassicaia, from the south of France Mas de Daumas Gassac and Domaine de Trévaillon, as well as numerous vintages from Lebanon’s Chateau Musar.
Later on, I helped to set up the London merchant Bottle Apostle, where we had an active tasting program. One of our visiting winemakers was Larry McKenna, by then owner-winemaker of Escarpment in Martinborough, NZ. In the book he is pictured doing a punchdown during his time at Martinborough vineyards. So that sort of counts for another tick. I tried not to be too starstruck.
In 2013 I came over to New Zealand for a mid-career break to study winemaking, and visited Te Mata during a field trip. This is one of a handful of producers in the book, mostly in Italy and New Zealand, which I have actually visited.
In recent years, though, the book has receded a little further into the past. And living in New Zealand, you adjust your buying of international wines to what is available.
There are many wines mentioned in the book which I have tasted at trade events or chosen for my own tutored tastings, but of which I would really like to drink a healthy portion of a bottle. Swirl, sip and spit only gets you so far, and maybe only warrants a tick in parentheses.
Gaja's Sperss Barolo in just one example of such a wine (and if I win the lottery I can get that down the road). But in the Never-Tried category the two wineries from the book which are at the top of my list are Californian.
The profile of Silver Oak heavily features then-winemaker, and former monk Justin Meyer. He retired in 1994 and passed away at only 63 in 2002. However, the estate remains under the ownership of then-partners the Twomey family. I kept an eye out for the distinctive silver label of the Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and have just discovered the 2014 is available in Auckland.
The second is Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. The estate is still family-owned, and now three generations are actively involved on a day-to-day basis.
This is made on a much smaller scale than the Silver Oak, and a look at Wine-Searcher tells me my nearest option is in Australia. That's still a long way away, especially in a Covid19 world.
I have not long turned 49, but my thoughts are already turned to the plans for the wine dinner for my 50th. As mentioned in a previous piece, I am battling temptation with a 1995 Chave Hermitage.
That Silver Oak would certainly join the shortlist, along with some Ridge Monte Bello. Even if I drink nothing that is older than Oz Clarke's book, I am sure it will be tasting which takes my mind back to those early days.
To some extent this is a historical document, a snapshot of the wine world (as least as perceived by a leading UK wine writer) at the start of the 1990s. In fact, that is a large part of the enjoyment of looking at the book now.
The inclusion of a section on white Bordeaux might seem odd. This does however reflect the progress made in these wines from the 1970s, spearheaded by Denis Dubordieu.
It is also certainly hard to think of Napa Valley as "new classic". But again, one can look back to the 1970s renaissance in Californian wine.
Attaching the adjective "new" to the region of Pomerol, even in 1991, seems even more incongruous in 2020. It is so easy to forget that we are nearly as far from the publishing of that book at as the book was from the great 1961 vintage. Clarke points out that the small size of Pomerol and its reliance on Libourne, 30 kilometers to the east, for distribution made it much less visible until the 1970s.
The world of wine has of course moved on in the three decades since the book was written. Closest to home, the New Zealand national wine map stops at the vineyards around Christchurch, many of which no longer exist. It does not show the Waipara region, 40 minutes up State Highway 1, or head further south to Waitaki, then Central Otago.
As mentioned previously, a number of the wineries no longer exist, at least in the guise captured in the book. In New Zealand, Montana is now Brancott Estate, to avoid confusion when selling to the US. Cloudy Bay is now part of the giant LVMH group.
Montana was named after the original vineyard sites in the foothills of the Waitekere Ranges on the western side of Auckland. The company’s output is now very much based in the powerhouse Marlborough region.
The book also pre-dates the excitement over grower Champagne. Casting my mind back, this category seemed to boom in the mid-2000s, though Oddbins staff were getting very excited about Gimmonet's Blanc de Blancs wines in the early nineties. That's a category which seem to fit the New Classic label.
Other omissions on a larger scale are even more telling. There are no wines from South America, or South Africa. Nelson Mandela was only released from prison in the same year as the book's publication.
In both locations countless wineries made huge jumps forward in quality and/or recognition during the decade. The focus in the book also reflects the realities of where Oz Clarke had visited up to this point.
Clarke notes in his introduction that this was a book he had wanted to write since the 1970s. If he had waited a few more years the content may well have been radically different. To be fair, in the afterword, entitled Wine 2000, South Africa is indeed mentioned – more for the recent reforms, with a hope for subsequent increases in quality. South America "has already shown signs of spluttering to life" and balancing quality against massive yields.
He also outlines the potential of Eastern European regions or countries, such as Romania, the Crimea, and Russia. For various reasons their wine industries have not got close to matching those of the Southern Hemisphere.
Clarke's crystal ball was working perfectly when he described global warming as the biggest threat to established wine regions. Several decades of vintage statistics, plus wildfires and increasingly volatile weather, back this up.