Wine Books: Oz Clarke
Oz Clarke is a prolific and experienced author with an innate skill for communication.
"What keeps drawing me back?", asks Oz Clarke as an opener to his latest book, referring to his lifelong obsession with Bordeaux. To be straight, I didn't suspect for a moment Oz Clarke had such an obsession. Oz is one of those curiously omnipotent personalities within the little world of wine who seem to be able to espouse enthusiastically and informatively on just about any wine, from Georgian Saperavi aged in half-buried amphorae to industrial-level Australian Chardonnay from irrigated and fertilised alluvial plains. In fact, sticking with that last thought, if I were asked to choose one country to be represented by Oz it would be Australia; after all Robert Clarke, to give him his real name, is better known to us as Oz, not some more Francophile nickname. Perhaps Cru Bourgeois Clarke just didn't have the same ring to it?
So immediately we've learnt something. Oz's obsession with Bordeaux began during his days at Oxford; the first university wine tasting he attended was Bordeaux, and all the great wine encounters of his early days were from the region. He spent two summers in Bordeaux, working the harvest at Angludet, Palmer and a number of other châteaux. And, following his successful captaincy of the Oxford University tasting team, leading them to victory over Cambridge for the first time in twelve years, he walked away with a case of Vieux Château Certan 1952 (lucky chap!) as a prize. For Oz, wine was Bordeaux, it seems. It has remained a reference point for him throughout his days as broadcaster, critic and writer, and now with a long and well established reputation he has returned to his roots. The result is Bordeaux: The Wines, The Vineyards, The Winemakers, a book which has now undergone two extensive revisions.
I've spent a long time looking through this book. Like Oz I cut my teeth on Bordeaux (admittedly not at Oxford University) and it has become a lifelong obsession for me also. And even with a decent amount of knowledge swirling around in my head there was still much to interest me here, especially in the first few chapters when Oz gets under the skin of Bordeaux, looking at the broader issues prior to his region-by-region assessment. Some aspects are familiar, and perhaps of most interest to those only just getting to grips with wine and Bordeaux, as Oz deals with grape varieties, vineyards and winemaking. Other sections, including his examination of the business of Bordeaux, and his accounts of the people who have made Bordeaux the way it is today - featuring the likes of academics such as Emile Peynaud, famous critics, controversial proprietors and consultants including Denis Dubourdieu and Stéphane Derenoncourt - are admirable and very welcome. Oz also throws in some interesting points of view here, and although the over-riding theme is enthusiasm for the region, there are also moments of criticism at times, albeit carefully worded. His admiration for Michel Rolland is surprisingly explicit, and made plain by the words on the page, but his comments on Gerard Perse are more finely tuned, and hide a message about Oz's opinion of the modern-day Pavie.
Oz then moves on to a traditional region-by-region approach, kicking off with the Médoc (where else?) and then moving around through Graves, the right bank appellations and minor regions before finally casting the spotlight onto the sweet wines. The first growths receive extra attention, otherwise each château gets a very brief write up at the end of each chapter, the meat of which looks at each commune's geography, soil, reputation, and top wines. There are 'at a glance' boxes looking at wine styles, facts and figures, top vintages and recommended châteaux. It might sound a little dry, but it isn't; the enthusiasm and experience that came through in the earlier chapters continues here. Oz has visited this region more than any other it seems, and that is plain from his descriptions of every twist and turn in the roads through château-country. In addition, there are some nicely drawn aerial views of the vineyards for orientation, and plenty of good photography to break up the text.
Overall, this is one of the most appealing books on Bordeaux I have seen published in recent years. It is information-rich, a guide to the region rather than the châteaux (their entries are very brief - a necessity in a book covering such a huge region), and brimming with the spirit and passion of someone who has only just discovered the region rather than the travel-weary repeat visitor we might - erroneously, certainly - imagine Oz to be. Oz also deserves much credit for looking beyond the big names, as the unsung regions of Bordeaux - the Côtes and the Entre-Deux-Mers - also receive a good going over. This is a model book as far as Bordeaux goes, and an excellent, must-buy overall guide to the region for those wanting to get to grips with Bordeaux as it stands today.
It's that time of year again; the Oz Clarke Pocket Wine Book 2006 has arrived on the shelves. Unlike Tom Stevenson's Wine Report, Oz's book has a different purpose and, I suspect, a different target audience. It's essentially a regularly updated pocket dictionary, covering wines, wine regions, producers (the bulk of the book) and grapes. It's accompanied, as ever, by a brief vintage chart and a quick vintage report, documenting the ups and downs of the 2004 vintage across the world. No region is covered in depth, and as such the writing tends to scrape the surface, with all but the most important producers excluded; so whereas this makes an ideal guide for those with an uncertain knowledge, perhaps just starting down the winding road that is the appreciation of wine, those with more knowledge may prefer to look elsewhere. An example is Chinon; Couly-Dutheil is the only producer included in the guide (and is the Clos de l'Echo really only worthy of one star?). Look for any detail on the likes of Bernard Baudry, Charles Joguet or Olga Raffault and you will have a fruitless search on your hands. What is covered, however, is explained succinctly and yet clearly; as I've said before, Oz Clarke is an excellent communicator, and this attribute shines through in this regularly published guide.
Having put down my pocket guide, I can't resist browsing Oz's 2006 Wine Buying Guide, which is often packaged with the Wine Book in a clear plastic wallet, to see what Oz fancies drinking this year. I think for those that want to be guided to a sure-fire good buy every time, and for those who shop to a price point, this little guide is a real winner. Tim Adams features strongly, as he did last year, but there's much more to the guide than that. Choose from Oz's top twenty wine buys, or from top buys in a variety of price brackets; under £5, £5-7, £7-10, and there's even an under £4 category! Oz's advice on top fizz, top claret, buying, tasting, cellaring and more means there's plenty to keep the wine buyer in need of a little assistance fully informed. In combination, these two books, which are as always very keenly priced, would make a worthwhile buy for many wine drinkers.
Specialisation is good. As things stand at the dawn of the 21st century, there is simply too much knowledge available for an individual to know everything (the same could actually be said at the dawn of the 20th century). That's why we have specialisation; chemists, physicists and astronomers rather than generic scientists; haematologists, bacteriologists and neonatologists rather than generic physicians. Wine writers with any common sense pay good attention to this; the world of wine is now a very big world indeed, no longer confined to a few classic European regions. To do a good, thorough job, and to have a truly detailed knowledge, you have to specialise. The appropriately named Oz Clarke (a name gained thanks to his early predilection for Oz wine) has, in this text, done just that; this slim but informative guide is a readable journey through all wine Australian. Opening with a few pages on history, grape varieties, vineyard and winery management, Oz then goes on to profile the main estates of South Australia through to Queensland. The profiles are classic Clarke; brief but informative, well written, reflecting a personal experience and knowledge of the wines. Oz as always gives recommended vintages for each winery, but more detail on vintages can be found in an in-depth guide near the back. Colourful, well presented, with some stunning photography, I think this book is a worthwhile purchase for anyone with a developing interest in Australian wine.