Army&You talks cadets, courting and Chianti with world-renowned wine expert Oz Clarke
WHAT connections do you have with the Army?
My father and mother met when they were both serving with the Army Medical Corps in Burma and that meant there was always an appreciation of the military in our household.
When you are growing up, your view of the Army can be considerably tainted or strengthened by your parents and mine appreciated it enormously. I personally found the mixture of discipline and creativity very interesting.
I was then in charge of the Cadet Corps at my school. When CCF loomed, half of your friends spent an age thinking how they could get out of it, but I just took it seriously and thought how I could get the most out of it. I enjoyed my time, although I did once aim a pistol at a visiting general on the bluffs at Canterbury where we did a lot of our training!
My brother was in the Coldstream Guards and served for three tours in Northern Ireland. He is still in contact with them now and uses them with youth clubs he is involved with. He finds that if he can get the RSM to give the kids a day of hard yakka it can be amazing how many of them it can have a positive effect on.
I fell into it – as much as anything it was a desire to find sex! I went to university with very few shillings in my pocket, but having read too much Evelyn Waugh I was convinced that the life of gilded youth was mine for the taking.
I thought music and acting might be an option, but there was also a wine society which was subsidised. For £2 per term I could go to four tastings and take a guest to each one and I thought that being sophisticated about wine would be a great way to attract women.
My first date was with a girl called Francesca. I put on my best t-shirt and jeans and she turned up with green clothes, green sequins on her face and green body paint on pretty much all of the rest of her. We arrived at the tasting to be met by a man in a pinstriped suit and a room full of more people in suits and Francesca probably thought she had been set up.
I didn’t get a second date from any of my first four tastings, but I can still recall the first evening when they brought the last wine out. It was a Bordeaux from 1962 and to this day I can remember the flavours. There was this amazing smell of cigar boxes and blackcurrant and I found myself thinking that I should take this seriously.
It was from there that I met my good friend Charles Metcalfe and between us we tried to get all of the “hoorays” out of the wine tasting society.
I had played county cricket, and Oxford hockey, but there was always someone better than me. I eventually decided that becoming an expert wine taster was the way to go.
Did you ever think of working for a wine producer?
People were asking if I wanted to join the wine trade, but it didn’t appeal to me. It was badly paid, old-fashioned and filled with the sons of the minor gentry. Instead, I went off and became an actor and singer.
It was while I was doing a performance of Dracula in Sheffield that Charles got in touch and said there was an English wine-tasting team and that I should join up. I had to ask the director for an afternoon off from rehearsals so that I could travel down to London and taste wine. It was probably the only time he has ever had that request!
I got in to the team and we threw out a challenge that we would go around the world, competing in different countries and tasting their own wines. We went to Germany, France, Italy the USA – and we kept winning.
Because I was acting at the time, the newspapers loved it and there were always front pages of me celebrating our wins in whichever role I was in. There was one picture of me holding a glass of wine as General Perón in Evita – probably the last time I wore a military uniform!
Can anyone be a wine connoisseur?
Most of us can do it if we are able to tell the difference between a good cup of tea and a bad one or a Costa and a Starbucks coffee. You could even do it if you can tell the difference between a banana and a haddock!
Some people have bad palates and will find it difficult, but that’s not the case with the majority. If you have an interest in flavours you can have a go at wine tasting.
The real ability is to be able to put it all into words – that isn’t easy and it’s something that some of the best wine tasters struggle with.
Does a higher price guarantee a higher-quality wine?
It’s not a case of the more you spend, the better the wine. You should be able to get good stuff at low-end prices – supermarkets do own-brand bottles for around £5, so it’s worth looking at Beaujolais and Temperanillos.
If I can make one plea to your readers it would be to avoid the half-price offers that supermarkets run where a bottle will be sold for £5 rather than £10. They might suggest that the prices have been dropped down, but in reality they are artificial.
You’re better off going for an own-label wine that doesn’t have the marketing costs associated with it.
How can you make the most of your wine-buying buck?
I suggest looking at areas that perhaps aren’t as popular as the likes of Italy and France.
Consider a Hungarian or Romanian wine and you might find that the grapes are better and you don’t have to pay extra pounds because of where in the world it is from.
Portugal is also not as popular as it should be – the flavours are excellent. A single-vineyard Vinho Verde can be sharp, snappy and tip-top.
If you buy a cheap bottle, you might find that it’s a bit rough – a £5 bottle of Chianti might be thin, for example. But from Spain you can get offers for Riojas which, if you like it, you can start trading up from a £6 to an £8 to a £12 bottle.
If you like sherry, it is one of the cheapest wines on the market despite being difficult to produce. A proper one can contain wine that is 10-15 years old and cost as little as £10.
Tell us about the Three Wine Men tour.
What we try to do is give the public the kind of opportunity that the three of us get several times a week – to go into a room full of wine producers and taste an entire range of wines with no pressure.
There are wines from every corner of the world and the people there are ordinary drinkers who are used to going to a supermarket or wine merchant, getting a choice of 10-12 wines and feeling pressured into buying.
We offer 2-300 wines from Romania, Croatia and Macedonia through to Australia, Chile, France and Italy. All we ask is that you come with a open mind and overcome any prejudices by trying something you perhaps had never thought of before.
There’s an air of social pretension and nervousness about wine and I have always tried to stop that. With Three Wine Men, you can go in unthreatened and try any wine you want – that is the reason people are there. I haven’t come across a single person who felt out of their depth and it’s really like being invited to a big party.
What is your favourite tipple?
Right now I might say a Bloody Mary, but another time it could be a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or a juicy Rhone Valley red. There is an astoundingly good selection of ales available at the moment and cider is catching up too. It all depends on lots of factors from your mood to the weather. The unpredictability of wine life is what continues to thrill me – life’s too interesting to always tread the same path.