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We were off to see the wizard of wine, Oz Clarke during his visit to Newcastle

Oz Clarke is one of the nation’s best-loved wine experts. Jane Hall caught up for a ‘swirl, sniff and slurp’ with the World Wine Tasting Champion

 

The interview had been arranged for 12pm.

But it’s nearer 12.45pm before wine expert and television personality Oz Clarke finally sits down for a chat – not in a posh restaurant or city centre bar, but the manager’s office at Waitrose in Newcastle’s Eldon Square.

At 1pm he’s supposed to be meeting a clutch of the region’s real ale producers and enthusiasts at Jesmond Dene House’s new St Mary’s Inn gastro pub at Stannington.

Even close friend James May of Top Gear fame would struggle to make the 13 or so mile journey from the centre of Newcastle north up the A1 in 15 minutes!

Oz’s now redundant schedule is nothing to do with his poor time keeping, however; more his popularity with a public that has long had a thirst for his unpretentious approach to sharing his unquenchable love of the grape.

The first of three engagements in the region has been a wine tasting and book signing session at Waitrose, to be followed by the St Mary’s Inn jaunt before an evening dinner attended by more than 100 guests eager to dine in Oz’s company at Jesmond Dene House.

Oz knows he’s running late, but he’s far too polite and down-to-earth to walk away without a word or two and photo opportunity with the scores of supermarket customers still waylaying him as he attempts to make his way off the shop floor.

Wine expert Oz Clarke at St. Mary's Inn, Stannington
Wine expert Oz Clarke at St. Mary's Inn, Stannington
 

He even stops to have a chat with the butcher on the meat counter, asking if Waitrose still sells beef feather steaks before getting into a discussion on the best way to cook it and the right wines to pair with this once favoured and now largely forgotten cut.

There’s now no time to head to a local hostelry. But sat in the Waitrose management suite, Oz is still managing to imbibe on a glass of something cold and sparkling… albeit water rather than a bottle of his favoured English fizz!

Oz is on a flying visit to the North East courtesy of Ruth and Kelvyn Guest of North Shields-based Guest Wines who run tastings and pop-up bars, and David Harker of the independent Newcastle Wine School, which offers courses for those who enjoy their whites, reds and bubbles and want to find out more about appreciating them.

Everything is building up to the exclusive five-course Dine with Bordeaux Dinner hosted by Oz.

He’s thrilled to be bringing his refreshingly unorthodox take on wine to the North East (his wit and directness on the subject is undoubtedly one of the reasons he has managed to maintain his popularity with the public for well over 30 years).

It turns out the region is an area he has a genuine fondness for and knows much about, from its sporting history to its stunning scenery and food and drinking culture.

His brother was in the Coldstream Guards and had many “salt of the earth” Geordies under his command, and Oz’s personal assistant is from the North East.

She and he are currently engaged in a battle to determine which out of L Robson and Sons of Craster and Swallowfish of Seahouses, produces the best kippers.

“Every time she comes home she will bring back a batch of kippers. You’ll then find us in my kitchen dissecting and tasting them trying to decide whose is best,” Oz explains with a laugh.

The outcome still has to be decided.

Wine expert Oz Clarke
Wine expert Oz Clarke
 

But there is one thing he is certain about – the North East is home to some “wonderful seafood from Eyemouth and right down the coast.”

He always tries to ensure if he is on a promotional tour of the UK that Newcastle is included in his itinerary because “there is an enormous thirst for knowledge and change,” when it comes food and drink.

Oz is well aware of Newcastle’s status as a party city from his former life as an actor in the 1970s and 1980s touring the nation in theatre productions.

Wearing the wine critic hat that has cemented his place in the wider public’s affections, however, he has seen Northerners become more appreciative of drinks other than mass produced beer and cheap spirits over the last two or three decades.

But this genial man is obviously frustrated that “the development has been slower than I would have liked,” and on the drink front, at least, the North East has had to go through some harsh times in recent years.

“There was a time when micro-breweries were hanging on by their fingertips; when excellent independent breweries like Butterknowle at Peterlee went under.

“I remember the dismal days when Scottish and Newcastle dominated this area. It was why firms like Oddbins identified Manchester as a growth area instead and why around here you only had a couple of decent places to get wine in Gosforth and Ponteland.”

But thanks to the enthusiasm and expertise of people like David Harker of the Newcastle Wine School, Ruth and Kelvyn Guest at Guest Wines and The Journal Culture Magazine’s wine writer, Helen Savage, Oz says a new and discerning drinking culture is emerging that is no longer constrained by social inhibitions and class.

“It is possible things have been slow to change because of the region’s industrial history, that the DNA of ‘let’s all go and have a glass of wine’ has not been running particularly strong here.

“But as Newcastle University’s reputation as a place of learning has risen and the economic impact of managerial roles opening up at places like Nissan and Toyota have created more white than blue collar workers, people’s expectations are changing.

Peter Candler, MD of Jesmond Dene House hotel in Newcastle with wine expert Oz Clarke
Peter Candler, MD of Jesmond Dene House hotel in Newcastle with wine expert Oz Clarke
 

You are surrounded now by so many examples of people who see drinking wine as a perfectly acceptable social activity. These are people who have good jobs and have travelled and have become used to having wine as a matter of course.”

He cites a fairly recent train trip he did where he met a man from Halifax. “He told me he had just stopped working at a mill and that he had been the sort of guy who thought wine wasn’t for him.

“Now he has retired and he and his wife travel and he said they now drink three or four bottles of wine a week.

“And that’s what I want to get over, this perception that still exists that ‘wine isn’t for me.’

“Wine is still one of the things where people can be made to feel socially excluded and made to feel small; this air of social pretension and nervousness.

“But I have always fought against this. That’s why I am a great believer in wines that just say ‘merlot’ or ‘sauvignon blanc’ on the label.”

His easy-going approach to wine that first caught the public’s attention in the 1980s as a newspaper columnist, winner of the last World Wine Tasting Championship (a title he still holds as the contest has never been repeated) and expert on the BBC’s hugely popular Food and Drink show that ran for 17 years, has paid dividends it would seem.

“I now have people coming up to me in the street and saying ‘I quite like sauvignon blanc.’ That’s great. In the old days they would have just said ‘white,’ but people are now identifying the different wines.”

For the wine novice, where is a good place to start? Oz’s mantra is simple: drink what you like and don’t feel intimidated. And with more wines now available to buy in the UK than in any other country, there is no lack of choice to experiment on.

He says a good way to begin is to choose four grape varieties, such as white Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet and Shiraz for the reds, and then a country, and buy and try.

Next time pick another country and do the same.

Wine expert Oz Clarke at St. Mary's Inn, Stannington
Wine expert Oz Clarke at St. Mary's Inn, Stannington
 

“Within a couple of weeks you will know which one you prefer,” he says confidently. But keep it simple. Start with a grape variety and mix the countries.

“Then if you think about the countries, like Australia, which is hot, and New Zealand, which has a cooler climate, you can see how that’s revealed in the wines.

“If you want something riper and more rounded, then go to Australia; if you want it greener and fresher, then head for New Zealand.”

Oz isn’t headed quite as far as the Antipodes, but it’s time to whizz up the A1 to Stannington to talk beer before reverting to form later with his Jesmond Dene House appearance.

He has one last piece of advice for those wanting to learn more about wine and narrow their preferences’ that is as refreshing and crisp as a glass of Kiwi Sauvignon blanc. “Get a bottle, open it, pour some into a glass, drink and repeat!”

That sounds like the sort of homework we can all enjoy.

Oz Clarke Pocket Wine A-Z 2015 is available now published by Pavilion at £9.99.

For more information on The Newcastle Wine School and Guest Wines and the tasting events and courses they both run, go to www.newcastlewineschool.com and www.guestwines.com

Oz Clarke’s Christmas Wine selections

Sparkling

Christmas is all about fizz. It’s a fun, party drink that adds extra sparkle to the day.

Oz is a fan of sparkling wines – and especially English ones, which he believes are among the best out there.

“This year why not spend a little more money on an English sparkling wine?” he says. “It’s certainly worth giving it a thought rather than buying a bottle of Champagne.

“English fizz is right up there with Champagne and both Waitrose and Marks and Spencer have some fantastic choices.”

He advises hunting out Ridgeview from Ditchling, East Sussex, Chapel Down from Kent or the slightly more expensive Nyetimber from West Chiltington, West Sussex.

Oz says Prosecco is also “good fun”, but advises against buying the cheapest as it is sweeter and instead going for something slightly more expensive if funds will allow.

“There are some very good own label Prosecco and sparkling wines at places like Tesco, the Co-op and Waitrose,” he says.

Whites

If you’re sticking with tradition and having turkey for Christmas dinner, then Oz says white goes just as well as red.

“For people who like lots of flavour in their wine, then New Zealand Sauvignon blanc is good. It goes with anything – turkey, ham, goose or just by itself. It’s a good all-rounder.

“There are some very good Sauvignon blanc’s on the high street for around £10, but you don’t have to spend that much. They start at £7.49 at Waitrose, for example.”

He is full of praise for Cowrie Bay, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region, stocked at Waitrose.

If the big, powerful fruity acidity of New Zealand Sauvignon blancs isn’t to your taste, then Oz suggests looking at lighter and subtly citrus Pinot Grigio.

And if you like something drier, a French Chablis or Petit Chablis is “an extremely good and traditional wine around Christmas time.”

For a livelier white Oz recommends an Argentinian Torrontés. “Very spicy and perfumy with a scratch of lime zest. Some people are going to like it, some aren’t,” he concludes.

Reds

The best all-rounders are Chilean reds, such as a merlot or soft cabernet sauvignon, which Oz says “have loads of fruit.” Expect to pay between £10 and £15 a bottle.

He also recommends Australian Shiraz. “But don’t buy anything that’s says South East Australia. Look for something more specific on the label like South Australia or the Barossa Valley.

“There’s loads of good stuff out there for between £7.99 and £10.99.”

And don’t ignore fresh and fruity Beaujolais. “A year old 2013 Beaujolais is delicious for those who don’t like New World wines. But drink the 2013 rather than the 2014.”

Dessert

Christmas pudding can, in Oz’s words, “be a nightmare” to match any wines to.

But he says a light, fresh and fruity ice cold Asti Spumante, works well. “It’s a fizzy and refreshing end to the Christmas dinner.”

Or look out for a sweet, golden Australian muscat from the likes of Chambers Rosewood Winery or Campbells, both of which are in the Rutherglen region of Victoria.

“If there are two or three on sale, which there sometimes is, then the most expensive will be the best,” Oz says.

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