WHAT on earth had happened? I have been attending the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, considered the country’s most prestigious wine show, every year for some time now, and it is always peopled by calm, usually quiet and august members of the wine world, going sensibly about their business; but this year was different. This year, one of the foreign judges was the UK’s renowned Oz Clarke and he doesn’t do calm often.
Outrageous below-the-belt jokes were overheard, nudge-nudge wink-wink speeches, a canny sense of timing that saw him eat his starter when everyone else was already onto their entrées, and impossible to keep in one place for longer than a few minutes — it was like Wine Judges Gone Wild.
This isn’t, perhaps, surprising looking at Clarke’s career path. According to Wikipedia (Clarke rolls his eyes but I ignore him), he started his career, after studying theology and psychology at Oxford, by not becoming a bishop, which was his first choice, but an actor and singer, working for the Royal Shakespeare Company, The National Theatre and the Old Vic, among other venues of name-dropping value. During this time, he was drafted into the newly formed English Wine Tasting Team, which, with Clarke’s help, won.
In 1973, he was named the Youngest Ever British Wine Taster of the Year. "Yes, but back then there was not as much good wine around — a lot of it was rubbish!" he says. "So there was a lot less to taste."
He got into TV, allegedly, when a wine expert dropped out of the then new BBC show Food and Drink and a producer shouted: "Get me the actor who knows about wine," which was Clarke. I became familiar with his on-screen wine-tasting talent in the late 1980s when living in Bristol. His skills were sobering.
"Getting into wine was about being in the right place at the right time. I was a whippersnapper and many at the BBC hated me! I’d arrive in T-shirts, not a suit, shouting about the joys of fruit. I used the language of the kitchen — like blackcurrant jam and the smell of fresh bread. People could understand it because it’s accurate and simple."
He speaks in italics and with exclamation marks throughout; not rudely, but passionately.
He was seen on our screens recently in Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure, with his friend, Top Gear’s James May, which may or may not get another season soon. Clarke’s not telling, and he may or may not have said this: "James May is boring and a pedant, obviously, but he has an excellent palate. Not that I’d say that out loud, obviously!"
He was the Sunday Express’s first wine writer, then became wine correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, before wine correspondents were really a thing. In 1985, he won the last World Wine Tasting Championship; as the event has not been repeated, he is still, de facto, reigning champion.
He has been good friends with Michael Fridjhon, the chairman of the judges at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show since its inception 12 years ago, for about 25 years and first came to South Afric a in 1987. "I snuck in the back door via Zimbabwe. I wanted to make my own judgments of the wine. I wanted to start a relationship with South Africa and its wines when nobody else did."
He still speaks often and highly of some of South Africa’s wines from that period. "There were some decent reds — Uitkyk Carlonet, Kanonkop", decent reds still, and he says, unlike many judges I’ve spoken to, that South African wines were big sellers in the UK when he was a student. "SA was about affordable, high-quality wines. Roodeberg was one — that was better than ‘commercial’ quality and really affordable!"
Inevitably, and because I ask, we arrive at Pinotage. "Pinotage is needed and it is something to have pride in! And Cinsaut (Pinotage is a cross of the cultivars Pinot Noir and Cinsaut) is not the workhorse or donkey of a grape it’s often described as. Back in the 1980s, it was fashionable to be rude about Pinotage but not any more. I want the Pinot Noir characters brought out in cooler areas and the Cinsaut character in the warmer areas. Beyers Truter does wonderful stuff. Pinotage can be fresh, bright and juicy with characters unlike any in the world. Mulberry, marshmallow, bonfire smoke, strange and wonderful flavours — but you need to tame the tannins and stop the new oak!"
Clarke may talk nineteen to the dozen with precision, no repetition, hesitation or deviation, but in the judging rooms — where a panel of three judges and one associate judge (a trainee judge whose scoring does not count towards the final tally) — when silence falls save for the tinkling of glass and less musical spitting, he is a different man. He hunkers down into an intensely focused and silent space in which he refuses to be disturbed. When the other judges are ready to start listening to marks and debating scores and their motivation, Clarke says simply: "Five more minutes. Please", and returns to his unhurried contemplation.
He will demur politely when outnumbered, as long as the arguments are sound, and is more inclined to ask questions than give answers: "The words ‘should’ as in ‘it should taste like’ or ‘must taste like’ do not belong in the world of wine judging. Let the wine speak!"
Once the judging is over, the other Clarke returns, but even after tasting 100 wines he’s quite likely to be the most coherent person in the room.
"SA didn’t have a wine industry until Nelson Mandela walked! The first generation after that was playing catch-up, but this generation of wine makers has extraordinary vision. And what fantastic positions you have here geographically with your maritime currents — just look at what you can do here! There are so many special places and sites — they’re everywhere!"
And what does he do as hobbies? He doesn’t really understand the question, saying his life is his hobby. But he loves music and used to play piano, banjo, double bass, clarinet and guitar. He loves literature, political books — and walking and choral music because, obviously, he was once a chorister. He’s starting to make me feel dull and sluggish; where does he get his energy from?
"From the sheer joy of being alive! Of making things happen!" He is leaving Paarl for London, then Croatia, then back to London, then Denmark for four weeks. He hasn’t had more than two hours sleep a night in more than a month.
"My father used to say ‘Don’t waste a day! One day can be wonderful, one stupid; both are valid, but don’t waste it’. If you have the choice to do nothing or do something — do something!" I do; I go and lie down.
• Chance was an associate judge at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.