Jancis Robinson, Her Majesty’s Enologist
Interview by Oleg Cherne
Jancis Robinson is quite the special person in the wine world. Even if we forget for a moment about her title of wine consultant for Queen Elizabeth’s wine cellars, along with her myriad other titles and international influence, she will still stand before us as a person who sees wine as culture, as an act embracing so much more than mere table setting. She is a tireless optimist, who fills her work with boundless love for both wine and life itself. And if that’s not enough, she’s also a tireless workaholic who has already published about 20 books, makes regular appearances on TV shows, records DVDs, writes columns in British in-house magazines, and is always updating her website. Years of hard work have turned her into a legend in the conservative and predominantly male wine world. And yet there isn’t a hint of that «cut-throat» attitude one might expect here: Mrs. Robinson is an amazing, easy-going and well-rounded person.
— Welcome Jancis, it’s an honor to meet you and introduce you to our Russian readers. Let me start by saying how remarkable of an individual you are. Even though you’re involved in the wine industry at its top tiers, you don’t only maintain a keen personal interest in it, but also promote this attitude among others.
— For me, wine has its own special magic. It’s hard to think of something else in this world that can evoke in a person such a wide array of feelings — spanning a person’s inner, sensual and intellectual realms. Each glass of wine has its own story. What I mean is that they all have their own special place as a variety from a particular producer, region or vineyard. Wine embraces a large volume of information about geography (how wine formed the terroir of the area), psychology (marketing methods of producers and their attitudes towards clients), economics (costs and price range) and science (methods of wine cultivation and production). But of course there is also an artistic element to each of them as well.
— This artistic value is often pushed to the background.
— I can’t deny that many wines today have become too «industrialized,» too bleak to be considered art, but hundreds of thousands still exist that can still leave an impression on our souls if we open them up for perception. I love the fact that wine is always its own master. Bottles from the same case can even contain wine with different taste.
Moreover, wine continues its evolution even once bottled. Tell me, how much of what we buy in our lives has such a close association with a particular area on the map, or a certain producer/region of production? And how many of those things keep increasing their quality and developing for years, decades or even centuries?
— What does wine mean for you above all else?
— It is both my work and hobby, a real pleasure. I can’t remember a day I’ve lived lately without savoring the taste of wine. And what never stops amazing me is the extraordinary variety this beverage offers us.
To be honest, I would hate my life if I was forced to drink only first-class Bordeaux wines till the end of my days. I love the fact that you can find interesting and unique wines all over the world now. And above all that, there are so many different styles! The fact that we are trying to save so many vineyards that can confidently be referred to as legacy grape varieties, indicates the importance of this aspect for the history of many regions and the importance wine has in culture. Plus, the newest scientific research in DNA analysis is casting new light on the interconnections and interrelations between different grape varieties.
— There are so many wine specialists now in the world, but among all of them just three names stand above the others: Parker, Michel Rolland and you, even though some people don’t even know that you’re a woman. In fact, I would like to know your opinion as a woman in this industry: what do you think is the difference between a man interested in wine and a woman?
— I do think that when it comes to social stereotypes in wine consumption, there are some differences between men and women. I believe that generally — and here I’m talking about wine enthusiasts, not wine producers — women have a significantly more relaxed attitude to wine. Because in a way, society doesn’t expect us to know everything about wine, or about how to choose «the right wine» to impress people, etc. Meanwhile, male attitudes towards wine are similar to how they look at cars: for many of them, it’s an indicator of status, wealth and culture. So men have a lot more to worry about when it comes to wine than women.
Plus, according to some physiologists, women in general have a more sensitive palate than men. This opinion actually enjoys support from many winemakers and traders, who have told me more than once, that if they want an objective opinion about a wine, they ask their wives!
I’m not trying to boast, it’s just a general observation I’ve made. There’s also a theory, which explains this difference from an evolutionary point of view. In the ancient times of our hunter and gatherer ancestors, it was women who cooked the food, so it was up to them to define by smell if certain plants were good to eat or not.
On the whole, I doubt that men and women have markedly different tastes and preferences in wine, although men are probably more tolerant than women to high alcohol content and rough tannins. I’m also quite sure that women, unlike men, don’t treat wine as a sport, like when they compare the sizes of their wine collection or boast about the numbers of wines they’ve tasted.
— Wine culture has its roots in the cults of fertility and the moon. Sekhem, Ishtar and Cybele were the first, so to say, forces that encouraged winemaking. And the cult of Aphrodite was, above all, the cult of ecstatic experience. It is not by chance that the cultures of wine and love were so similar in their essence. Can we say that today women have a special role in learning about and developing winemaking?
— I love this theory! I wish I came up with it before you…
— I think that women put the flavor of wine above all else. This means that the use of yeast, which can considerably alter the taste of wine, can distract a woman from the real understanding of the product. What do you think about this claim?
— I believe it’s too big of a generalization. I doubt that women actually have better flavor receptors than men. Sometimes yeast is used purposefully to change the flavor of wine, but in this case, both men and women will notice the modified aroma.
— How do you understand the «philosophy of wine,» and do you think wine can ever be truly enjoyed? If yes, is it important today to craft a wine’s portfolio with an exact concept in mind?
— It would indeed be wonderful if people could come to an understanding of just «enjoying the idea of wine,» instead of snapping their fingers and expecting that wine is going to act like an actor during rehearsal.
Unfortunately, today we have to acknowledge a sad tendency, which I hope will soon be a thing of the past: people who are just getting into the world of wine prefer to shift their expectations and responsibility onto wine itself, which is expected to grasp their attention, impress them with its taste and so on.
If this does not occur, they simply start to criticize the wine, but many of even the most wonderful wines need time to develop their taste in the bottle or glass, or more time to let their qualities bloom to the fullest extent…
I’m absolutely sure that a true understanding of wine includes a maximum understanding of the context surrounding its production, the other styles of wine produced in the same area, and the culture, which is inevitably inseparable from the wine itself.
— When I had the pleasure of interviewing Argentinian winemaker Arnaldo Etcharta, who makes Yacochuya wine in cooperation with Michel Rolland, he told me that if a person wants to understand Argentinian wine, they must also read Borges, taste mate tea and feel the rhythm of tango. Do you think that a person who explores the taste of wine has to study the culture of the country first, and not just the characteristics of the terroir or grape variety? Do you consider it dangerous that producers of the wine rely mostly on tried and tested standards?
— It is true that the wine world today is in danger of impoverishment and lose of scale, as more winemakers are making their wine only according to several international standards and forgetting about local flair and tradition. But I think that this tendency is slowly declining. Wine producers are now starting to craft wines both in accordance with international standards, and made with all the local idiosyncrasies of wine production. I think that today’s global tendency of increasing the importance of production region has a very positive effect on the improvement of many wineries. Just several years ago, the situation for local wines looked like they would only ever be a very small niche in the future.
— I’ve been studying Tao yoga for more than 30 years. The Taoists define as «wine» anything that undergoes the processes of transformation and fermentation. Their principal doctrine of drinking wine is that one should eat wine and drink food, grinding it up and chewing until it’s reduced to tiny particles. The conclusion here is that real wine doesn’t need to go with food at all, because it is food in itself. What can you, a person who has tasted many kinds of real wine, say about this?
— You know, I’m learning a lot of new things from our interview! Thank you for what you’ve told me here, but to be honest, I wouldn’t want to reject the enormous world of sensual pleasures obtained from the art of combining wine and different foods. I love water, but there are certain moments and food that beg to be consumed with wine.
— What wine do you recommend our readers to if they want to answer for themselves one of the most interesting questions of our time: what is the solution to Jancis Robinson’s mystery? And what’s your current attitude to Ontario wine, your first tasting wine?
— I’m afraid I’m not hiding any big mystery inside. I’m pretty simple and straightforward. I just love wine and the people who work with it, and I also work a lot…
If I ever had to choose just one wine to represent me, I would probably choose the beautiful Riesling, which expresses all the features of its terroir, because I’m always in defense of the talented but defeated party.
I’m adamant that Riesling is the Cabernet Sauvignon of white wines. I appreciate it for its ability to improve its quality in the process of storing and aging, and how it accurately expresses the characteristics of where it is cultivated. Besides, this wine is so much more diverse than Cabernets.
As for Ontario, I’m very glad that it has changed drastically for the better since I first tried it, which was more than 30 years ago. This is partially thanks to changes in the climate, of course.
— Which wines do you consider the best?
— If classification isn’t a factor, I would name Closson Chаse Chаrdonnаy, Clos Jordаnne Pinot Noir, and Charles Baker Riesling.
— To wrap up our interview, I would like to ask you about one particular aspect of tasting. Do you agree with the opinion that one can’t truly appreciate a wine without taking at least one gulp? For instance, the outstanding Russian taster Mikhail Khovrenko has claimed that a good taster must not spit out the wine that he determined to be good in order to see his body’s reaction to the wine.
— You see, there are no taste receptors in the throat or esophagus, so I believe it is quite possible to fully evaluate the taste of wine even if you spit it out. But, of course, if we compare wine tasting to its consumption, we really do not receive the full experience, meaning we actually try to avoid the effects this drink produces. To be more clear, I just want to say that in my opinion, part of the charm of wine is that it makes us, our friends and the world around us better.