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The wizard
A visit with wine guru Oz Clarke

The seminal event of Boston’s “wine season,” which kicks off in late January, is the Wine Expo, and this year some 16,000 attendees each day struggled through the snow to the World Trade Center on January 20 and 21. The annual event remains our nation’s largest consumer wine event, and it is always a rewarding experience for wine lovers.

The Expo’s hidden treasures are the seminars, which range in price from $25 to $90. Even for pros, seminars are a great way to learn about wine. You focus, you compare, you learn from someone knowledgeable (often a panel including winemakers, critics, etc.), and you drink great wines with people who really care. This year, I was lucky enough to attend probably the best wine seminar I have ever been to, given by prestigious keynote speaker Oz Clarke.

Oz is a wine star, and his light shines bright (right up there in the heavens with last year’s keynote speaker, Oxford Guide to Wine author Jancis Robinson). My favorite wine writer, he is the renowned author of such books as Oz Clarke’s New Encyclopedia of Wine, New Classic Wines, Oz Clarke’s Essential Wine Book (a must for beginners), and the perennial Pocket Wine Guide. He also hosts a well-received BBC program called Food & Drink, making him one of the more influential wine experts in England. Educated at Oxford, where he began his wine-writing career, Oz is also a thespian, and the most engaging wine person I’ve had the pleasure to meet (during our interview he serenaded me with a rousing rendition of “Danny Boy”). I loved walking around the main exhibition hall, tasting and spitting hundreds of wines from the 450-plus wineries; but the experience of sitting down with Oz and 30 or so wine devotees and comparing New World (Australian, Argentinean, American, South African, New Zealander) and Old World (French) expressions of various grapes (sauvignon blanc, merlot, pinot noir, chenin blanc, and chardonnay) side by side as the Expo shut down for the day was as enjoyable and rewarding as any Expo gets — ever.

Our seminar was titled “A New Wine Universe.” The first question was, “What does that mean?” You knew it was going to be an interesting presentation when Oz cracked a wry smile and said, “Well, I really haven’t a clue.”

But he did have a clue, of course. He is very opinionated and full of all sorts of useful tidbits of knowledge. In discussing the leading Spanish vine variety, tempranillo (which is the main grape in Riojas and Ribera del Dueros), he noted that people around the world have gone mad for Spanish wines (since they are interesting and represent incredible values), and growers in New World countries have recently begun experimenting with this grape. Tempranillo plantings in Australia, for example, have increased 1500 percent over the past few years.

As far as Clarke is concerned, the Bordeaux, Burgundies, and Rhône wines favored by collectors have “run their course.” They are “mainstream throughout the world,” and therefore less interesting (and not as good a value for the money). But there are exceptions, meaning that one cannot ignore the Old World wines altogether, since Old World economics have been giving way to new ways of making wine. In regions such as Spain, Italy, and the Languedoc, drab, mediocre, and predictable wines are being replaced by more exciting vintages, thanks to lower yields in the vineyards and increased knowledge and experience on the part of winemakers.

Yet, says Oz, New World wines are generally more adventurous than their European counterparts; they offer a plethora of new or less-well-known grapes, and relatively low brand recognition results in correspondingly better, more interesting, and more engaging wines for the dollar. In Chile, Argentina, the United States, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, winemakers are exploring, creating, and thriving. While this is good news for consumers, Oz laments that too often Old World economics are forcing New World winemakers to make wines that reach peak drinkability too soon, so that they can be moved through the system. But this problem is less debilitating, in Oz’s opinion, than complacency, which is the wine world’s greatest enemy, especially among producers.

What excites Oz is that we live in such interesting times. “The wine world,” he notes, “has never been wider open or more interesting, and your children may be drinking altogether different wines than you are.” Oz believes that in his native England, the buying power of major supermarkets (where most wine is sold) has democratized the industry, and is combating the snobbery perpetuated by so many wine writers, who for decades have played upon people’s fears and insecurities as a way of establishing and preserving their own power. Because the supermarkets buy large volumes of wine directly from wineries, they can offer relatively low prices, good selections, and value, without lots of pretense. As to what to buy, Oz particularly likes certain producers and regions (in the United States, Pepperwood Grove and Fetzer are favorites at their price points), although he laments the fact that premium wine producers (who make those $7 to $10 bottles) make such boring, cookie-cutter wines, which do nothing to educate us wine-drinking folk.

When asked to name the most exciting wines in the world at this moment, Oz went out of his way to mention Chile for its merlots, cabernets, and carmenères; and Argentina, where malbec, bonarda, and torrontés (a delicious indigenous white variety) are the cutting-edge grapes — the new wonders.

My next column will feature some of these cutting-edge Argentine wines. You may want to go out and explore some in their 1999 vintages (1998 was an off year), including Ben Marcos, Susanna Balbo, and Bodega Lurton.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

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