Straight-talking wine: Jack Rayner talks to Tim Hampson
"I'm trying to show that wine is fun, or should be fun"
The world of wine is often difficult to wrap your head around, and experts in the field are rarely as friendly or straight-talking as Tim Hampson
When we learnt that he’d published a “down-to-earth” Wine Manual, we thought it was only right that Jack Rayner spoke to Tim about the confusing world of wine, as well as Oxfordian breweries and his attitude to buying the right bottle.
How does a man come to accumulate such vast knowledge of alcohol?
It takes a lot of sitting in bars.
Sounds like a hard life.
Yes, it does mean that I've spent a long time travelling around, going to wineries, distilleries and breweries, but the thing that links them all is that these drinks have social and economic history in most areas, and also the fact that they are usually run by really wonderful, creative people who like nothing more than to talk about what they do.
Right. So in terms of where you've travelled, is there a particular place that exemplifies that attitude?
To be honest, if we can talk locally, these jewels exist everywhere. In terms of wine, there's the Bothy Winery which is not far outside Oxford. When you go there, it's quite clear to see the link between the earth, the rhythms of the seasons and the wine they make. As importantly, and this is something that features in my book, they link wine with creativity very much. They put some really nice sculptures actually within their vineyard itself once a year and I’m not sure if the artists are influenced by wine itself, but it’s something that's really interesting to see.
I'm more of a beer drinker myself, and I know about the differences in process in how you can use different malts, hops and techniques to create different flavours, but I'm not so knowledgeable about wine. Is there similar scope for creating different flavours whilst using a single variety of grape?
I could argue that making beer is more difficult, because there are more raw materials involved. Beer-making is a continuous process. Most brewers are making beer throughout the year, whereas with wine, you have a harvest and you squash the grapes. There are certainly different skills needed within wine making: You need the skill of the people in the vineyards who know how to grow and prune the grapes so that you achieve the maximum growth for the type of grape you're looking for. Then, there is a skill which you don't see as much in beer brewing, which is the ability to blend wines of different grapes. If you're using more than one grape variety, you're looking to marry them together to make the one wine. At that point, the person who is assembling the wine does need a lot of skill.
Is it a similar idea to blending whiskies?
I guess so, yes. That's a fair thing to say.
Moving towards the study of the drink, tasting wine is considered a much more high-brow pastime than with beer, but is it a similar discipline?
Well yes, whatever you're judging, whether it's porridge, cheese, wine or beer, you look at it, you sniff it, and you taste it. What I certainly try to do in the wine book is to avoid mystifying wine tasting, which I think is something that often happens. You can go to parts of Spain or France and wine is the same as we regard beer or lager in this country: it's the working person's drink. You make it in your farm or in your kitchen, and you drink it. You either like it or you don't, and it's as simple as that. I do think we can over-mystify wine.
Certainly. You touched earlier on the more local vineyards and wineries. Did you grow up in Oxford?
No, I didn't, but I've lived in Oxford for about 25 years.
Well as Oxford is renowned for its pubs, has the city influenced your career?
Well, we were talking about brewers earlier, and in Oxford I think we probably have around 30 brewers now. In this county we have one of the oldest craft brewers in the country at Hook Norton, who are a fantastic example of how an old-style brewery can convert to a modern craft brewer.
Absolutely. I was at Hook Norton not 2 weeks ago, and their operation is astounding.
Isn't it? They’re constantly looking at their beers and adapting their beers... To progress, you have to understand your past, I think. They are continuing to progress and develop new beers which are classics of this age, rather than replicates of beers from another age.
What are your thoughts on the microbrewery and craft beer scene? Do you welcome the surge in producers?
I think it's absolutely brilliant. Whether it can continue or not, we'll have to wait and see. Probably within a 30 or 40 mile radius of Oxford there might be 60 or 70 breweries, and it's still growing. Whether we can continue with that rate of growth, I don't know. Another fantastic example is Shotover Brewery, another local brewer who are exemplars of modern brewing style married with absolute top quality. They have a different business model from others, which I think is to only sell within 15 miles of the brewery. You've got quality, you've got class, and it's something which is really very local.
Going back to your wine manual, what should we look out for in the book that might not be included in other wine-based books?
What I've tried to do is - people often ask - probably two things - one: the best wine probably isn't the most expensive one you see on the shelf, but it's to do with the company you're with, the location you're in, the conversation that's going on, and the interaction between you and the people you're sharing the bottle with. If that's the cheapest bottle of wine you've just gone out and bought from your local supermarket, and you're enjoying it for what it’s meant to be: a drink that encourages conversation and encourages thinking, then that's the best bottle of wine in the world.
What a great attitude.
If someone says "Oh I never buy a £10 bottle of wine, I only buy £30 bottles of wine", I just think "why?". With a little bit of extra knowledge, or different knowledge, you might realise that something has a rarity to it, and perhaps that's worth trying because there isn't much of it available. What I haven't tried to do in the book is give endless lists of grand cru estates from France, which you find in many wine books. I'm trying to show that wine is fun, or should be fun.
That's definitely a welcome attitude. What are your plans for the future?
I've just finished another book, London's Riverside Pubs, that's due out next year. I've also just had another book published almost at the same time as the wine book, which is 101 Beer Days Out, which is a collection of beer adventures that people can have over different parts of the country. Some are brewery tours, some are train trips, some are big carnivals...
You must have a great time putting these books together.
Haha! Well it's like any other bit of research, isn't it? I have to do the same graft as any person involved in the media, and I have to stay sober enough to remember what I've done! It doesn't always happen but I try to.
Wine: 7,000BC onwards (all flavours) Enthusiasts' Manual is out now, published by Haynes.