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Hugh Johnson on wine, taste, alcohol, and more

Fresh from celebrating his 70th birthday, we got together with Hugh Johnson OBE to hear him talk frankly on taste, alcohol and more, while right, we recall highlights from his Decanter columns over the years

90% of bottles in my cellar are European. Sweetness has put me off wines from the New World. It’s a terrible thing. I feel so refreshed when I drink a properly dry wine. California wines never used to be that sweet when I first tasted them in the 1950s. Nor were they heavy. Napa Cab was 12.5%, like Bordeaux.

I got tired of California wines – too strong, not drinkable with food. You can say that 250 million Americans can’t be wrong, if they like these wines – but they are. Recently I’ve seen many wines that are more lively and balanced. Thankfully, there are 20 million consumers who are now becoming more sophisticated.

Last night we opened a Mencia, a wonderful grape variety from Bierzo in Léon. I thought, ‘God I love this’. It was all about structure and balance, steely tannins… it was wine with shape and satisfying balance, not too heavy, not sweet. That’s what it’s all about.

Investment in time is a big problem. Wines are being made to drink too early. It’s not that they would improve with keeping – they’re not being made to improve with keeping. And no one’s going to keep them, anyway. It’s more prevalent in the New World, but Bordeaux is the only region making wines to be laid down and resold. Even some vintage Port is being made to gobble up quickly now. It throws away one of the greatest joys of wine – the complexity of age.

It’s ironic that so many people come to Riesling via Australia when it struggles to make Riesling well. There’s a tendency to make them too sweet in New Zealand, which is a shame, whereas in Germany making good Riesling is so easy. Kabinetts have incredible charm, lightness and purity – it’s like nothing else on earth.

Personal taste doesn’t come into it when it’s a great wine. I find I can drink distressingly much of a wine which is very good, even if I don’t like it.

Australian show judges are absurd – they say, ‘However good this wine is I’m going to give it zero because it’s got faults’. I look for qualities in wine, not faults. I’ve no reason to look for faults. I’m a hedonist. Even if a wine is corked or reeks of sulphur, if there’s something there that appeals, then I know that in there there’s something worth having.

Vintages and appellations aren’t just things cooked up by the French. And the more New World regions develop, the more they start taking their own winery seriously and get more knowledgeable about what it can produce. That’s the line you follow. That’s the logic.

Those Old World people who complain they can’t plant Syrah in the Loire, for example, they don’t know how lucky they are to have a clear identity the world respects. And they want to confuse us all and become like California? Why?

The wines are tasted too early at en primeur. And you know perfectly well that at a big château there’s no guarantee that what you are being given to taste is representative of the final wine. Are they going to choose the worst barrel to show? No, they choose the best wine they made last year with the most flattering oak. There are so many variables; the system is widely abused, I’m absolutely sure of it.

The English wine industry is an obvious beneficiary of climate change: earlier flowering, no catastrophic frost, an earlier vintage – it’s got a much better chance in every way. Years ago, people used to say it was hybrids or nothing here. But you’ll never make great wines from those grapes. As soon as people had the confidence to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and realised that it’s not a question of getting ripe grapes (they don’t even ripen in Champagne), they can make great wine. That’s why sparkling wine is the future here. We’re

on a roll in this country.

I’m an optimist, so I tend to wait a long time before drinking wine – often too long. But I think however good it is now, maybe it’ll get a bit better. Then I commit the ultimate sin – I enjoy drinking wines that are over the top. But a wine that is past it declares itself in certain ways; its origins become clear and you can forgive it its sins because it brings back memories. There’s nothing objective – I may love a wine because I love the person who made it. I’m completely unabashed about that.

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