Drinks Hamper speaks to Anne Jones, category manager of beers, wines and spirits at Waitrose, about everything from blind tastings to debunking wine myths.
Anne, what first led you into working with wine?
My interest in wine began when I was 11. Despite never having tasted it, I created a school project entitled ‘Wine Labels of the Loire Valley’, and I’ve never looked back. Wine eventually became a permanent interest and in 2008 I began working in the wine buying team at Waitrose. I then took various WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) courses and am currently studying for the Master of Wine qualification.
What does your role at Waitrose involve, day to day?
Every day is different, which I love. My role covers a wide variety of elements across all beers, wines and spirits. So on one day I might be proofreading a publication, the next writing content for online, another making a film about wine. I also spend time working with our in-store specialists, blind tasting and discussing the range with our buyers, judging for international competitions with various journalists, matching drinks to recipes and getting involved in all the details of planning an event like the Waitrose Drinks Festival.
See also: What is Terroir in Wine Making?
Tell us about studying for your Master of Wine qualification.
It’s a rollercoaster of a journey. I’ve learned an immeasurable amount, met some incredible people and spent a lot of weekends studying! Like any qualification, there are certain elements that I’ve found trickier than others. With an academic background, I really enjoyed the theory element and managed to pass that first time. It’s also the part that gives the best excuse for visiting wonderful producers! I’ve found the tasting harder, especially because of the speed required. You end up with about two minutes to make your judgements on each wine in order to have enough time to write the answers. I suffer from second-guessing myself, which there isn’t really time to do! The best part of the whole experience though has been making lifelong friends with people from all parts of the global wine industry, and learning from them on a daily basis. The MW process also teaches humility and acceptance—you learn very quickly that you can never know it all!
Some people have certain perceptions about wine tasting and appreciation: that you have to know a lot about wine, that you need a sophisticated palate or should only drink expensive bottles. What would you say to this?
I would put myself right up in the top percentile of ‘wine geek’, but I’m definitely not a wine snob. Part of the joy of knowing something about wine is finding gems that I know I’ll like but won’t cost the earth. If you’re not trying to pass an exam, the only thing you need to know is what you think you like, and then if you want to explore based on that, you can. However one of my very best friends is hugely non-adventurous when it comes to wine, and although I might sometimes order something I think she’ll like that’s different to her usual tipple, all I want is for her to enjoy whatever wine she is drinking. It’s meant to be a pleasure! Everyone has a different palate and a different budget—you shouldn’t need to feel any more insecure about choosing what to drink as you do choosing what to eat.
If you wanted to explore wine appreciation where would be the best place to start?
There’s a difference between wine appreciation and wine education. If you want a grasp of general background to viticulture and vinification across the world (how it’s grown and how it’s made) then the Wine and Spirit Education Trust is definitely a great place to start. Their courses are the most comprehensive and recognised, and you can do the early ones online or in various centres across the country. However, for appreciation, there’s nothing like putting wine into practice! You could offer to help out at the harvest of your local winery, or simply gather some friends together for a wine club. Set a theme each week (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, or wines to match cheese) and everyone brings a bottle. Vote for your favourite and the person who brought the winning wine gets to host the next meeting (or to avoid hosting it, depending on their choice).
Tell us about your most memorable wine tasting experience.
I have so many great memories of tastings, from vineyards in California to beautifully decorated cellars in Spain. However my most memorable tasting story starts off rather less enjoyably. I was going to Bordeaux and my flight was horribly delayed. I was so late that the people I was due to meet had gone to the wine dinner without me, and I didn’t escape the airport until nearly midnight. They had kindly left me a car (with a key on the back wheel) so I set off, in a pretty bad mood, to the well-known château that I was visiting, picking up a pizza en route. On arrival, nobody was there, and this time they had left the key under the plant pot. So I enter one of the best-known wine properties on earth in the dead of night, grumpy and alone, to find that there was a flight of wines open from their previous meeting, with a note saying to help myself. So I sat outside looking up at the stars, eating pizza, and drinking some of the best wines known to man dating back to the early 1960s.
What wines do you like to drink at home?
I have just moved into a new flat, and finally have a proper wine fridge! So we have two sets of wine: one in the fridge that is for special occasions only, and one in the dining area for everyday drinking. In the latter rack, you will nearly always find reds from the Rhône (unless we’ve finished them!). My boyfriend is a big fan of Rhône reds, so that’s our most regular ‘go-to’ choice, ideally something like Lirac or Vacqueyras. Some of my favourite reds for the weekend (when I might choose something a little more expensive) are from South Africa, or New Zealand Syrah. If you were to open my kitchen fridge today, you’d find half a bottle of a 1996 Vouvray left over from a tasting, and some whites such as Albariño, Gavi or Grüner Veltliner. Basically I try and buy a wide variety of wines and not to get stuck into a rut!
See also: Introduction to the World of Prosecco
The English wine industry is growing fast—do you think the quality justifies the expansion?
In many cases, yes! In every wine region in the world there is a range of different quality levels available, and I think in general our sparkling wines are world class, including our own award-winning example from grapes grown on the Waitrose Farm at Leckford in Hampshire. And in any case, it isn’t quality alone that determines the expansion of the market—it’s consumer demand. So while our wines are excellent, what we need are enough people to recognise that and choose with their wallets to enable the growing market to be economically sustainable.
Are there any myths about wine that you’d like to debunk?
Where do I start?! Actually, I think that things have really moved on since I first joined the industry, and we don’t have the same constant battle with misconceptions that we used to (for example that wines under cork are better quality than screw caps, or that heavy bottles mean better wine—neither of which is true). Some of the assumptions about food and wine matching are a bit spurious (such as red wines not matching with fish), but the best cure for that is experimentation. I’d love to see consumers being more open to wines produced in packaging other than a 75cl glass bottle, but I think that will take a little while longer to come through. We’ve spent decades telling people that heritage, provenance and history are important factors in wine quality, so innovation seems to take much longer to bed in than in other categories.
Looking into 2017, what wine trends are here to stay?
Italian sparkling wine isn’t going anywhere just yet. Although I would like to see consumers broadening their interest past Prosecco, it will still continue to dominate throughout 2017. The areas where I can see slow steady growth continuing to develop are in Spanish white wines such as Albariño and ‘other’ Italian whites such as Gavi or Pecorino. And everyone in the wine trade will always tell you that sherry is the next big thing. It may be wishful thinking, but it’s certainly an area I’d love to see grow!
What wines are you excited about?
I’m excited about Italian sparkling wines other than Prosecco, for example Pignoletto and Lambrusco (a vibrant purple-coloured dry sparkling red). I’m also enjoying seeing increasingly high quality Gavi wines available, as well as grower Champagnes slowly making their mark in the wider market. There have been some real challenges in key regions due to frost or hail damaging volumes, so one of the most exciting things in the wine industry is seeing how dynamic regions and producers can take up those opportunities.
Which wines would you recommend for Christmas?
Last year I found myself enjoying a sunny 20 degrees on Christmas Day in the south of France and I wished I had taken a bottle of Lambrusco or some chillable Beaujolais-villages. So if you’ll be sunny-side up, that’s what I’d recommend! This year however I’ll be in deepest darkest Wales, so I’ll be luxuriating with some rich and warming Amarone and top class South African reds. I always love a magnum too, for sheer decadence, especially of Champagne! When asked for Christmas recommendations (usually to match turkey) the ‘catch-all’ solution is red Burgundy, but to be honest, I think Christmas is the one day that you should simply splash out on the best possible example of something you really love, whatever it is.
Liked this article on debunking wine myths? Read more on The Master Chefs about Matthew Fort’s favourite wine regions.