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Gastronomy and Wine Portal

Jancis Robinson

Jancis Robinson: «I never intended to produce anything other than words…»

01.04.2021, Persona Author: Olga Pinevich

To write to Jancis Robinson (who, I am sure, should not be presented to our audience) with a proposal for an interview, I was surprised when the answer came unexpectedly prompt. The content was in the spirit of the famous Jancis – concise and strict: “Send me questions. Not too many, please! I am so busy at the moment.” Of course, we could not resist the temptation and took the opportunity given to us by Mrs Janсis Robinson, the fate and the quarantine: and just in case we prepared questions with a marginJ, hoping that we would get at least a half of answers.

Jancis Robinson, a person with the special merits in the wine world, a wine critic, journalist, writer, consultant of Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland answered ALL D+ questions! We are incredibly grateful.

Jancis and Olga

Drinks+: Mrs Jancis Robinson, first of all, we would like to note, this is a great honor for us to have the opportunity to ask you about your wine world vision, your personal thoughts and rules. You are a unique person in the wine world! In addition to many honorable titles and awards, you are known as the main wine encyclopedist of our time. Your energy is also enough for light wine genres. You are loved, known, read, quoted all over the world. You have achieved a lot in life… Including the unofficial status of the harshest wine critic in the world.

Do you agree with this opinion? What is the ultimate goal of your work – first of all, education of a wine consumer or education of a producer? Or something third?

Jancis Robinson: I’m sorry if I’m known as such a harsh wine critic. No-one could love wine more than me. And I love writing stories about it. But perhaps what gives rise to this supposed ‘unofficial status’ is that in my wine reviews/tasting notes I always write down my impressions as I am tasting, a sort of stream of consciousness (I never go back to rewrite my tasting notes to polish them) and I write 100% for my readers, wine consumers, and not for quotation as sales aids. This is probably why my tasting notes are so rarely quoted by producers!

I’m no great fan of tasting notes that are a long list of flavours because I think tasting is so subjective that it’s unlikely another taster with find those same flavours. Also, consumers may feel inadequate if they don’t sense the same flavours. I concentrate a bit more on the vital statistics of the wine: body, tannin, acidity, sweetness, how mature – and then perhaps an impressionistic overview and assessment of its personality.

Jancis Robinson2

D+: Your 20-point wine scoring scale has shorter scores number, but more emotional in terms of description: “Deadly dull”, “Distinguished”, “Superior” “Truly exceptional” etc. What, in your opinion, is the advantage in comparison with the 100-point wine scoring used by many?

J.R.: I think everyone should be free to use whichever scale they feel most comfortable with.  The 20-point scale is the traditional European one and I have never felt the need to switch. But I am sad if too much emphasis is put on scores. I see scores as a necessary evil – something that was needed when the fine wine market was on fire and readers needed a rapid shorthand assessment of quality so that that could buy wine in a hurry. But that is no longer the case and of course I always thing words are far more important and no wine can be summed up in a number.

On JancisRobinson.com we publish a separate tasting note for every different bottle of a wine that we taste and we find that there can be considerable variation between bottles so no-one should take a single tasting note and score as the gospel!

D+: You are the only wine author who was distinguished as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, on whose wine cellars you are also advise. Tell us, please, how this process works. Do you travel, taste, then offer a list? How often do the wine list change? Which countries prevail? Has it ever occurred to you to get a feedback with a request to replace one or another wines or all your offers were always accepted unconditionally?

J.R.: There’s something about climbing into a taxi and asking the driver to take me to Buckingham Palace that still gives me an absurd amount of pleasure, even in this, my 16th year as a member of the Royal Household Wine Committee. I am not remotely blasé about the subsequent fight through the crowds of tourists to present my driving licence as photo ID, first to the policemen at the North Centre Gate (pictured), the one on the right of the Palace, and then, after a 50-metre crunch over the pink gravel, again to the liveried staff at the Privy Purse Door.

We need to select enough wine, about 5,000 bottles, for the Royal Household to offer its guests at more than 300 events held each year in Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. Our budget is supplied by the Queen’s Civil List funding. Outsiders might assume that we spend our time picking out the plums from the world’s vineyards for Her Majesty’s cellar but the reality is very much more prosaic. By far the majority of the wines we buy are either nonvintage champagne (supplied at an average price considerably lower than any supermarket special offer I have come across) or relatively modest wines for big receptions, the likes of inexpensive New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and the most basic red Bordeaux.

But whenever I publish tasting notes on the wines submitted to the RHWC on my website, some readers almost invariably come back expressing disappointment that the wines aren’t grander. I realize on reflection, however, that the complainers are rarely British taxpayers.

We committee members meet a few times each year to taste, usually under Buckingham Palace though once, memorably, in the rather more cramped cellars of Windsor Castle. Wines for state occasions like this come not from the Royal Household but from the quite separate government cellars under Lancaster House, which have their own, separate wine committee.

We do get to taste some reasonably smart stuff for Her Majesty and her guests. We buy young red Bordeaux when it’s released and age it because – at least so far – that has saved money. And there is always a cache of red and white burgundy, as well as some vintage champagne for really important guests. But whenever I publish tasting notes on the wines submitted to the RHWC on my website, some readers almost invariably come back expressing disappointment that the wines aren’t grander. I realise on reflection, however, that the complainers are rarely British taxpayers 🙂.

While I always enjoy blind tasting (and it is most important that we taste blind because so many of the wines submitted come from companies run by members of the committee), the wines themselves are just a small part of what I enjoy about our ‘work’ on the RHWC.

At our tastings, conducted in complete silence until we each submit our list of favourites, the Clerk of the Royal Cellars’ (Simon Berry’s) chief role is to co-ordinate the scores and make concrete buying decisions based on them. Within budgetary constraints we are given a relatively free hand in our choices.

D+: Have you ever thought about creating your own wine? And even if this is not a goal for you, and you are not considering such an opportunity, still we would like to know which wine region/country you would choose and why? Hypothetically?

J.R.: I am a pretty average gardener and am a complete control freak so I have neither the ability nor the character to be a farmer. It would also mean sacrificing my objectivity.  I feel so lucky to be able to taste the fruits of the labours of so many winemakers around the world.

I never intended to produce anything other than words and it took all the persuasive powers of designer Richard Brendon to come up with my beautiful glassware!


D+: Please tell us briefly about the ideal tasting glass.

J.R.: The Wine Glass from the collection has been specifically designed to offer the best tasting experience for every wine, whatever its colour, appellation, style or strength, including Champagne, port, sherry and beyond. I have spent 42 years trying to make wine as approachable and as pleasurable as possible and sincerely believe that just one glass for all wines makes perfect practical sense.

D+: In your opinion, what relatively new wine-making countries could be included to your personal TOP over the next 5-10 years and with which varieties? Which wine regions do you think are undervalued in the wine world?

J.R.: Both my JancisRobinson.com colleague Julia Harding MW and I are huge fans of Portugal and Greece – for the same reasons. Both produce highly distinctive wines from a rich array of indigenous grape varieties that we are still discovering. We admire the fact that neither country succumbed to international grape varieties in any major way. As wine producers, they are not new, but they deserve to be more widely understood and admired.

I’m also a big fan of new wave South African wines – the young guns from Swartland, for instance. And I am rather thrilled by the fact that the wine world is more in flux than I have ever known it with so many new trends: lower alcohol, less oak, indigenous grape varieties, natural wine, skin contact whites.

On JancisRobinson.com we publish a separate tasting note for every different bottle of a wine that we taste and we find that there can be considerable variation between bottles so no-one should take a single tasting note and score as the gospel!

D+: We know that you have looked fairly closely at organic and biodynamic wines. In your experience, is the profile taste of organic wines different from conventional wines? What do you think is the prospect of natural wines? Which wineries/countries regions, in your opinion, stand out in this wine types?

J.R.: I think BD wines often have a wildness and immediacy about them but I wouldn’t claim to be able to taste a difference between organic and non-organic wine.

Natural wine has no strict definition but tends to be defined by what it isn’t. All but the most hideously industrial wines are ‘natural’ products to a certain degree but, just like fruit itself, anything fruit-based such as juice, wine and dried fruits is prone to being spoilt by excess oxygen and/or harmful bacteria. For centuries, sulphur or sulphur-based compounds have been used to stabilise and preserve freshness in all these products but, as technical knowledge increased in the twentieth century, so did the array of additives used in winemaking. In the 1970s many a wine smelt more of the chemistry lab than the fruit basket.

This century and in the later years of last century, however, there has been a global, industry-wide move to reduce agrochemicals in the vineyard and additives in the winery – this last encouraged not least by the discovery that asthmatics are particularly and sometimes dangerously sensitive to compounds associated with sulphur, which is why any wine containing more than 10 mg/l of sulphur dioxide has to be labelled ‘contains sulphites’.

Those making natural wine try to minimise their use of sulphur dioxide (a small amount is routinely produced when grape juice is fermented into wine anyway), and also tend to see forms of stabilisation such as filtration as equally evil. But sulphur dioxide is effectively a preservative, and low- or no-sulphur wines easily brown or lose their fruit if exposed to warmth, and the lack of stabilisation can result in cloudy wines.

Although the most famous practitioners of the current era of natural winemaking were senior vignerons in Beaujolais in the 1960s, and then the Loire Valley, today’s ‘naturalistas’ tend to be relatively young.

One day in Madrid I met a young sommelier who had been introduced to natural wines in the Loire and had enjoyed them there, but was now horrified by the dogmatism evident at natural wine bars in Spain, where, she felt, the quality of the wines served was so much lower.

As a result of this sort of phenomenon, the reputation of natural wines is so bad in some quarters that even some of those producing them – the respected Philippe Pacalet of Burgundy and Envinate of Spain for instance – deliberately avoid the term. One of British Columbia’s most successful wine producers, Okanagan Crush Pad, grows exclusively organic grapes and is careful to preserve every nuance of what nature provides in their Free Form wines but, as the company’s Christine Coletta explained recently in London, they deliberately avoid the term ‘natural’ and use ‘minimal intervention’ instead.

But this doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. I asked the queen of natural wine, New York wine writer Alice Feiring of The Feiring Line, what she felt about the nomenclature of these increasingly prevalent wines. She admitted, ‘it’s a term in flux for sure. However, there’s no other term for it, and when pushed those people [who repudiate the term] will admit that they [their wines] are indeed natural. So at some point it’s going to be just wine, like it used to be before technology shaped it all. It’s a very tricky question and a trickier answer. For one, I don’t mind it one bit.’

Climate change has sneaked up on us in my lifetime and dramatically expanded the extent of the world wine map towards the poles. Who would have thought grapes could be ripened in Scandinavia, Poland, southern Chile?

Wearing my wine consumer hat, I feel quite strongly that wines that most obviously belong to what Feiring calls ‘the natural wine “club”’, those that are very different from the conventional norm, should be clearly signalled on wine lists and shelves. I have ordered less successful natural wines from even quite celebrated wine lists and had to leave everything but the first sip. I approve of those restaurant wine lists that recognise the popularity of natural wines with a segment of their customers by offering some, but corral them clearly in a separate section, perhaps headed Natural, New Wave or Off Piste Wines.

The winemakers I admire are those who have established a reputation for their conventional wines but who, unblinkered by prejudice against natural wines, try out some of the strategies adopted by the naturalistas. Despite the current polarisation, I suspect that eventually everyone will meet somewhere in the middle.

D+: You probably have a wine cellar. How many bottles does your collection have? What is the oldest/most expensive wine you have? What wines do you mainly collect?

J.R.: About 2,000 bottles all in our temperature controlled cellar in our new flat – carved out of a too-large laundry room.  Not sure about the most expensive. Coche Corton Charlemagne, a bottle of DRC kindly given to celebrate my OBE, the odd bottle of Petrus. As my mentor Edmund Penning-Rowsell, my predecessor at the Financial Times, said, ‘you must never think about the price when you are pulling a cork.’

I mainly buy German wine and French classics with a track record of ageing.

D+: October 2019 saw the launch of the eighth and latest edition of The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson MW. First published in 1971, the original tome was hailed as an instant classic and essential reference work for wine professionals and wine lovers; and been translated into 14 languages. Between the first release and the brand new 8th edition, what are the most unexpected changes for you on the winemaking world scene?

J.R.: Climate change has sneaked up on us in my lifetime and dramatically expanded the extent of the world wine map towards the poles. Who would have thought grapes could be ripened in Scandinavia, Poland, southern Chile?

D+: You have been collaborating with Hugh Johnson for many years. How you share the writing roles – by wine types? Or by origin – do you have favorite? How do you cooperate? How often you argue? About what issues?

J.R.: Since the fifth edition that came out in 2001 I do the updating and Hugh reads through what I write, and writes the Foreword. But Hugh sits in on all the early planning meetings to decide what to drop and what to add. We each have our favourite wine regions!

D+: If we compare the critical assessment of wine by one person (a wine critic\writer) and team\commission (wine competition judges, tasting juries), which of them is more objective? And in principle, what do you think about the role of international wine contests, contests within the framework of exhibitions, etc. Which do you consider exemplary?

J.R.: I’m sure all tasters in whatever context are objective but I’m no big fan of panels of tasters because the results tend to be smoothed out. There will always be someone who doesn’t like the most unusual or distinctive wine. Whereas with a single taster the consumer can get to know their preferences.

D+: In that regard, how do you assess rating/evaluation resources such as Vivino, etc.?

J.R.: It seems very popular but I’ve never used it. My Vivino is JancisRobinson.com where all 200,000 of my tasting notes are! I was a bit cross when they tried to scrape our tasting notes database.

D+: What do you think about the future of the investment as a component of the wine industry? For example, such index as Liv-ex?

J.R.: I’m afraid I am a very naïve wine lover. I believe wine is for drinking, not for investing in. Sorry!  But I do find data such as Liv-ex’s useful background for my writing.

D+: How do you think the pandemic will affect a global winemaking?

J.R.: I think – hope – your article will come out when we are already in the post-pandemic era!



If you are away from the wine topic, then you take an interest in…

– Food, family, friends and books.

You are an exceptional workaholic! What is you working day usual schedule: what time you usually wake up? What are your priority tasks? In what time does the day end?

– I do work very hard during the day, from about 7 to 7 sometimes, the first few hours always devoted to JancisRobinson.com. We are mad enough to publish two articles every day and I always read and edit them. But I never work in the evening – unless tasting wine in the early evening.

How much wine do you taste on average per day?

– One year I reckoned I tasted about 10,000 wines but that was an unusually high total.

Favorite book, film about wine?

– I enjoyed Thirsty Dragon by Susan Mustacich about the Chinese love affair with wine.

If possible, recall the most interesting paradox/funny story that you have observed in the wine world?

– There is so little correlation between price and quality in the wine world.