Liz Sagues is well known for her book on English wine, but it was in fact a bottle of Burgundy (enjoyed in the dark!) that brought her into the world of fine wine. In this interview, we find out how she has enjoyed maintaining a wine column for over 30 years at a North London newspaper and why she believes Muscadet and Loire Moelleux are the most underrated wines today. As a Committee Member Liz has also been instrumental in producing the Circle’s new flyer and taken a liaison role with The Benevolent.
How did you first get into wine writing?
I came into wine writing via journalism, and the first fine wine I met was a white Auxey-Duresses given to me by my then boss, the late Ham&High editor Gerry Isaaman. I drank it one dark evening during the three-day-week power cuts in 1974 and the memory returns every time I go to a new-release Burgundy tasting. It was that bottle, plus Gerry’s extraordinarily wide vision for the newspaper (it was once described by a leading politician as ‘the only local newspaper with a foreign policy’) which led me, slowly, into writing about wine.
Tell us about how you developed your career as a wine writer and how you have seen the industry change over the years?
Under Gerry’s leadership, the Ham&High encouraged its journalists to write about subjects way beyond the borders of Hampstead and Highgate. During a holiday in the Dordogne region of France I decided to visit a vigneron. Armand Vidal, then head of the Monbazillac consortium, was a welcoming, informative host – I was hooked.
Back in London, Ham&High wine correspondent Jack Cooper (who older members of the Circle will remember, particularly for his knowledge of whisky) encouraged my enthusiasm: he took me to tastings – one introduced me to Pamela Vandyke-Pryce, then in full ‘remove-the-best-bottle-from-the-tasting-for-lunch’ form – and organised places on courses. When Jack had to stop writing I stepped into his shoes, and I’ve worn them ever since. Of course, I’ve done much wine-writing and tasting-organising besides, but I guess my wine column must be one of the longest-running anywhere (30 years plus). Unlike much of the press these days, the Ham&High still encourages free wine speech!
Last year you released your book A Celebration of English Wine. What excites you about English wine today? And how do you see it developing in the near future?
The progress of English wine over the past ten years or so has been phenomenal. Too often, that’s put down to climate change. Obviously warmer temperatures are important, but there are almost as many downsides as advantages. What has mattered most has been the expertise and professionalism of the people now involved in planting and growing the vines and making the wine.
England is properly realising its potential for splendid sparkling wine, often fresher and with more fruit than champagne, and in an increasing variation of styles. That is only going to increase as more of the many newly-planted vineyards come into full production and the wines from them mature.
But watch out for the still whites – and perhaps some reds – as these are advancing in quality. And quality has to remain crucial, in both sparkling and still wines, as England can’t be a cheap wine country. Maybe we don’t need too many harvests like 2018 – too much fruit to handle!
What are your other main interest areas in wine?
I particularly enjoy the wines of the Loire Valley. It’s great to have all styles (fortified is the only exception) from a single region, but more than that there are so many fine wines, often much more temptingly priced than those from bigger-name places. Chenin Blanc is a grape to cherish – the Loire moelleux are, to my taste, so much more pleasurable to drink than Sauternes.
I’ve got soft spots too for Gascony, which is the birthplace of so many unusual and appealing grape varieties now being made into excellent-value, high-quality modern wines, and for Roussillon and the Mediterranean islands. As you can see, I’m an Old World rather than a New World person, though that doesn’t stop me enjoying good wine from anywhere.
Are there any wine regions you think are particularly underrated and hope will come into the limelight in this new decade?
It’s remarkable how so many people think of the Loire Valley as a place of castles rather than wine! Outside the valley, Muscadet has long been underrated and what’s happening now with the crus, plus the general rise in quality of sur lie wines, needs to be recognised and the vignerons responsible properly rewarded.
You have been involved and active in the Circle for many years as a Committee Member and as Deputy Editor of the Update, the predecessor of the Circular. What do you see as the greatest strength of the Circle and do you have any particularly fond memories to share?
I’ve made many friends through the Circle and have been both delighted and surprised how senior members have always been so welcoming and approachable. I hope that’s still true for newer members. There have been very special tastings – the sweet flavour of the first I went to, on Tokaj, still lingers, and more recently the Penfolds session at the London Wine Fair was extra special. And the Christmas parties…
Gone, sadly, are the days when embassies rushed to lay on splendid spreads for us. The Italians and Spaniards especially were memorably hospitable, the latter in 2006 taking over the National Gallery Velazquez exhibition to create a superb party for us when building repairs ruled out the embassy itself. The only hiccup was that the gallery didn’t have enough wine glasses! Circumstances are rather different now, with far fewer opportunities for generously funded events and trips, but the Circle is looking to meet 2020 challenges to continue to be the leading community of wine communicators.
What do you see as the greatest challenge to the wine writing community at the moment?
Ah… now you’ve got me on a hobby horse. There is huge change as on-line and other electronic communication takes over from paper and I’m happy to accept that – but I get thoroughly frustrated by the shoddiness out there, in grammar and punctuation (whose purpose is to make meaning clear), spelling, fact-checking… So much modern media needs the electronic red pencil of a sub editor.
That’s the journalist in me speaking, but why should standards drop simply because the publication medium is different? Every wine-lover wants to drink decent liquid, so every wine communicator must do a proper, professional job. That’s obviously an internal challenge; externally there are many, the most serious being to find ways that independent wine communication can be adequately funded.
And finally, what does 2020 hold for Liz Sagues?
Hopefully, happy continuation rather than new horizons. I’m so fortunate in the way I can write freely and can choose without commercial constraint wines for consumer tastings. A Celebration of English Wine was a commission out of the blue – who knows what this year might bring?