Sarah Jane Evans MW is an award-winning wine writer, critic and editor who is renowned for her astute tasting ability and thirst for knowledge. Amanda Barnes interviews her to find out more about her journey into wine, and specifically why she likes to champion the still and fortified wines of Spain, as well as discovering why white chocolate and White Zinfandel might not be as bad a pairing as it first sounds…
From studying Classics and Social and Political Sciences, via book publishing and editing, was there a pivotal moment which moved your career into wine? Was wine always a passion?
Wine was always my preferred drink. As a student I was never into cider or beer – or cocktails. There was a lot of Fino Sherry at formal occasions when I was a student at Cambridge, and that and my prior time in Spain gave me a real love for that unique wine and its varied style, in addition to table wine. Table wine is probably the best term, as I wasn’t drinking anything special.
My family were very into food, cooking, and eating out on holiday, so wine was naturally part of that. It wasn’t surprising therefore that I eventually – after some years as an editor in book publishing at André Deutsch and Grant McIntyre – ended up at the recently launched BBC Good Food magazine. That was in the days of the Food and Drink programme when Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden were doing ‘magic’ tricks blind-tasting. I particularly remember that Jilly was very specific about my not tinkering with her carefully chosen words. As a new editor I didn’t entirely understand her obsession with every word. But I do now.
During my time at Good Food, the WSET opened up courses to consumers, so I started to go along to the classes with my husband. I absolutely loved them. Having hated geography at school, suddenly these admittedly rather formal evening sessions unlocked a whole new world. It was a time when the WSET also still had resident tutors, which was a real benefit.
Was there a pivotal moment? Perhaps signing up for the MW. I was convinced then that my career was turning itself towards specialising in the world of wine. I had been Chairman and then President of the Guild of Food Writers, but wanted to take my interest in flavour further. I was lucky enough to have BBC Good Food as sponsor for nearly all of my wine studies. I’m really grateful to them. I would say to any business wondering whether to sponsor a student for WSET Level 4 or the MW – the payback to them will be huge. The student not only becomes more knowledgeable, specifically in wine, but also enters an international network of the wine business, and becomes in the process better at communication skills.
You are well known for your books on the wines of Spain. What brought you into the Spanish wine world in particular?
I had a gap year before going up to Cambridge and spent part of the time just outside Madrid working as an au pair. I completely fell in love with the country, the culture, the gastronomy, the language, the society, the turbulent 20th century history… I became totally absorbed in it, as you can at 18. I kept up my visits over the years. Then my husband had a dear friend whose family came from a small town between Cadiz and Jerez. So we used to visit them three times a year.
And with Spain’s entry into democracy and Europe, there was plenty for me as a freelancer to write about, from education policy to health – to food and wine. I was also moderately (ie very) frustrated by the ignorance of my colleagues in the food magazines about Spanish food: that tapas were effectively some kind of open sandwich; that a tortilla was a grilled omelette. And Sherry was clearly an old lady’s drink, and Spanish red, a supermarket plonk. Thus it was inevitable that I was going to write about Spanish wine and Sherry in part to set the record straight and highlight what is so great about the country.
To that I also added Spanish speaking countries as I had spent time there. My other special interest was/is Greece: my Part I at Cambridge was Classics, and Greece and Greek wine are favourites. This sounds systematic. But of course it’s not – my interests constantly change and develop.
What excites you most about Spanish wine today? Is there a particular region or trend which you are following keenly?
Spain has an exceptionally long history in wine. But there was a period mid-20th century when it was isolated from the rest of Europe, during the dictatorship. One could compare it in some way to what happened in South Africa. Now, as in South Africa, a new generation is leading the way, with winemakers travelling, sharing ideas, returning to recuperate old vines and the old ways. There’s an explosion of excitement.
This touches all parts of the country, and Spain has a great heritage of old amphoras (Valencia is a great place to look), of very old vines (from Priorat, where their Vinyes Velles qualification starts at 70 years, to Navarra and the Gredos area and plenty more). I’m currently a fan of Carinyena and Garnacha. The list grows: Bierzo, Cangas, Txakoli, Alicante, Jerez area still wines, parts of Rioja and Ribera. But I am as much a follower of particular people who are producing exciting wines rather than particular DOs.
What do you think is the greatest challenge Spain faces in communicating about its wines? Why hasn’t it managed to garner the same international reputation and high prices that the top regions in France and Italy have, for example?
That’s a long story, and one that needs sorting fast. Spain has been historically too committed to bulk wines, and the latest news is of the collapse of Spain’s bulk wine exports. There are many producing areas that are just unsustainable. At the same time we are at a moment of exceptional quality – for me the wines coming from Spain are the most exciting in Europe. But we just have to keep shouting that message. The international image of Spain still seems to be too often stuck in the dark ages. It’s a scandal. However there are some great importers who are highlighting the small producers and the new trends. I pray that they will have survived the lockdown.
You are currently writing a book on The Wines of Central and Southern Spain and are the series editor of the Classic Wine Library. What impact do you think the pandemic will have on wine book publishing in the coming months, if any?
You could say that the lockdown has been made for novel writers, as you need to spend the time exploring interior worlds as a writer rather than travelling. My delivery date is in 2021, and I am hoping I’ll be able to get back and do some more visits. The Wines of South Africa is just about out now, and is a great book. And The Wines of Texas and the South West is a really original title coming out a little later this year. Wine books were having an ever tougher time in bookshops even before lockdown. What we as authors have to do now is to be much smarter about online selling.
You’ve just finished co-chairing the Decanter World Wine Awards. Without going into exhaustive detail, what were the biggest challenges of running the world’s biggest wine show in a pandemic and how was it different from normal years? Were there any particularly innovative solutions or format changes that you think Decanter will continue to use for the awards in the future?
It’s been a great month. The Decanter team did an absolutely brilliant job, working out how to taste some 17,000 wines in safe, socially-isolated groups. It was a great success – well you were there, on the Argentina panel, and saw it for yourself. The best thing was the sensor you had to wear which bleeped when you came within two metres of anyone. I could not fault the planning and execution, and we were able to taste the wines with the utmost care.
Beyond wine, you are quite a chocophile as I understand and co-founded the Academy of Chocolate. What’s your ultimate pairing wine or style for real dark chocolate?
I’m a co-founder of the Academy, which was established to raise the profile of fine chocolate, real chocolate, and sustainably sourced cacao. There’s been a huge and welcome change in the chocolate industry in the last decade in the UK, with plenty of bean to bar producers. (Though bean to bar is hard; not all of it is good, just because it’s bean to bar. The same could be said of natural wine…).
The first fact is that wine and chocolate is usually a terrible match. Tannic chocolate plus tannic wine is horrible. Don’t be taken in by chocolate that says it’s made for wine. I suggest a wine higher in alcohol and with some residual sugar. Barolo Chinato is very good, a kind of alcoholic cough medicine, if I may say it. The sweet Garnachas and Monastrells of southern France and Mediterranean Spain can be really good. Often it’s best to choose a bar with inclusions – that’s to say nuts, or dried fruits, to add texture and build the flavour experience.
If you are looking for a ridiculously sweet indulgence which will shock the serious consumer try a Lindt white chocolate bar with freeze dried berries and match it with a US blush Grenache or Zinfandel!
You are also the author of Chocolate, Unwrapped which focuses on fine chocolates. Do you ever indulge in a cheeky bar of Cadbury’s or lesser-quality chocolate? Fancy sharing any guilty pleasures?
Of course I do! But I don’t find them as satisfying as I once used to. My guilty pleasure is seeking out a small bar somewhere in Spain and savouring a plate of jamón, fried eggs and chips and a small glass of cold beer.
When you aren’t working, what do you like to do to relax?
In pre-Covid days I would have said, “I travel so much, I never want to go to an airport. The joy is staying at home”. These past months it has been terrific being at home, enjoying the garden in the good weather. But now I’m thinking, “wouldn’t it be good to travel somewhere and have a relaxing break?” Otherwise it’s family, friends, good wines. These last months have taught me to appreciate the good things in life.