Interview With Her Royal Vinous, Jancis Robinson

Jancis Robinson, the world’s most revered wine writer, made a whistle-stop visit to Australia in spring 2019. She came to attend a Chardonnay symposium in the Yarra Valley, promote the eighth edition of the World Atlas of Wine and discuss the range of glassware she co-created with British product designer Richard Brendon.
During her trip she spent a couple of days in Sydney and Melbourne with CellarHand, signing books and tasting a range of wines from our portfolio to showcase her universal glass.
She also sat down with CellarHand’s Ed Merrison to talk about her latest endeavours. Photographs by Elizabeth Clancy.

Jancis Robinson never imagined she’d one day put her name to a wine glass. When she was introduced to young British product designer Richard Brendon a few years back, she offered up a few thoughts but that was that. She wished Brendon luck and sent him on his way.

CELLARHAND: So, what changed your mind?

JANCIS ROBINSON: He was very persistent. He came back and I realised I had more than 40 years’ experience tasting wines, and some pretty strong opinions about the perfect wine glass.
One of my fervent beliefs is that logically there’s only a need for one glass. I’ve never understood why white is served in smaller glasses than red – except to swell the coffers of glass manufacturers – because white wine’s every bit as subtle and needs the space and all that. The process of tasting white wine is exactly the same as the process of tasting red wine.
And then I’d been noticing over the last few years that Champagne producers – certainly the ones I most respect – all want their Champagnes to be tasted in a proper wine glass rather than in a narrow little flute, which can be jolly difficult to get your nose into. To me, the man who’s revived fine sherry, Jesús Barquín of Equipo Navazos, I remember him saying to me very strongly that he wanted all of his sherries to be tasted in a proper wine glass. And any decent aged fortified, like Port, deserves to have real space to express itself rather than to be crammed into a tiny little glass.

Decision made, then: It had to be a universal glass. Aside from ultra-fine glass to minimise the barrier between wine and taster, what else goes into making the ultimate instrument of drinking pleasure?

I think anyone who understands wine will know why a tulip shape works well, why you want the rim to be narrower than the bowl. And I was pretty adamant that it should be a nice, smooth curvature that really encouraged the aroma up to the nose, however low or high the fill level, and delivered all that the wine has to express to its optimum.
It had to be a handmade, mouthblown glass to be thin enough, but I was also adamant that it had to be dishwasher friendly because I’m no fan of polishing glasses myself. And that’s when most glasses get broken. We’ve had the glasses at home for two and a half years now, always wash them the dishwasher, and we are yet to break one. And we’re quite clumsy.

The imperative to be both sturdy and user-friendly entailed certain design features: It couldn’t be too tall, so as to fit in commercial and domestic dishwashers; the stem – the most fragile part of the glass – could not be perilously thin; and the base had to be relatively broad, to ensure stability. What about the finishing touches?

Richard’s got a brilliant eye and the last refinements were tiny but aesthetically important things I wouldn’t have suggested or noticed but he did. I think people who’ve tried them really do appreciate how they look, and I feel very confident that they look great in any setting, whether it’s a classical setting or a very modern setting.
They also feel nice; the weighting is very good. I would say to have a wine glass designed by a wine professional really does make a difference. The whole point of our glass is that it is for wine lovers. It’s for people who want to get the most out of every glass.

Thus the definitive wine glass was born – but Brendon got his wish, with a few complementary pieces added to the range. There’s the stemless glass – ideal for water, G&Ts or, I suppose, next-level glamping. And then he suggested a decanter?

I said, “No, I think it’s got to be two decanters,” because there are two very different jobs that a decanter does. One is if you’ve got a really old wine with some sediment, you want to pour the wine off its sediment and then protect it from oxygen. So  a tall, narrow decanter with a stopper is needed.
And actually I use a decanter even more for aerating young wine, whether it’s red or white – and I think white wine looks absolutely gorgeous in a decanter. That’s a much broader decanter with a friendly neck which allows you to – I call it “swooshing” – grasp it, swish it about, really aerate the wine and accelerate its development. The young-wine decanter will hold a magnum quite easily, so that’s quite useful. They both reflect the shape of the wine glass, so it’s all a set.

Even if the ultimate wine-lover believes in an ultimate wine glass, I’m guessing there’s more than one grape in your life. What varieties enjoy most regular airplay chez Robinson?

I suppose I do often actively seek a glass of Riesling, as a refreshment or aperitif – and, of course, now we’ve got so many great dry Rieslings from Germany, as well as Australia and Alsace – with food as well. I think they go really well. I admire lots of Chardonnays and I enjoy lots of Chardonnays but they’re not as natural food partners in most cases as a good dry Riesling.

What about reds?

I just like the variety, really. I don’t think there’s anything I would choose automatically. It’s just pretty magical to me that the fermented juice of a single fruit can produce such an extraordinary array of flavours and styles. I suppose the one style of red wine that I probably drink less of is high-alcohol, heavily-wooded young wines.

Between the last update of the World Atlas of Wine and the brand-new 8th edition, there must have been some lesser known grape varieties that have come to the fore. Which of these have the most exciting potential in Australia?

I think there are probably a lot more Portuguese varieties to be experimented with. Touriga Nacional just happens to be the most famous of them but the Portuguese don’t necessarily think it’s the best. There’s Touriga Franca – I don’t know if anyone’s planted that in Australia. There’s a whole host of varieties just in the Douro, let alone in other regions of Portugal, so I would be trying those. And Greek varieties as well. Again I think Steve Pannell’s trialling some, isn’t he? Although of course not all Greek wine regions are boiling hot – quite a few of them are high altitude – but they’re really interesting, with masses of character. And there are presumably some more Italian varieties still to be experimented with, even though I know Chalmers has made a special effort with Italian varieties. What about Corsican/Sardinian varieties…

What is it that makes an Atlas an apt medium to show the story of wine?

I always say there are very, very few things that we buy and consume that allow us to know exactly, from the label, which point on the globe it’s produced in, as well as who produced it and when. Wine is wonderfully geographically specific, and I’m delighted that more and more Australian wine producers are wanting to put geography in the bottle, on the label, and express a place. And then it will take time to establish characteristics and so forth, but it’s such a healthy development.

The Atlas is also an extension of the notion that travel and wine go hand-in-hand, giving us the opportunity to literally taste a region and listen to people’s philosophy on nature and creativity. Are you nourished by the experience of collecting these stories?

Oh, it’s lovely. Wine people do tend to be pretty interesting. There are very few boring people in wine. There are some very strong characters – sometimes too strong – but it’s not a boring world. And it’s a very generous world. People want you to try their wine, they want you to enjoy it, preferably with food. And wine is such a sociable thing. It’s all about sociability, really.

Does everyone always tell you that they’d love to have your job?

I think most people understand that I do quite a lot of work. I spend hours each day on, I’ve got my weekly column for the Financial Times, and then I must say, having spent two years updating the Atlas, I’ve completely forgotten – it’s a bit like childbirth – I’ve completely forgotten what it was like trying to shoehorn two years of updates into my life.

Presumably there are constant surprises to keep the challenge fresh?

Oh, I learn things every day! I suppose that’s one plus point of the world of wine expanding so much, and then there are all the new consumers. I was told solemnly at the beginning of my career that Asians would never drink wine – that there was something about the physiology of the Asian palate that precluded any love of wine and that they would stay with spirits and beer. Well, how wrong was that?

Where have the biggest changes taken place since the last edition of the Atlas?

Everywhere has changed. There’s no stasis at all. And everywhere’s producing better and better wine, which is fantastic for the consumer. We have 68 local experts around the world feeding in suggestions as to how the text from the seventh edition should be updated, and my job is to interpret those suggestions. I don’t accept all of them. The local experts are varied in how much they sell their region and how much they criticise it. I hadn’t realised, until reading closely what the Czech and Slovak consultants fed in, how many new varieties had been bred in that part of the world – and how popular natural wines were there. Although when I was last in Shanghai, I was served a Czech natural wine which I wasn’t expecting!

Plenty of exciting developments, then. Any bad news?

Sherry! Poor, poor sherry, which is Spain’s most distinctive wine. They’re still struggling. In fact there used to be a map of the sherry vineyards in old copies of the Atlas. In the sixth or the seventh edition we were pressed for space and wondered whether people were really interested, so we didn’t include it. In the eighth edition we’ve reinstated the map as a mark in the sand about how important sherry should be, and there are signs of a few green shoots there. But the sad thing is, if you were to compare the extent of the vineyards as they used to be, and the extent now, it’s very dramatic. I think they’ve shrunk by two-thirds or something.

In addition to the map updates and modified lists of notable producers for each region, what else is new in the 8th edition of the World Atlas of Wine?

I thought it was high time to completely revamp the introductory pages, not least taking into account climate change and weather, really, which is so important. Those pages are completely new.
We’ve also got a couple of pages on wine and money, because wine has become, sadly, an investment vehicle. So there are quite a lot of charts like the index of how the average price of fine wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, California and Italy have risen, comparatively. You can see how and when Burgundy has overtaken Bordeaux. We also compare vineyard land prices around the world, and I thought it would be fun to have a graphic that shows how many hours the average person would have to have worked to buy themselves a bottle of first-growth Bordeaux in each of the years that the Atlas has been published.

One last question on the meaning of wine in the today’s world: With all the dreadful news out there at the moment – all that fuel for pessimism – does wine stand up as a celebration of humanity?

There’s still not much diversity among the people who work in wine. I think we ought to work on that a bit more. And maybe we should add the caveat that wine producers of the world could be, should be, more conscious of sustainability. There are far more things to consider, quite apart from cutting down on agrochemicals, to take a more holistic approach to not just waste but employees, finances, whatever – rather than churn out the returns for shareholders as reliably as possible.
But then I think wine has an elemental aspect to it, and hence all these rich businessmen wanting to start their own vineyard and winery. And it’s got a strong link to religion, the Eucharist and all that. It does seem a rather beautifully simple thing that you plonk a vine in the ground and it can eventually yield this liquid that can transport you to amazing mental places. And I love the annual miracle of a vineyard that is little black stumps in the middle of winter and then becomes so luxuriant in spring and then summer, and drips with these ripe grapes and then turns these gorgeous colours.
It is all wonderfully sociable and all pretty nice…

Want to know more? Listen to this podcast featuring Jancis’s interview with Australian drinks journalist James Atkinson