Liv-ex interview with Tim Atkin MW, part two

On Monday we published the first part of our interview with journalist, presenter, wine judge and photographer Tim Atkin MW.  In part one we discuss his career in the world of wine, wine writing and the changing role of the critic. In the second part, below, we discuss the wine industries of Bordeaux, Spain and South Africa.

Has the wine industry in Bordeaux and the style of wines produced changed throughout the course of your career?

The first Bordeaux vintage I wrote about was 1986. What I thought about Bordeaux then is still true today:  it’s the most interesting market in the world for wine. It produces comparatively large volumes of fine wines that are talked about and traded. Added to that, you’ve got vintage variation, you’ve got consultants, you’ve got diversity of style. I think Bordeaux is an amazing region and some of its best wines are among the greatest I’ve ever drunk. Primarily, though, what interests me is the way it’s marketed, sold and commoditised. As a journalist, I find that really interesting.

Having said that, I think that there was a stylistic line in the sand with the 1982 vintage. This was the vintage upon which Parker built his reputation and also the start of the rise and rise of Michel Rolland. I think that together they changed the way most wines are made in Bordeaux. They would defend their position and say that they like the style of wines that they have promoted, and there is nothing wrong with that. But I sometimes miss the older, fresher style of Bordeaux that needed a couple of decades or more in bottle to show at its best.

So where is Bordeaux at the moment in terms of style and place in the market?

Recently there has been a bit of a reaction to the style that Parker seems to prefer. We are slowly moving back to wines that are slightly fresher, and that I think have better balance.

The world of fine wine has diversified so much that you can find fine wine almost anywhere these days: the playing field is broader and flatter. Bordeaux used to dominate the scene like some enormous Himalayan mountain range. Most people thought that all the world’s greatest wines came from Bordeaux, with a few from Burgundy, Champagne, the Douro Valley, the Mosel and Barolo. I don’t think that’s true anymore.

En Primeur has become a system that consumers have lost a bit of love for because they got stung with the 2009s and 2010s. I also think that in a world of Amazon Prime, Twitter and immediate news, waiting 18 months for a case of wine to arrive is a bit passé. And if the wine has decreased in value, people are right to ask themselves if they’re being ripped off.

There has been a lot of discussion about Bordeaux’s lack of appeal to millennials. Do you see this as an issue for the region?

I have a lot of Bordeaux in storage, but there’s very little in my cellar at home – it’s just not something that I drink much of these days. I’m not a millennial, obviously, but I don’t think I’m atypical in that consumers – even in my generation – are just not drinking Bordeaux as much. People who are in their 30s are drinking even less Bordeaux. And people who are drinking wine in their 20s are drinking almost no Bordeaux. I think that’s a real worry for the Bordelais and I don’t think they’ve seen the car crash coming.

Yes, the top 50 properties are always going to sell their wines because they are in demand and they are very good – they are luxury goods. But they are like a hot air balloon that’s drifted away from the mooring of Bordeaux itself and they are just looking down at this thing from a few thousand feet and chucking the occasional sand bag out at the peasants down below. It’s not a unified region and it’s hard to see how the region will function economically in the long term. They probably need to pull out some vineyards.

Are any Bordeaux wines undervalued?

Bordeaux is so diverse that it is difficult to generalise – but that’s what makes it fascinating. I think that the sweet wines are very undervalued, as are the dry whites. There are even Crus Classés that are undervalued, Grand Puy Lacoste and Rauzan-Ségla being good examples.

Do you have a favourite Bordeaux vintage?

Easy. 2010. I love 2010 everywhere. I think the idea that 2009 was as good as 2010 is laughable. Some of the 2009s have already started to seem a bit pruney and overripe, although it was obviously a very good vintage for some châteaux. For me, 2010 is the great vintage of the last 15 years – in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Montalcino and Rioja… It is just a fantastic European vintage. The last time that you had a vintage like that – that was good almost everywhere – was 1990.

You wrote that “a greater focus on terroir is essential in Spain”. What are the key problems facing the Spanish wine industry?

Spain’s biggest problem is that it is the biggest bulk wine supplier in the world, with an average price of just over a Euro per litre. Spain produces a lot of cheap wine and has to shift it as effectively as possible. It all comes down to economies of scale. And subsidies.

By and large, Spain is not perceived as a fine wine producing area. But that’s just so wrong. There are a lot of amazing wines in Spain at the moment, and not just from classic regions like Rioja, Ribera, Priorat and Jerez. Just look at what’s happening in Ribeira Sacra, Bierzo, Empordà, Tenerife, Mallorca and Manchuela, to take only a few examples.

Why are those not expressed as terroir wines?

I think they do express their terroir, but sometimes the people who produce them are not allowed to identify specific vineyard parcels or their villages on labels. It’s a real problem for Spain. A lot of the Consejos, who administer the DOs, or appellations, are run by politicians, cooperatives and large companies whose primary interest is to flog as much booze as effectively as possible, often at cheap prices. It’s is not really in their interests to promote the fact that many of the best wines tend to come from specific vineyards.

And why is this important?

I think that the current approach is short sighted. If Spain had a better fine wine image it would help to improve the whole country’s wine industry, making it easier to sell the best Spanish wines at higher prices. It is crazy that you can buy Valenciso Rioja Reserva 2009, which is an amazing wine, for £17, when that wine should cost £40 if you were comparing it with the rest of the world.

But I think that Spain is starting to rectify its image problem. The younger generation is starting to go back to the land – a lot of them have taken their parents’ vineyards out of co-operatives. And the power of the big merchants who buy bulk wine, and of the co-operatives – although there are some good ones – is waning.

You’ve recently published a lengthy report on South Africa. What is exciting you most about the country’s wine industry?

I think that South Africa is the most exciting wine producing country in the world at the moment – and there are unbelievable bargains. It is a little bit like Spain in one sense, where there’s a lot of bulk wine and grape prices are depressed. Having said that, there is this amazing generation of young winemakers that has emerged since the first democratic elections in 1994. The winemakers in South Africa in their late 20s or 30s are just an unbelievably talented group. And the good thing about grapes being so cheap is that anybody can create a winery. I like the dynamism and the creativity of that. I think that South Africa is a place to watch.

What are the challenges facing the wine trade in South Africa?

One of them is that the price of grapes is too cheap. Farmers are realists. The first vines that they pull out are the ones that yield least – and they tend to be the oldest vines. That’s what happened in Spain, too, where plantings of Garnacha have suffered.

It is a great shame that the bulk areas are a lot more profitable than those producing fine wine. It is tempting for grape growers to go somewhere where they can irrigate, and prune and pick their vines mechanically.

It also goes back to this issue that that people think that fine wines can only come from a narrow band of regions and countries. South Africa and Spain both have image problems, though I think that is changing. I hope that over the next fifty years the perception of what constitutes fine wine will become much more diverse and that both countries will benefit.

Which other regions do you feel have improved the most over the last decade? Which have the most potential?

Argentina still has masses of potential. So has Italy. We tend to focus on Tuscany and Piemonte but I think there are many great wines being made in Italy. Sicily still has enormous promise, as does Basilicata on its volcanic soils. Parts of the Abruzzo are amazing; parts of the Friuli area are incredible. I think Italy is an amazing country.

I also keep thinking that the Languedoc’s day is going to come – the wine just keeps getting better and better. Again, they just don’t achieve the prices that I think they deserve. This is great for consumers, but less good for the people making the wines.

Do you think these regions need the support of the critics?

Yes, and I think this is where critics can be useful. Parker, in his pomp, was capable single-handily of doing that – and sometimes he got the right answer. Now it is much harder. There is this guy in South Africa called Chris Alheit who Neal Martin and I both like very much. Both of us gave his initial releases very high scores. I am not saying that he succeeded because of that, but I think it helped.

I can almost have a bigger influence in a country like that, where I am one of only a handful of critics who are seriously reviewing the wines, than I can in Bordeaux where nobody is going to go, “Oh wow, Tim Atkin has given it 100 points. I am going to buy 1,000 cases”. The further you are from the epicentre of the fine wine world, the easier it is to have an influence.

Do you have any favourite emerging winemakers?

Roberto Oliván of Tentenublo in Rioja is pretty special, as is Sebastian Zuccardi in Argentina. And there’s a ludicrously young winemaker in South Africa called Reenen Borman at Boschkloof who is already a star. His Epilogue Syrah is the best South African red wine I’ve ever tasted. This kid is 28 and he is off the charts brilliant.

What would you consider your greatest achievement to be so far?

To go on making a reasonably good living out of something that is basically my passion, and continuing to live like a student in some ways. I am also proud of some of the writing I’ve done. I think I’ve written in an entertaining and approachable way about wine, and, I hope, got some people into wine.

How do you see the wine industry changing in the next ten or twenty years?

I think it’s very hard to say. The one thing that people underestimate is climate change, which is the single biggest thing we face if it continues to accelerate at the current rate. I think that some fine wine regions won’t be growing the grapes that they are growing now, certainly in twenty years and maybe even in ten years. Access to water in drier areas is going to be crucial.

I reckon the influence of Bordeaux will continue to decline, personally. This is partly because of the younger generation. The people coming online are going to want to drink different things. So we’ll see more diversity, probably different regions, and maybe the existing regions will grow different things or be forced to do so because of different, hotter temperatures.

What’s your next project?

I haven’t written a book in a very long time because I have wanted to wait and write book about something I am passionate about. However, yesterday somebody came up with an idea for a book and I thought, “that’s a great idea”, so I think I may finally do it. It’s the kind of wine book that isn’t a specialist monograph on one region, however important those are. It’s the kind of book that I would want to see people reading on the tube. So it would use all of my experience about wine but would do it in a sort of way that I would hope is entertaining, and journalistic really – treating wine as a subject that is worthy of enquiry.

To read the first part of our interview with Tim, please click here.

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