HOTEL owner and Master of Wine John Hoskins has an air of your favourite English teacher about him. Which is funny because that’s what he could have been had life (or to be more precise, his Uncle) not intervened by sending the then English student a crate of wine, unleashing a lifelong passion in the subject. As one of only 350 Masters of Wine worldwide, John decided to add a wine shop to his boutique hotel three years ago.
Danni Smith went to meet the enthusiastic wine aficionado at the Old Bridge Hotel in Huntingdon which John co-owns with wife, Julia, to talk about everything from what makes a good wine to price and value.
So, John, what’s wine tasting all about?
Three things. Colour, nose (aroma) and palate.
I remember my first taste of wine. I didn’t like it very much. Do you remember yours? I don’t have a strong memory of my first taste of wine because my father was in the pub restaurant business so we always had wine at home. We were like a French family. I never thought of booze as something you go and get drunk on.
What is it about wine that you love so much? Wine, like only a few other things in life, represents a kind of civilisation. What I mean by that is that obviously many of us get huge pleasure just from drinking wine but the key thing about wine, as opposed to other pleasurable alcoholic drinks, is how you can trace a wine back to its origin and producer. So every wine is a reflection of both the place and the people behind it.
Is it right you were planning to become an English teacher before you ‘fell’ into wine?
I studied English at Kings College in London. My uncle asked me up to the George Hotel in Stamford and gave me a case of wine telling me I could have it on the condition I gave him a report on every one and in researching each one, I got hooked.
You qualified as a Master of Wine in 1994, winning the Bollinger Award for best wine taster of the year and you now oversee the exams. What exactly does it mean to be a Master of Wine?
The idea behind the exams is it gives everyone a good knowledge of international wines, not just those from your own country. There are 3 parts to the exams - ‘theory’, tastings and a dissertation. Tastings involve three mornings of 12 blind wine tastings. The overall pass rate from start to finish is around 15% and it has taken people anywhere from 2 to
17 years to pass.
Can anyone be ‘good’ at wine?
To become really good at wine you do need to take a pretty academic approach. You have to learn all the geography, science, wine making, history and you have to be able to remember it all and write it all down. For 20 years I kept a note on every wine I ever tasted.
Can the wine industry be quite snobby?
One of the things I have learnt from running the shop is that when people walk in you can never tell from what they look like, or how they are dressed, what they will spend, so if you are snobby about it you could be tripping yourself up. I completely accept that
when you come in the building, because of the nature of the building and having a wine shop with rows and rows of wine, many of which are high priced, that it is inevitably intimidating for people. We try and counteract that by making it clear everybody is welcome and there’s no obligation to buy. And that there’s no looking down on people who spend £6.95 on a bottle of wine.
What do you do differently?
We have 24 wines available to taste all day, every day. Reading about wine is fine but it is
only when you taste it that it becomes interesting.
Is expensive ‘better’?
I don’t think wine ever needs to be more than £70 or £80 a bottle. If it is, it’s down to factors of the market place - rarity, fashion, supply and demand. We do sell some wines that are more expensive than that because some of them are amazing wines. But most are between £6.95 and £50.
What makes wine ‘good’?
A really good wine is an interesting wine. It’s a wine that makes you want to taste it again because you feel each new taste might reveal something else. Good wine is about place, viticulture, wine making and maturation.
What three adjectives do you use the most?
If it’s good then intense, complex or balanced. If it’s not then neutral, heavy or short.
What about gorgeous?
I would use words like gorgeous and amazing but not a lot. I might say fabulous or delicious. But although I am very happy to use words like that I don’t tend
to over gush about wine or people think you are being a bit over the top.