The Luxury Channel meets wine critic and author Lauren Johnson-Bell….
Tell us about your first steps into the wine industry….
It all happened by accident, as all the best things in life do! I had been visiting wineries and reading wine books whenever I could, but I did not ever contemplate it as a career option – I did not even really understand what sort of wine careers existed. I only knew that when I had my first bottle of Richebourg whilst dancing with friends at Castel’s one night. I was smitten. I called the publisher of a major French wine magazine, Vintage, and asked if I could do any work for them: photocopying, editing, coffee-making, anything! The publisher called me in, asked for my writing samples, and then invited me to a wine tasting in the Loire Valley the next week – to “test” my palate. I was petrified, but understood that it would be better to know right away if I lacked talent, than to waste years being mediocre at something and not realise it. The day came. He had brought in two other critics, whom I had worshipped for years. By the end of the day, they hired me as a writer and taster, and less than a year later, I became Editor, then Publisher.
When did you first realise there were big opportunities in wine?
When I started at Vintage. I was constantly travelling around Europe, meeting wine producers and spending time in the vineyards. It was then that I realised what a very special industry this is: full of passionate and educated characters.
What wines are popular in the East at the moment?
The French wines still seem to hold centre stage for them, especially the Bordeaux. The Eastern markets have moved from consuming the wines, to now owning the vineyards. There have been substantial purchases in Bordeaux and Burgundy lately.
What are about the British – what are we buying?
The British seem to be buying British, I am happy to report! With climate change, we are having more erratic weather, yes, but are also seeing more harvests achieve good maturation. The British consumer is probably the most spoilt for choice in the world – some truly traditional and well-made wines from nearly every wine-producing region find their way here.
Are there any emerging wine markets that we should be keeping an eye on?
Yes. Britain, for a start! Also, Northern Italy, northern Germany, Switzerland, Croatia and Slovenia are where I am keeping a close watch. “Emerging” is not the appropriate word; there are no “new” wine regions, really, but we have established regions that are “evolving.”
Is Rosé more popular than ever? Which ones should we buy?
Yes, it does seem to be rising in popularity, perhaps as a reaction to climate change and the fatigue of heavy wines. Rosé is the most versatile style and once people discover there are serious, solid wines in this category, they never look back. A rosé does not have to translate into a sickly sweet, syrupy, medicinal concoction. A properly made rosé has acidity, crispness, fruitiness and a moderate tannic structure. I love rosés from Bordeaux (Château de Sours, for example), or Bandol (Domaine Ott is a favourite) and the Spanish rosados issued from the Rioja grape, Tempranillo, are delicious.
Which vintages should we be buying and what would you look out for?
That depends on which country or region you are talking about and merits an entire book! Anyway, you need not be too concerned with vintages if you are not investing, or laying down wines for later drinking. Most whites and rosés are best drunk within a couple of years, and reds….well, there are those made for immediate consumption, and then mid-term to long-term cellaring.
How risky is a wine investment?
If you do not know what you are doing, it is a very risky minefield. Crucially also, with climate change, the wines we usually associate with investment, Bordeaux, are not going to cellar as long as they used to. They don’t have the balance to age as well as they used to. This may turn out to be a good thing for investors – they won’t have to wait decades for a return anymore. This is something I am analysing at the moment for my upcoming book, Climate Change And Wine.
Would you recommend investing in champagnes?
No. Or perhaps, only in the small, lesser- known domains not available in the UK. It is better to find a champagne you like, buy as much of it as you can at the best price that you can find, and then store it in your cellar for your own enjoyment.
We hear British sparkling wines are taking on the French champagnes – is that right?
Yes, our sparkling wines are doing very well. They are very over-priced, but in Southern England, there is the start of the Kimmeridgian Ridge, a basin of calcareous clay with limestone that stretches across the English Channel to the Loire, Champagne and Burgundy – all of the best vineyards are on this ridge. We just need more heat. So, yes, expect even greater things from English sparking wines!
What wine would you recommend we serve if we wanted to impress our guests?
Something you fell in love with on holiday. Be sure to accompany it with a local dish from the same region. I never serve “famous” wines. I prefer to serve my travel discoveries – a Pinot Nero from Alto Adige, a Nero di Troia from Puglia, or a Blauburgunder from Austria .
Most expensive bottle of wine you’ve tasted?
Ah, that takes me back to an afternoon with Aubert de Villain at La Domaine Romanée-Conti. He opened about ten vintages spanning three decades of his La Tâche, Richbourg and Romanée-Conte. But it was not the number of zeros that brought tears to my eyes, but the bestial magnificence and history of the wines. A day spent in Heaven!
What is your favourite wine?
I could not possibly name only one! It depends on where I am, with whom, the occasion, the meal, the mood….Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, but more and more from Alto Adige, as Burgundy heats up. I love the Nebbiolo grape (Barolo), and Amarone from the Veneto.
What is your favourite luxury?
Unpacking my suitcase, and getting into a nice hot bath with a nice cup of tea, brought to me by my nice husband!