In late April James Suckling visited Korea for the first time. He came here to host a dinner for Casanova di Neri, a producer of Brunello di Montalcino, which was part of a larger series of events by Quintessentially Korea and Gallery 21. I asked James a few questions about his approach to wine, scoring and wine writer ethics.
We started by talking about why James was here. James explains the organisers wanted to do an Italian wine event and why he choose to highlight Brunello di Montalcino. “The wine to really start with for Italy for people who don’t know high quality Italian wines is Brunello. When you think about France, what France has done really well is they’ve promoted Bordeaux first. And I think that’s what Italy should do. I think in the past, so far in Asia, the Italians have come in and done tastings and they’ve bought all these appellations and there has been no order or thought behind it. So my idea was, let’s do Brunello. In France you need to know Bordeaux, in Italy, Brunello. Just start there, then other Italian wines.”
I asked James if that was focusing too much on the high end. In Korea a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino costs 180,000 won ($168 USD) in a wine shop or 300,000 won ($265) in a restaurant. He responded by saying “People need icons. I think Brunello is that icon. Now compared to first growth Bordeaux that still sounds cheap. People know Lafite, Margaux but they don’t know Brunello.” He goes on to say that consumers can then move to Rosso di Montalcino and explore other regions like Chianti, but it’s good to have those icons as a reference point.
For James the 2006 and 2007 vintages stand out as producing some of the best wines from Montalcino, although he admits there are more inconsistencies with the 2007s with acidity and alcohol too high in some wines.
When I asked James about his scoring he explains how he has changed the way he delivers scores. James became famous (or infamous depending on your take) for announcing scores as he tasted wines in front of producers. He explains that he did this in this early videos but has since stopped this practice. “It was ok for a while, some people liked it. But saying “I’m a 100 on that!” was a little over the top.” He explains “I have really moved away from that. It was supposed to be entertaining.”
Given the contraversy of the relationship between wine writers and wine producers in the media recently, I asked James: “How do you balance writing and the ethics of writing with making a living as a journalist?
“I think you always try to remain independent. I think the important thing is you have to be unbiased in your rating. I think blind tasting is important as you’re not influenced by people. I think when the person drinks the wine, the rating has to be believable.”
I talked to James about the scandal over him allegedly recieving payments from SAQ, a company owned by government of Quebec, to taste wines and produce tasting notes for his website. This issue was brought up by Quebec newspaper, La Presse and wine blogger Tyler Coleman (aka. Dr Vino). James told me what was reported by the newspaper and blogger was “completely false” and that he was considering legal action. As it turns out, SAQ has now clarified that James was not paid to taste or rate wines but was paid to produce videos. The newspaper has subsequently published a clarification. [Decanter April 24th]
So, what qualities does James Suckling look for in a wine? He explains, “Now I really look for drinkability. I think the big movement now is drinkability in wines. I think we’re all looking for that, particulary the younger generation…Years ago alot of people looked for power, strength, concentration, intensity; thinking that would be a great wine down the line. Now it’s balance, harmony. Wines that can be drunk young but also improve with age.”
When asked what wine regions excited him and which regions show the most potiential, James talked alot about Australia.
“Yarra Valley in Australia. Young winemakers are making balanced wines that really speak with terrior character. They use Europe as a reference point. Then California, Central coast. Italy, Etna, off the charts. Amazing, like burgundy with this insane volcanic character. Bordeaux, alot of lesser known appellations like Castillon – Côtes de Bordeaux , Côte de Blaye , even Bordeaux Superior, there are some excellent winemakers. I think you’re seeing great improvements in winemaking and viticulture in those areas.”
I asked James to describe his palate since critics palate preferences have been known to influence wine scores.
“It gets on my nerves because alot of people say I like big jammy wines and I’m not interested in regional styles. That’s just not true. I look for balance and harmony. I look for drinkability. I look for wines with polish and finesse. And probably the most important thing is length. Length is so important for a great wine, it’s still there, still there.”
I’m agree with James on this point. A wine should definitely be balanced and a long finish is an indicator of quality. Wine is also about delivering pleasure: be it a 180,000won bottle of Brunello di Montalcino or a 18,000 won Chianti Classico.
By Joshua Hall