Reflections from the Road: Oz Clarke Co-chairing the International Wine Challenge

Harleyford Road in Lambeth, South London, doesn’t seem much like the Primrose Path to Paradise.  It’s a drab, one-way stretch of greasy tarmac south of the Thames, thick with the grumbling of cars and buses unwillingly jammed together as they wait for the auto-unfriendly lights to change, spewing stale fuel fumes at those of us hurrying past on the pavement. With Vauxhall Tube Station at one end, and the gaunt concrete shell of The Oval cricket ground at the other, what’s Primrose and Promising about Harleyford Road?

Well, every April I co-chair the International Wine Challenge.  It’s one of the most intriguing, demanding, physically draining but emotionally uplifting things I do all year.  It’s held at The Oval – home of Surrey County Cricket Club.  I take the Tube to Vauxhall.  And as I stride up Harleyford Road towards The Oval I don’t notice the cars, the buses, the sullen trucks. My mind is buzzing with expectation. What will I taste today? What will I discover and learn?  Which wines will triumph?  Which wines will dismay?  How many medals will I award today.  Above all, how many golds will I unearth?

Everything is tasted blind.  I probably tackle a couple of hundred wines a day – of every sort – from Prestige Champagnes and Grand Cru Burgundies to Kazakhstan Rieslings, Colombian Cabernets and off-dry rosés from Derbyshire. They’re all there!!  And you can never be sure which ones will excel and which ones will disappoint.

Sure, it’s fun when you sink into the foaming folds of a luxury Champagne.  Predictable.  Delicious.  But not half as exciting as uncovering wines from grape varieties forgotten by time, wines from countries I can barely place on the map, wines with flavours and perfumes and textures which make me think – WOW – this world of wine!  Ever-changing. Ever-challenging. Always renewing itself.  Herald the new, succour the old, sometimes even fuse them together to create a wine experience no one’s ever had before.

That’s the International Wine Challenge.  I do this every year in April.   And it takes just 11 minutes from the platform at Vauxhall tube, along Harleyford Road, to the tasting table.