FoodStuff: Top Gear's top wine

By John Lethlean
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John Lethlean, culinary critic

John Lethlean, culinary critic

Once upon a time, little boys dreamed of growing up to become firemen or pilots or guitarists or - if their parents had anything to do with the dreamtime - fund managers and entrepreneurial plumbers.

Nowadays, every little boy grows up wanting to be one of the blokes from Top Gear. Forgive me if I’m projecting just a little here; it’s my way of saying that - dammit - I want to be the bloke from Top Gear. And I don’t really care which one:
tall blustery Clarkson; short witty Hammond or scruffy, contemplative man-in-the- middle May, it really doesn’t matter.

Bear with me; this is going somewhere food-related.

Australia - car buffs and the completely disinterested alike - has gone collectively nuts for Top Gear and I’ve gone nuts with it. I don’t know many men who don’t watch the show and ask themselves: do they really get paid to make television that is so much fun? I don’t know many women who, once dragged kicking and screaming to the media centre (nee the television room), don’t mutter something to the effect “that was rather fun…. For a car show.”

Me, I grew up in the country; my dad had a taste for odd motors; the die was cast. Ever since putting a straight-out exhaust pipe on the lawn mower (fashioned from the handlebar of a Dragster bicycle) I’ve worshipped things built around the old, tired but still-with-us internal combustion engine.

A petrol head.

Top Gear – a show where grown men get to have outrageous fun in odd and exotic cars while making themselves a preposterous pay packet - is my idea of lobster and chablis on telly. It’s the white truffle omelette of TV shows.

But I now know which one I really want to be, and its scruffy, mopey, gentle man of the people James May. Because not only does May get to do Top Gear; he has also done another thing I’d really, really love to do, if I could, and that’s travel round France in a convertible Jaguar with wine expert Oz Clarke making a telly show, and another preposterous wad of money (no doubt) about France and wine.

Could it get any better?

For those of us silly enough to be forking out for subscriber television (Lifestyle Food, to be precise) this is Champagne television. Almost literally. Because while I can identify with the begrudgingly erudite scruff and seeming eternally undergraduate May, I can identify with the wine ponce Clarke too. Unlike May, he’s a man who gets excited about how oysters are grown and the soil a vine sprouts from and the people who turn grapes into wine, which is a completely legitimate passion. Like cars.

I just watched four episodes of Oz & James’ Big Wine Adventure straight, and haven’t stopped smiling. Of course, it helps if you have an incurable dream of sipping local wine at midday with your feet up in the village square of some remote Provencale village while pretending to read Le Monde on a sunny day with a baguette and pate de campagne close at hand, your missus off somewhere buying soap that smells of lavender.

But I reckon James and Oz could make a witty show about turnip production in the greyest backblocks of Uzbekistan.

It’s a familiar construct, of course: ponce and scruff, poet and philistine - a vinous odd couple - lumped together for a road trip around that most easily ridiculed of subjects, wine. May blows a fox whistle every time he thinks Clarke is talking wine nonsense, and declares something to be “a wine fact” when the information veers from the road of subjectivity and the intangible back on to the path of nuts and bolts.

In wine tasting terms, we have here the classic pairing of the spitter (one who sniffs, swirls, swishes and expels the wine following olfactory enlightenment) and the swallower, an act that needs little explanation. James May is a particularly enthusiastic swallower.

And it’s this classic low-volume larrikinism - this shaggy-haired lance of pretence - that appeals to so many Aussies.

Clarke in a Rhone Valley tasting room, visibly annoyed: “James I’m actually getting a little irritated about the fact that I can’t take you to a wine tasting without hoovering the stuff down as if it’s a wretched public bar.”

May, girded by several glasses of wine in rapid succession: “You drink wine and you drink beer so you can talk balls to your friends. That’s what it’s for.”

Throw in the whole English/French/Franglaise/Rosbif/chips/pommes frites/lager/Laffite axis and you have television manna.

Making his dish “Spam avec le beans” for a Languedoc winemaker, May becomes quite possibly the only person in history to suggest similarities between the pan fried tinned meat product and foie gras.

“The edge is crisp but the centre is soft like a foie gras,” he manages to say in a kind of droll, Steven Fry-like manner and with a completely straight face. At another point, taking the Mickey out of his travelling companion, he declares a particular wine “goes very well with itself.”

I’m itching to see the balance of the shows. Because ultimately, it’s the similarities between these seemingly poles-apart odd bedfellows that are more interesting than their differences.

So far, Clarke comes across as a man passionately in touch with the tactile senses, a true food and wine lover who wants to follow the end product all the way back to the soil and the culture responsible for it.

And at the end of the day, sober or drunk, wine-ignorant or more informed than he’d prefer to let on, James May comes over as both charming and funny. And we’d all like to be that when we grow up, wouldn’t we?





The companion book to Oz & James Big Wine Adventure is available at a 12.5% discount to Members and subscribers through our online book partner, Seekbooks.


From a collection of John’s food writing 2005-2008.

Follow John Lethlean and Necia Wilden on Twitter as they eat and drink their way around Australia


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May 26th, 2009
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