When John Downes ripped open the letter telling him he’d become a Master of Wine, the world’s highest wine qualification, he ran down the garden in his pyjamas, punching the air with joy – not realising the milkman and neighbours were watching. From that moment John has been on a mission: to make wine simple.
John’s first degree was in Engineering but his Dutch father in-law changed all that. When John laid eyes on his well-stocked wine cellar, the sight of the racks, bottles and labels had him hooked. ‘When he saw that I had an interest he took me under his wing and across the border into Germany,’ recalls John. ‘Hot sun, beautiful vineyards and drinking the wines with the winemakers in amazing cellars – I remember thinking, “I’d like a bit of this!”’ He began studying for the Wine Trade examinations, culminating in the Master of Wine examination in 1994, a lengthy process including the submission of a 10,000-word original dissertation. Only then are you eligible to join the Institute and use the title Master of Wine – an accolade held by just 298 members worldwide.
We’ve all encountered so-called oenophiles who love to show off their knowledge, and with such a pedigree you might expect this of John, but he is refreshingly pretence-free. He acknowledges that ‘The wine game’s full of people who love to posture, sniff and slurp,’ and remembers when he first took an interest in wine, ‘words like acidity and tannin were banded around and everybody would nod knowingly. I hadn’t a clue what they meant and was too frightened to ask but I soon realised that all the nodders didn’t have a clue either.’ John aims to cut through the pompousness and believes that, ‘by stripping away the mystery, in 45 minutes you can learn a heck of a lot, often to the annoyance of some in the wine trade!’
As well as tailoring events all over the world, John runs wine courses at the Gordon Ramsay owned Tante Marie Culinary Academy in Surrey. He loves to match wine with food, ‘but I don’t cook and never get the urge to get my apron on.’
John’s down-to-earth, engaging style has led to numerous television appearances. One memorable occasion was on GMTV with Lorraine Kelly, who planned to spit out the wine live on TV but couldn’t bring herself to do it. ‘There’s something about spitting out wine, especially for women, that you have to get used to!’ adds John. Countryfile’s Matt Baker thoroughly enjoyed comparing Champagne with the sparkling wine produced by an English vineyard, but fellow presenter Julia Bradbury was pregnant and had to abstain while Matt and John became more vocal as the tasting progressed. ‘We did promise to put some on ice for her though.’
Regarding current wine trends, John reports that white wine is still the nation’s favourite, accounting for about 44% of sales of still wine, but the popularity of rosé is growing fast, having risen by about 100% in the past five years. Whilst consumption of red wine has decreased, sparkling wine of all kinds is becoming increasingly popular and consumption is set to rise by more than 10% over the next four years. For summer drinking, this is John’s recommendation: ‘I think cracking open a bottle of bubbly in the sun takes some beating. Try an English sparkling wine – they’re now beating Champagne in international competitions.’ The credit crunch has affected drinking habits but ‘I’m happy to say that there’s a trend to pay more for a bottle.’
John doesn’t refer to favourite wines, but ‘deathbed wines’. ‘Big decision – if you had one last glass on your deathbed what would it be?’ he asks. After much deliberation, he concludes: ‘Mine would be a white Burgundy, probably a Puligny-Montrachet from a top winemaker… but, that said, I may change my mind at the last gasp and go for a red Burgundy, a Chambolle-Musigny.’ Proof that wine really is a matter of life and death for this charismatic wine expert.
THE ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JUNE/JULY EDITION OF BLUE SKIES, BLUE ISLANDS’ INFLIGHT MAGAZINE..