There is history in a glass of wine. During the twilight years of Franco’s rule, Sarah Jane Evans lived in Spain for four months working as an au pair near El Escorial. She was just 18 years old and Spain captivated her. She immersed herself in its culture and travelled extensively during her days off. This memory of a different time had a lasting influence on her. When she tastes wine, she remembers not only the history of the wine’s origin but also the culture and the place it came from.
Funnily enough, at Cambridge University where she studied social and political sciences, it was a tradition to have a glass of sherry while reading out your essays to your tutor. It is not surprising then that both Spain and sherry hold a special place in her heart.
Sarah Jane is based in the United Kingdom and is an accomplished writer and journalist. Her books on Spain include Seville and The Wines of Northern Spain. Another, The Wines of Central and Southern Spain is underway. She was an Associate Editor of the BBC’s ‘Good Food’ Magazine, is currently Co-Chairman of Decanter World Wine Awards, as well as Chairman of the Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino (Knights or Gentlemen of the Grand Order of Wines).
Evans wants people to enjoy wine and understand it on their own terms. ‘Everyone tastes differently; drink what makes you happy,’ she says.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q. Whilst doing what you love for work, can you share both the challenges and the joys that you encountered?
Surprisingly, one of the most challenging things you can do is to ask a Master of Wine to open an old bottle of wine — as once happened to me. MWs do not have the same training as a Master Sommelier so practical wine service is not part of our curriculum. We would not think to carry a sieve and a two-prong cork puller with us.
I take my responsibility for the Decanter World Wine Awards very seriously. Judges can taste up to 100 wines blind a day, so we work hard with them to categorize the wines impartially, to make sure they are tasted fairly. We are conscious that the medals awarded can have a significant effect on a winemaker’s livelihood.
Having said that, one of my greatest joys is to discover an exceptional wine during a blind tasting. Completing that circle of researching the wine, travelling to the vineyard, talking to the winemaker, communicating to consumers, finding out what makes it so good, is all part of the excitement. Personally, I take great pleasure in articulating my thoughts and feelings about wine in writing. My impressions take form when I put words down on paper. I prefer not to judge with just a number.
Health is important to keep in mind. The quantity of wines we taste, especially during peak season, can take a toll not only on your liver but also on your teeth. I don’t come home after tasting 80 or 100 wines at work and drink again at dinner. I make sure to go for regular medical check-ups. It is also tiring on your palate. I am sensitive about what I put in my mouth.
On a different note, there are the typical female things most women take for granted. I do not use nail varnish, lipstick or perfume as they detract from the wine. It is a tough choice on occasions where you wish to present a more stylish image.
Q. Which wine or type of wine has made you happiest? Can you tell us about this experience?
Sherry makes me happy. When you put your nose to a glass of sherry, no matter the style, it is so distinctive that it could not come from anywhere else in the world. In the mouth, it has an extraordinary intensity, and the taste lingers for a long time.
When I first went to Spain during the rule of Franco, I was at a receptive age. It was a difficult time, but I liked the people and their culture. I do not remember Spanish wines during that time, but I have gone back regularly over the years for both work and holidays and I am astounded at the changes and growth that have taken place since then. It is an exciting place.
Sherry is often offered in Spain. It brings good memories and reminds me of where it comes from. I can imagine the sea breeze, sunshine, jacaranda trees, salted almonds, the long days. It is convivial, the people are warm and sociable. You spend your days outdoors, eating, drinking, and talking to people. For someone like me who comes from a cold, rainy climate in the north where people are more reserved, it is refreshing.
You are tasting history when you taste sherry. It reflects the politics and culture of its origin; it can go back a long way. It is a unique combination of the land and tradition. For example, the Solera System, which is the method used to age sherry, was developed in Southern Spain some 300 years ago.
Q. If you were to drink this wine again, which 5 people would you share it with and why?
This is a tough question because I recognise that it is not a drink most people immediately fall in love with. Even if I would love to share it, I would never force it on anyone.
I would share this pleasure with those whom I know appreciate and enjoy sherry.
I am one of a group of friends who receive shipments of sherry from a wine bar in Sanlucar. I would drink it with them, as well as the owner of this wine bar who sends them to us. I would also be comfortable drinking it with some of the group in the Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino.
Perhaps I would impose it on MW students at a tasting, because I think they have an open mind, and it would be a good learning opportunity for them.