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Get to know Tim Atkin, Master of Wine and one of the world’s great wine experts

24/01/2023 Interviews

Master of Wine, journalist, photographer, critic and judge, Tim Atkin is one of the best known people on the international wine scene. Through the consistency of his reports, for capturing the essence of landscapes and their key people and for knowing how to convey the messages of the different wineries, his famous “Atkin Reports” are the most anticipated and trusted worldwide. So, him taking some of his precious time to answer our questions is a very good opportunity for us to learn more about him. An opportunity we couldn’t miss...

- Born in 1961 in Dartford (England), Mick Jagger’s hometown, surely artistic performances and live music events are more popular there than wine, so how did you get into the world of wine? Was there someone in your family who ignited this passion in you? Do you remember your first experience with wine?
I’d love to say that I grew up drinking Burgundy Grands Crus, but I didn’t. My parents drank wine, but it was mostly pretty commercial stuff like Mateus Rosé and Blue Nun. When I turned 18 (probably before, to be honest), I drank beer, not wine, because where I grew up in Kent is famous for its hops and I used to enjoy going to pubs. I didn’t really get interested in wine until I went to live in France in 1982, and even then it was more a case of drinking it than reading about it.

- Is a Master of Wine born or made? Did you always know you wanted to spend your life working in wine? If not, what led you to choose this work and become a world-class expert?
Definitely made. I think we gravitate towards things that we are naturally good at – tasting and writing in my case – but no one becomes a Master of Wine without a lot of hard work. I always wanted to be a journalist, like my dad, but I thought I’d end up writing about sport or politics. I got a lucky break when someone offered me a job on a magazine called Wine & Spirit. So, wine kind of chose me, rather than the other way around.

- “Master of Wine” (MW) is a British qualification that is currently open to any wine expert, but only a few manage to pass its tough tests. What was the most difficult part for you and how did you manage to succeed in it?
The hardest bit for me was the chemistry. I studied the arts at school and university, so I had to put in a lot of work to sound convincing about the way wine is made. I forgot most of the stuff about inert gases and things like that on the way out of the exam room. Bits of the MW were fun, to be honest, especially the blind tasting, which is the kind of challenge that I like.

- With more than 30 years of experience, you now write for important and very prestigious international publications, and you produce detailed annual reports from different Denominations of Origin. What is it that makes you want to write about a particular place?
I have to like the wines, obviously, but it’s more than that. They are mostly beautiful places where I like the people too. And there’s interesting stuff going on in terms or politics, history and economics. I also like to write about places where I think I can make a difference, so that my work can effect a degree of change. We all like to be listened to. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant!

- As well as being a renowned journalist and one of the most important wine critics in the world, you have another great passion: photography. You’re obviously very good at it and this is clear to see in all of your reports. Nowadays, photography has become an essential part of your work. How does it help you to analyse a wine region?
It means I’m always looking around me, rather than just thinking about the next bottle of wine. I also really enjoy taking photos of people – getting them to relax in your company so that you can capture something of their personality in a photograph. Understanding a person brings you closer to the wines they make.

- In your reports, as well as a thorough analysis of an area’s particular characteristics (terroir, climate, vineyard, etc.), you visit lots of wineries and taste their wines. How do you manage to taste more than 1,000 wines in a very short time and still be able to analyse and rate them?
Stamina! Seriously, I try to stay fit, get plenty of sleep and make sure that I don’t get dehydrated. I’m used to tasting lots of wines and it’s a skill that you develop over time, like any other. It’s mostly practice, practice, practice.

- Considering that your scores have a significant influence on consumers, collectors and investors when they’re deciding which wine to buy or invest in, being objective must be very important but also very difficult. How do you manage to stay impartial when you’re rating wines? Do you use any particular methods or systems?
I use the 100-point system, not because I like it, but because it’s the gold standard for critics. I always strive to be honest with people, even if they are producers who are also my friends, and I hope they respect that. I tell people that it’s only my opinion, but if they see that you work hard and are polite, on-time and professional, I hope that they will treat me as I try to treat everyone else.

- Since you are completely dedicated to visiting wine regions around the world and getting to know their landscapes, their wines and their people, is there one that has particularly captivated you, and where you’ve discovered a diamond in the rough?
And while we’re at it, do you think there are any wine regions that are about to give us a big surprise or that are worth keeping an eye on? I like all the regions and countries I write about. The ones with the most untapped potential are mostly in Spain. Rías Baixas is one (especially for reds), but so is Rioja. It’s funny that Rioja is so famous but is only recently beginning to believe in itself as a fine wine region after all this time. In Argentina, Patagonia is really exciting. And so is Itata in Chile. I also think that South Africa as a whole doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

- Global warming is a problem. More and more harvests are being brought forward as the industry looks to combat climate change. Do you think you’ve started to notice its effects on some varieties and/or wines? How can we tackle this significant challenge?
Yes, almost everywhere. We all have to think about our carbon footprint, and I say this as someone who flies to wine regions overseas. There are some regions that are benefitting from climate change, especially if they were once marginal, but for most of them, especially many of the “classic” regions, it’s a real challenge. There are things that producers can do – using less water, planting grapes that cope better with heat and drought, establishing vineyards in cooler sites – but I don’t think the wine world is dealing with global warming and climate change as urgently as it should do.

- Another major challenge facing the wine world is attracting the younger generations. For years, young people have turned their backs on wine and have thought of it as a drink that doesn’t suit them, that it’s for older people. Do you think this perception is changing? If not, how do you think we can capture their attention?
It’s not easy, especially in wine-producing countries like Spain. I think younger people want to engage with people and stories, as well as wines with a sense of place. Fun labels help, too. But the most important thing is not to talk down to them.

- Wine with no additives and made sustainably has always been around. But it’s becoming more and more fashionable. So, what’s the secret to its success? Do you think it’s because of this reputation that, unlike many, they will stick to certifications and labelling that guarantee their natural winemaking?
I’m the worst person to ask, as I don’t drink many natural wines, partly because I find the term a little misleading. I prefer the term “low intervention”. Some people, I think, like the slightly rebellious side to these wines, the sense that they are moving beyond what is traditional. But in some wines, they are a return to the past, when wine was less stable, more ‘funky’, if you like. I definitely think that there needs to be a more precise definition of natural wines. Sustainability is more important as far as I’m concerned because is affects the way wine is grown, made AND sold.

- Renowned Masters of Wine have taken the opportunity to make their own wines, like Fernando Mora, a renowned Spanish Master of Wine who makes wines in Aragón. Have you ever thought about making your own wine? If so, do you have a favourite area where you would set yourself up?
I think I’ll leave that to the professionals! Seriously, I have enough on my plate writing about and tasting wine. But I did once, when I was a bit drunk, talk with my friend the Master Sommelier, Isa Bal, about making a red wine from Saperavi in Georgia. Never say never!

- Thanks to your work, I’m sure you have had the opportunity to meet many important people, whether they’re part of the world of wine or not. If you had the opportunity, who would you choose to share a bottle of wine with and which wine or sparkling wine would you open and why?
I have indeed met a lot of great and sometimes famous people through wine. The person I would like to have met – and never did – was Nelson Mandela. I think it would have been nice to share a bottle of Swartland Chenin Blanc with him.

- We already know that photography is your other great passion, but do you have any other hobbies that you like just as much? Is it something that goes quite well with the world of wine or something that has nothing to do with it?
I love reading, I go to the gym, I run, I play golf and I listen to music. I also love singing and dancing. But my greatest pleasure is eating and drinking with my friends and family. My dad is 91 now and every bottle I share with him is precious.

- Finally, with all the wines you have tasted in your life, could you tell us about one that surprised you so much that it made you cry?
I don’t cry easily, but really great wines inspire awe and introspection. I haven’t had just one great bottle – there have been lots of them – but the one that still inspires special memories was the 1964 Vega Sicilia Único.

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