Q&A With Tim Atkin

It’s two years since the last Top 100 competition.  Have there been any notable changes in Occitanie winemaking that stand out for you?

This year’s tasting was conducted in the shadow of the April frosts, which were some of the worst that (parts of) the region has experienced in the last 50 years. So I think there will be less 2021 to go round, alas. On a more positive note, I think we are seeing more and more focus on place (terroir if you like), an acknowledgement that old vines are a trump card for the region and better and better blends, both red and white.

Will wines from Occitanie, the Sud-Ouest, ride out the recent challenges and continue to grow in popularity?

I certainly hope so. Occitanie has three big advantages in my view: diversity of style (there really is something for everyone in the biggest wine region in the world), impressive quality at the top end and value for money. You don’t need to spend a fortune to enjoy the very best and I think consumers appreciate that.

The reputation of Occitanie has been solid for offering expressive wines with diversity, personality and good value for money. What next?

Greater appreciation of the top end would help. I don’t really like the term “icon” wines – is that one word or two, a friend of mine once joked – but I think the region needs a few more wines that are internationally appreciated as being among the very best wines of France. Demand helps create more demand. There’s nothing wrong with being regarded as a value for money region, but Occitanie needs more than that to move to the next stage. Marketing is also part of it, which is where the Top 100 can play an important role.

Are there new initiatives in sustainability within the region, and how are they affecting the winemaking?

We’ve just crunched the numbers for this year’s Top 100 and I’m delighted that wines with a “green” focus did really well: organic (17%), biodynamic (3%), sustainable/HVE (20%) and Lutte Raisonnée/Terra Vitis (65). HVE (High Environmental Value) and Terra Vitis are increasingly important movements in Occitanie and our tasting confirmed that. The region could develop a reputation for sustainability, which is something that is increasingly important to many consumers. Old vines that stand up to the heat and having a climate that is generally dry and low in disease pressure are important factors, but so is the attitude of the producers.

With less opportunity for merchants, sommeliers, buyers and consumers to travel to Occitanie recently, and for producers to visit the UK, how important is the role of the Top 100?

I’m obviously biased, as I’m the chairman of the competition, but I’d say more vital than ever! It was great to receive such a strong entry and it was noticeable that all of our judges were very keen to be part of the Top 100. There’s obviously no substitute for tasting in the region, but it covers a very big area, so it’s hard to see everything anyway. As for producers, I think it’s important that they know their wines are still welcome and appreciated in the UK.

What are the judges looking for when selecting individual wines – and also for the Top 100 as a whole?

It seems obvious, but the answer is the best wines. We don’t deliberately set out to curate a collection that is representative of the region, but it usually works out that way. This year, the split was 52% red, 36% rosé, 52% red and 1% amber in terms of colour, 95% still, 2% sparkling and 3% sweet and split 72%/28% between AOCs and IGPs. All of the regions – Rhône, Languedoc, Roussillon, Sud-Ouest and Pays d’Oc – were represented too. So I’m very happy with the final list.

What are your recommendations to the trade when reviewing and refreshing selections of Occitanie wines on their lists this year?

Enjoy the diversity! And the value for money that the region offers. Occitanie is like a whole country to itself in a way. There are so many styles of wine and grape varieties to consider. I also think that, in its long history, the region has never made better wines.

How did the shift to drinking at home during 2020 influence how consumers are drinking now? 

I think it may be too early to say. We need to come out of the other side of the pandemic before we can say what the longer-term effects will be. But in 2020, it was clear that the on-trade suffered, while the off-trade (especially the supermarkets, but also mail order companies) did well. The next year or two will give us a better idea of how much people will change the way they buy and drink wine.

Over the nine years of the competition, what have you personally enjoyed about the judging day?

The camaraderie and the teamwork. Having spent the last year at home tasting on my own, I’d forgotten how much I enjoy discussing wines with other people and being part of a passionate, knowledgeable group who all want to select the best wines from Occitanie and put them in front of consumers and the trade.