As his nickname, Jolly, Olly might suggest, life is good right now for Lewes-based wine buff Olly Smith. Andy Greeves talks to the presenter about career, his home county of Sussex and a festive fermenting schedule that should make Christmas 2013 the best yet for lovers of a tipple (or two).
Viewers of BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen show will recognise 39-year-old Olly Smith as the well-spoken chap in colourful blazers. You know him – the guy who can be seen hunting around the shelves of supermarkets up and down the country looking for the best wines. Olly’s joie de vivre is infectious and he is absolutely in his element when pointing out the positives of a Pinot Noir, or talking up a Tempranillo.
But away from the TV screens this is a man who prefers the more serene things in life. He’s a resident of Lewes, after all, and his time in front of the lens couldn’t be any further separated from what seems a perfect home setting.
And while Olly’s been involved in the fast-paced nature of television from an early point in his career, specialising in wine was, for many years, something of a pipe dream.
“I started out writing for children’s film and television and did some work for Wallace and Gromit, Charlie and Lola and Pingu,” smiles Olly. “It couldn’t honestly have been any further removed from this, but what I will say is it was fantastic to get involved in something so exciting, so fast-moving.
Olly’s infectious passion for his subject meant he didn’t have to wait long for that opportunity to arrive, and he jumped at the opportunity to join a number of his contemporaries on shows such as The Secret Supper Club and Iron Chef UK.
“I’m never happier than when talking about wine, and I count myself very lucky with some of the opportunities I’ve been given,” he admits. “I guess the biggest of those right now in terms of something regular is my work as Wine Editor in The Mail on Sunday’s EVENTmagazine. It’s a weekly wine column that reaches 5.3million readers, so with that comes a fair amount of pressure!”
Smith is currently raving about the quality of wines from the Balkans, describing them as his “discoveries of 2013.”
“Wines from countries like Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and even Greece offer tremendous taste and value,” he claims. “I’d single out Marks & Spencer for leading the charge on this. Romania especially has some remarkable wines and I’d point out the Pinot Noir 2012 from Dealu Mare – which is £6.99 at Waitrose – as being especially good. It’s light-bodied with a svelte finesse, coming from the lime-rich Carpathian hills.”
Olly is just as enthusiastic about his home county of Sussex. “An ideal weekend in Sussex would involve me driving over to Eastbourne on a Saturday to pay a visit to the fishmongers on the seafront – Perrywinkles, it’s on the Lower Promenade. It’s a fantastic place for really fresh fish – great value and amazing quality,” he says. “And the guys there really know their stuff, which is vital to ensuring fish is cooked in the way it should be, and with the right accompaniments.
“I’d then grab some fresh vegetables, head back, wait until lunch, then pop the cork of an English sparkling white and sit out in the garden, or perhaps kick back inside if it’s raining. I could then enjoy my collection of local bounty and make a lovely meal!”
Olly is familiar face in Lewes, where he has lived for a number of years now. Indeed back in 2011, he presented Channel 4s The Secret Supper Club from the market town, with the show’s blueprint to showcase stunning locations around the country, each hosting one-off dining events.
“Lewes has a very good food and drink scene, and in such a lovely landscape,” he purrs. “I think people really identify it with Harvey’s, but it’s actually got a lot more to it than the brewery. For example, if you’re after the ultimate Scotch egg, then you have to check out The Snowdrop, at 119 South Street. The eggs there are absolutely out of this world.
“Lewes also has some spectacular walks in and around the town. And now the festive period is upon us, there is a new magic and a sense of real celebration around the place. I love going for a nice stroll around the town’s quaint streets – you feel it was like that 100 years ago and nothing much has changed.
“Of course, a pint of Harvey’s would have to come into it at some point, so a trip to The Swan (30a Southover High Street) is important. It’s a great pub too, as it allows punters to flick through some great vinyl records from seasons past. And if you’re looking for somewhere for a nice stroll afterwards, then head over to the Jolly Sports Man at East Chiltington, on Chapel Lane.
“Lewes has a real identity of its own and the people of the town have expressed so much of that independent spirit by setting up a host of fantastic boutiques. It’s a beautiful town, but it’s the people that make it. And I have to mention Harvey’s again. They are a tremendous local brewer and a pint of their Best Bitter is just a bit of heaven for me!”
And what to drink this Christmas?
“Well, I’ve been raving about the Cuvee Chasseur Vin de France for a long time – it’s a fantastic festive wine… well, it’s a fantastic wine, full stop. It’s mellow, soft, and washes over the palate.
“At the other end of the price scale, I’d recommended this year a Pinot Noir from the West Coast of America – something like the Morgan Twelve Clones Pinot Noir from Waitrose, which will come in at around £25.”
Failing that, Olly has launched his own Christmas Case in the run-up to the festive season. The collection features 12 bottles of wine… everything from a Sauvignon Blanc for seafood, to a sweet sparkling wine to go with the turkey, and a red that’s perfect to be made into a mulled wine.
“I think we can all be a bit afraid of wine – I mean, you head into Threshers and the choice is just mind-boggling. It’s not like any bottle really gives too many clues as to what’s inside – you can’t just open it and have a taste! But we do want is to welcome more people into a love of wine, and it’s for us in the industry to keep introducing as many people as possible to wine,” he adds. “There are small things we can do – so I’ve produced a handy guide to go with my collection. It helps people learn more about what they are drinking. And if any Absolute Brighton reader anyone wants any wine tips in the run-up Christmas, do get in touch via my Twitter account, which is @jollyolly. I’ll do my best to respond to all tweets.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
To find out more about Olly Smith, or to shop for his products online, visit www.ollysmith.com. And Absolute Brighton readers are invited to Tweet their wine questions direct to Olly at @jollyolly.