Do you wander around the wine aisle at supermarkets feeling bemused and utterly confused? Many of us secretly long to wax lyrical about wine, but don’t know where to start. We sent our thirsty reviewer James Wormald along to a wine tasting course run by King’s College London to test his knowledge...
I was eager to start the introductory wine tasting course at King’s College London and this surprised me, as I’m not usually a big advocate of the alcoholic beverage, with my experience of wine limited to the off glass offered at a party. I’m more of a cider man, really. Nevertheless, I was interested to learn about what makes wine taste like it does, to know which specific regions I preferred and generally to see what all the fuss is about. Little did I know, my ears, then mouth, and finally my mind would be opened to this new world.
After a few minutes negotiating the halls, I quickly found the correct room, signposted by a group of fellow students, eagerly awaiting the arrival of Vivienne, our evening’s tutor. Vivienne is a member of the Association of Wine Educators and the Circle of Wine Writers. She is a professional freelance tutor for a variety of courses across the country set up by The Wine Education Service, and has been teaching this particular course for four years. It was evident that she still gets a kick out of teaching the class as she arrived with two armfuls of bottles and a warm smile.
Before I could contemplate the organisers’ heavy use of paper tablecloths, wondering ‘How messy can drinking eight bottles of win get?’, I quickly became embroiled in a conversation about the course with my fellow students, discussing the merits of white and red varieties. My initial fears of pretension were instantly quelled as it became clear that people were here for two reasons: firstly to learn more about wine itself - what exactly they like, and how to match what they like to what the eat; and secondly to have fun. After all, learning is much more fun in a group than on your own at home. Especially when it comes to drinking wine.
The course runs once a month, every month from October to June. After the introductory session, the course moves on to specific wines from different areas of the world, including some brand new, up-and-coming regions. At the end of each session, the organisers send out a feedback sheet to all their students so they can incorporate suggestions into the following class.
As soon as we were settled, Vivienne loaded up the projector. We were taken through a brief explanation of the science behind wine - how different tastes are created through differences in grape varieties, climate and soil; as well as viticulture (how the grape is matured). It certainly whet out appetite before we reached for the corkscrews!
The first practical lesson was how to taste wine and why it’s important. You might want to give an astute description to a fellow enthusiast, to asses the quality before you commit, or make your own label - surprisingly, there are over 350 vineyards in the UK. You could simply want to discover what you like and what you don’t, without having to buy a whole bottle every time.
Swirl, sniff, slurp, spit
The first bottle (a 2009 South Africa Sauvignon Blanc, bough from Majestic for £8.79) was our first test subject. We were taught what to look out for when reading a wine’s quality: colour, smell, taste, and the correct language to use when discussing it. We also learnt tips such as putting it against a white background to judge the colour, as this can give clues about grape variety and whether it was aged in wood. Everyone was a little tentative at first, but before long we were nose deep inside a particularly potent Austria Grūner Veltliner, sloshing it around out gums and pulling silly faces.
Armed with our new skills, we began our wine journey and seven more concoctions stimulated out senses for the next hour. As well as tasting wine, we were also encouraged to try the wine with different foodstuffs - bread to cleanse the palate, apple to stifle the sweetness and different cheeses to soften the blow of a particularly harsh wine.
At the end of the class, we were encouraged to stay behind and continue drinking our favourite bottle. More than anything, it really feels like a friendly night out. Only instead of a headache, you leave with more knowledge. I walked away from the class actually knowing what wines I like, and now I feel confident in choosing a bottle to complement a meal. I left with a list of my new favourites, searching in the dead of night for an off-licence. Just like any other night then...
In her work previous life, Vivienne was a food buyer for Marks & Spencer. Wine tasting was initially just a hobby for her, but she started attending more professional courses to improve her knowledge of wine. Before long she had turned her hobby into a career. That was 12 years ago and she’s never looked back. Vivienne explains: ‘Wines change, so I’m constantly learning more and more about them.’ Even though she leads the wine classes at King’s College London, she always sees herself as one of the students; constantly inspired by others’ contagious enthusiasm to learn.