Oenology* for Beginners

(*That’s the study of wine.)

I attended a wonderful course with my mum yesterday, run by the organisation Wine Unearthed, at Bank restaurant in Birmingham’s Brindleyplace.  We learned what to look for in a glass of white or red; how to analyse its colour, nose and palate.

It was a present for my birthday, which fell two weeks ago – perfect for me, as I love doing quirky things and I’ve said before that I much prefer activities and experiences to possessions.

We started to feel somewhat nervous on the morning, however, wondering whether we had spent money rashly (these courses are far from cheap) and fearing the information might sail over our novice heads.  I had visions of being surrounded by frightfully pompous Brian Sewell types sporting burgundy bow ties and monocles and taking the whole thing terribly seriously.

We arrived at the salubrious Bank extremely early, and for about 15 minutes wondered if we might be the only attendees, especially as in these lean economic times a wine tasting workshop is unlikely to top most people’s lists of priority spends.  Folks slowly started to pour through the door, though – mostly couples but a few individuals too – until there were 24 of us.

At 10:30 Adrian Bucknall, who was taking the course, ushered us into the small private anteroom separated from the main restaurant area by glass walls (Bank are big on glass).  We were grouped into four tables of six, and all got chatting straight away.  Everyone was exceptionally friendly, down to earth and up for a bit of fun.  Not a bow tie in sight!

The unpretentiousness of it all put us at ease immediately.  In fact Adrian was quick to dispel a lot of the snobbery that can prevail in the wine world.  He even put paid to the myth about screw-top kinds being inferior!

We sampled 15 wines altogether: six in the morning, three with lunch and a further six in the afternoon.  While that may sound like a booze-bag fest, the actual quantity we each consumed in the whole day probably added up to about two to three glasses.  We were also supping plenty of water in between each vino serving.  I certainly wasn’t Brahms and Liszt!

We focused on white varieties in the morning.  Adrian talked us through the first one, which actually turned out to be my favourite of the day: a 2007 vintage Argentine Torrentes.  I had never heard of this particular variety – indeed none of us had tried it before – but will definitely seek it out on future Sainsbury’s trips.

Anyway, Adrian educated us on the art of tilting the glass to examine the colour and clarity of the wine, swirling it around, checking the length of the ‘legs’ running down the side of the glass which denote the alcohol or sugar content, sniffing the wine and gargling it like Listerine to reach every corner of your mouth.

The Torrentes was dry, pale and almost silvery in colour, with a hint of pineapple and elderflower, and apparently a lovely accompaniment to light dishes such as fish and grilled vegetables.  I kept it to one side, rather than tipping it in the spittoon, so I could compare it to subsequent samples.

After talking us through that, Adrian brought around each bottle in turn, left us to talk amongst ourselves for about 10 minutes and make notes in the notebooks provided before inviting us to share our impressions with the group at large.

He advised that everyone’s taste buds and senses of smell can differ vastly, and encouraged us not to be influenced by other people’s responses.  There are no right or wrong answers on this subject.  If you can smell petrol, leather, nutmeg, or even cat pee, while others are smelling blackcurrants, you are not ‘wrong’ (unless perhaps you can taste cat pee!).

There was a good mix of Old and New World wines.  In each case Adrian gave us details of the alcohol percentage, average price for a bottle (they ranged from £6.99 to £12.50) and what foods it might appropriately accompany, as well as a bit of background information about the grape variety.

We tasted the final two ‘blind,’ i.e. without being told what they were, and in addition to making the usual notes were invited to guess which one was from the Old World [Europe] or the New World [rest of the world].  I guessed which was which, and also that the New World was Australian, although did mistake the Old World for Italian rather than the French Chardonnay it turned out to be.

At 12:45 we were served with an excellent three-course lunch, naturally with a soupcon of wine appropriate to each course: Verdejo from Spain with the starter of porcini mushrooms and pine nuts on toasted brioche, Californian Zinfandel with the main course of spicy Malayan chicken with coconut and lime sauce and sweet potatoes, and Sauternes dessert wine with the crème brûlée and lemon shortbread.  That was followed by some very welcome coffee.

Over lunch we had the opportunity to chat with other folks.  Again everyone was extremely friendly and sociable.

The afternoon followed the same format as the morning, focusing on reds.  Again we discussed each one amongst ourselves and tasted the final two blind.  I again identified which was Old World and which was New, though failed to identify their respective countries of origin (mistaking an Italian Chianti for a Spanish vino and an Australian Shiraz for something Chilean).

My favourite red was a South African Syrah Mouvedre (so it ought to have been at £12.50 a bottle!); my favourite white the aforementioned Torrentes from Argentina.

It was a fascinating day.  One of the best Saturdays I have had for a long time.