Choosing Wine With Confidence – Week 1

One polystyrene cup of red wine or two?
For most of my drinking life, wine has been consumed either through drinking games or the boat has been pushed out on sugary pink fizz. There were few criteria to get through: is it white, is it under £3, is it over 11%, does it have an animal on the bottle (extra points if it was a koala)? Once I graduated I became a bit more discerning, but still totally bemused.
TLM and I mostly choose wine by standing baffled in the supermarket (or Majestic Wine if we’re feeling adventurous) and generally plumping for something on offer. We decided it was about time to sign ourselves up for a wine appreciation course and ‘Choosing Wine With Confidence’ sounded just the ticket. The course is 8 weeks long and aims to reduce the number of “I don’t know, you pick” public arguments. Or thereabouts.
So after a 45 minute stride out to the venue (driving would obviously be a bad idea) we arrived for our first session. We had no idea what to expect or what everyone else in the group would be like. There were just 10 or so of us and it was a bit awkward to begin with (we were by far the youngest people in the room), not helped by the fact there were no icebreakers or even going round to state your name!
It was straight down to business, with the first session focussing on how to taste and describe wine, with lots of reassurance that we could like or dislike whatever we chose.
We were greeted with our first wine, a sparkling. Now, at this point we’d not been shown how to drink it and I wasn’t even sure if we were supposed to. The lights went down and power point commenced, and without my contact lenses on I couldn’t see if anyone else was sipping theirs or not… so I went ahead as we were taught about the different components of wine and how they affect taste: acids, sugars, alcohol, tannins, flavours and aromas.
I sipped on my first wine:
Green Point (Chardonnay & Pinot) from Australia, NV.
I learnt that this wine is made from Chardonnay and Pinor Noir grapes, two of the three grape varieties used in Champagne and is made in the same way (though because they can’t say this, they state ‘Method Traditionelle’ to let us know…) and as I took a sip scribbled some notes like ‘acidic’, ‘crisp’, ‘butterscotchy’ and ‘floral’ on my sheet. It was tasty, but did not surpass my beloved Lindauer as my favourite sparkly tipple.
As the lecture about taste components of wine came to a close, we learnt how to sniff and ‘chew’ our wine to appreciate the flavours best. I’d polished mine off by this point which, apparently noone else had done (pff, theirs would be warm). So I just listened as the technique was explained while other people tried it themselves. Thankfully, no silly snorting or air puffing was endorsed and the spittoons were shunned by everyone.
After the first hour of lecture follows an hour or so of further wine tasting. The course leader lets you know what to look out for (e.g. oak fermented) but does not tell you how it will taste or whether you should like it (yay). It’s also so helpful that if you don’t like something, he gives some reasons why maybe you don’t (e.g. too tannic) so you start to build up an idea of what tastes suit you and which don’t.

Moschofilero Boutari (Moschofilero) from Greece, 2009.
This was a really rather tasteless white wine, very little aroma. It was thin and didn’t really do anything for me. Not one I’d be rushing out to buy any time soon. Apparently Greece has a long history of wine production, but maybe we know more about Ouzo for a reason!

Chamonix, Reserve Chardonnay (Chardonnay) from South Africa, 2008.
After the first wine, I could definitely see a difference between that and this white. It was full-bodied (meaning it looked syrupy rather than watery) and it had a strong oak aroma, which made sense as it was aged in oak barrels for 14 months. I can safely say that I went into the course thinking I didn’t like Chardonnay and this confirmed it for me, though that may have been on account of the oak rather than anything else. I vigorously scribbled out the wine on my notes (scathing).

Balnaves, Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon) from Australia, 2007.
This was the sort of red wine I’m very used to tasting – extremely fruit-driven, with a bit of a smokey flavour too. I found it very drying to my mouth and bitter (these are the tannins at play, it seems). It was OK.

Grand Listrac (Cabernet-based) from Bordeaux, 2000.
This was a great one to compare to the previous wine – aged as it is for 10 years and a traditional Claret (apparently that’s the British term for wines from the Bordeaux region). This was rather lovely and so much smoother than the previous red wine. It wasn’t smokey and had no overpowering fruit taste, though I thought I could taste some cherry flavours in the background.

Le Dauphin de Guiraud, Sauternes (Sauvignon Blanc & Semillon) from Bordeaux, 2002.
Finally, we tried a white dessert wine. This one is made from botrytised grapes, which is a fungus [called noble rot] that affects grapes – deliberately! They pick the most withered and wizened old grapes and go round day after day getting the ones just about to turn rotten. This makes for a very sweet (but not fortified) wine with a distinctive flavour. Apparently it was a good example of botrytised grapes and I can certainly summon the flavour right now! I liked it actually, it was very sweet and spicy tasting. Apparently this would be great with blue cheese, but wine and food matching is not due until the last session…
So overall, I didn’t find any wines I was itching to get out and buy but I really enjoyed the first session and appreciated being able to have wines that contrasted so I could understand what to difference between watery and full-bodied, smooth and tannic was in practice.
Bring on the rest!
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4 responses to “Choosing Wine With Confidence – Week 1

  1. Sabina February 4, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Wine tastings are so much fun! I have been to quite a few, each of which have really help me learn loads about wine. I’ve also been on the Intermediate Wine course at the Wine and Spirits Institute in London, which was an invaluable experience. http://www.WineGifts4U TV also offers some great wine tasting and food matching ideas.

  2. Sally October 19, 2010 at 12:57 am

    I’d recommend trying an unwooded chardonnay – I too don’t like the woody ones, but unwooded is pretty nice.

    My aunt has a vineyard. Perhaps you should come to Australia and stay with me for a bit 😉

  3. thebutcherthebaker October 18, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Great post. You first paragraph describes my uni drinking habits. I remember Hubs & I, as students, buying a box of wine called Country Manor. It was 3litres for £3. Classy stuff. It was also possibly the worst wine I have ever tasted!

    I would love to go on a course to understand wine better as I will fully admit to buying wine that is on offer and has a pretty label.

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