If Carlsberg made schools

We asked Oliver Smallwood, one of the participants in our inaugural Back to Basics wine course, to write us a report detailing his impressions of the event. (A freelance photographer, he also took the excellent pictures that accompany this piece and my previous blog, which you can find here.) We thought it might be helpful to paint a picture of what this particular course is like and the kind of approach we have to wine tasting and wine education.

(by Oliver Smallwood)

15 years after leaving full time education I’m heading back to the classroom.  Although, not as I remember it.   Today’s school is far more enticing.  In fact, if Carlsberg made schools…

Cut to blue skies in the picturesque old town of Winchester, the grand environs of the Guildhall.  Not a text book in sight and the curriculum focusing entirely around the appreciation, enjoyment and consumption of….. wine.

The Winchester Wine School is my sort of educational establishment.

Schoolmaster for the morning is Peter Richards.  Providing encouragement to the viticulturally challenged (me) while offering inspiration to the more advanced student, Peter combines his passion and knowledge to create a thoroughly enjoyable short course.

So, wine glasses charged, spittoons at the ready, we get ‘Back to Basics’.  Without wishing to spoil the course for future students here’s a flavour to whet your appetite:

The course opens with an introduction to the fundamentals of wine tasting: the senses of smell and taste.  Through several simple tests involving small bottles of scent and jellybeans we prove to ourselves that we are all blessed with nasal and oral ability.  We are all budding wine critics and connoisseurs.

Confidence buoyed, the wine tasting begins.  We are introduced to 7 wines:

1. Pol Roger Reserve Champagne.  We swirl the wine in the glass, allowing oxygen to release the aromas.  Then smell, taste and pause for a moment to appreciate the wine for all its flavours.

Meanwhile Peter imparts knowledge on the Champagne region and explains the importance of acidity in making a ‘well balanced’ wine.

2.  Castillo de Molina Reserva (Chile) Sauvignon Blanc 2009 – a crunchy, fresh, zingy, spring like wine ideally drunk with fish, Asian food, herbs and greens.

We learn of the wine’s origin on the edge of the Atacama Desert in a region traditionally associated with the production of the dubiously named South American brandy, Pisco.

3. Macon Terroir de Charnay 2008 is a French Chardonnay (with buttery, creamy, nutty notes but nonetheless refreshing), which would go well with rich fish or any dish using cheese or nuts.

We branch out into discussing other world Chardonnay growing regions and the French habit of labelling their wine bottles by region but without reference to the grape variety.

4. Clocktower Pinot Noir 2008 from Marlborough in New Zealand.  The first of 3 red wines, it’s a creamy, oaky wine, light on tannin and good to match with duck, game, tuna and pork.

Throughout the tasting Peter takes questions and encourages comments ranging from the intellectual to the rudimentary.  One great thing about this ‘Back to Basics’ course is that it allows us to air the ‘basic’ questions about wine, to establish the facts that we feel perhaps we should already know and therefore might ordinarily be afraid to ask.  The emphasis of the course is on ‘understanding’ in order to enhance our enjoyment of wine and food.

So, on with the tasting:

5. Club Privado Rioja 2006, which is again light on tannin while being rich and nutty, making it a good match for lamb cutlets.  We hear that this is just one of a number of great value for money Spanish red wines.

6.  TMV Syrah 2006 from Swartland in South Africa – a peppery, strong, meaty wine.  It is heavier on the tannin and well matched to red meat.

7.  Mystery wine:  a honey-sweet wine to go with cheese or chocolate, for example.  The class is encouraged to guess the price, grape and country of origin with our newly acquired tasting skills and a few helpful hints from our teacher.  It turns out to be…something of a revelation to me.

In fact, all the above wines are delicious and slip down with worrying ease on a Saturday morning.  Come the end of the course, we’ve sampled 3 reds, 2 whites, champagne and a sweet wine.

Tasting apart, we’ve learnt something of the wine industry and its culture.  We’ve explored France (twice), Spain, Hungary, South Africa, Chile and New Zealand and matched a variety of tipples to fish, vegetables, poultry, game, red meat, cheese and chocolate.

Of equal importance, I’ve gathered enough information to masquerade as a pseudo wine expert enabling me to bore friends and family for months.  Just for starters, here are 3 things I didn’t know before Saturday:

  1. Spitting (wine) into spittoons is essential when tasting large quantities, and is best practiced in the bath.
  2. Acidity is important (all wines are around pH3-4) and helps to create a ‘well balanced’ wine.
  3. The delicious Hungarian wine, Tokaji Aszu, ranges from 3-6 puttonyos.  It’s all about the sweetness, don’t you know!

So, thank you Winchester Wine School for luring me back to the classroom and enhancing my appreciation of the world of wine.

I had a great time and look forward to recommending your Back to Basics Course – a veritable education in the art of imbibing.