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Sniff, swirl and spit

Is it hippy, zippy or gawky? Is that wood smoke or cabbage patch? Jill Craven swallows hard as she investigates the arcane world of wine tasting

I pass the sniff test. And the swallowing. But not the swirling, sucking and spitting. Whoever thought wine tasting could be so alliterative? My one-day course is. It reminds me of my first day in England: I'm lost in a culture that seems friendly enough, but deeply mysterious. You see, when wine writer Malcolm Gluck says there's a hippy feeling to a French white, that a vin du pays is soft yet zippy, textured yet polished, or that a Chilean red is so poised and balanced it makes other reds seem gawky, I have to come out of the closet. I have no idea what he's talking about.

It is much the same when David Hunter talks about the length of a wine. Wine has length? Oh yes it has. It's all to do with how long the taste lingers in your mouth and is a sign of quality. But you see, I didn't know that.

David Hunter, training officer for the Wine and Education Trust, knows about the paucity of my knowledge; complete lack of, really. I know I like rich reds and New Zealand whites, perhaps out of little more than a gentle blush of patriotism. I also hate wine snobbery and long, involved conversations about the intricacies of different bottles. If I want to drink Liebfraumilch, I shall (most people do - it is still the best-selling wine in Britain).

David has been in wine for 30 years, having started off at the "wet end". Enter first new concept of the day - it means working in the cellars on such tasks as rolling barrels around.

Today he's a gentle teacher who, at the trust's Thames-side headquarters, leads me towards a little knowledge. But first we have to get things straight. The timetable says a spittoon will be provided. This has worried me for days. I'm not going to spit. I want to learn a little about wine; I want nothing to do with spitting.

David's tailor-made course includes an introduction to the main wine-producing countries and the UK market (that's where the Liebfraumilch statistic comes from), moving on to the taste and appreciation of wine. He strays from the boundaries a little - this is a man who loves his work - telling me about how wine is not purely something you drink. It takes in culture, language, geography. We talk about grape varieties; the control of wine-growing in the northern hemisphere, particularly France, and the pioneering methods of the New World; about how important climate and weather are, the difference a year can make; how red varieties tend to be produced closer to the Equator; about the fact that three out of every four bottles are produced in European vineyards; that tannins - that yuuuch factor in some reds - become gentler when you drink with protein-rich foods.

But we are here for that liquid in the glass. Seven bottles - and spittoon, discreetly clouded and looking like a large egg-timer - are lined up. David sets out what he calls a scaffolding for the tasting. We're going to look at clarity (colour), nose (smell), taste (sweet, dry, length). Swirling is required here. Mistake number one: the wine lurches out of the glass and sprints across my notes. David suggests I practise in the garden at home. But the released bouquet is strong; I am at a loss to describe it. There are four "characters" - fruity, floral, vegetal and spicy. I recognise the fruitiness of the Rosemount chardonnay. It hits you in the face like an Australian fast bowler.

The tasting. Mistake number two: I can't suck in air over the surface of my tongue at the same time as gulping wine. It reminds me too much of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. The suck is needed, says David, to take in more oxygen which duly releases flavours and aromas. I sip, swill it around my mouth and swallow. I do not spit. David does.

We move on to a Chilean red which I am keener on. I like the Australian chardonnay too and, surprisingly, the German Riesling. Though it smells of petrol. And the 1993 Bordeaux smells like Marmite.

So I'm a New World fan. David doesn't say, but I suspect he's a man of the old world whose wines, he says, are more stand-offish and restrained. Does that mean my favourites are like the countries that produce them: brash, confident and friendly? David is forever the diplomat; "They're the result of sun-kissed fruit."

I bet you've always known that chablis is chardonnay; that syrah is shiraz. I do too. Now. And that something called noble rot on grapes provides the raw material for sweet dessert wines. That there's a physical reason why champagne reaches the parts that other wines don't (the bubbles convey alcohol into the bloodstream more quickly). And never, ever drink port on top of champagne. You'll really be in trouble.

David Hunter slowly uncovers a hidden world and leaves me wanting to know more. It's as much a matter of practice as anything, he says. After all, you know when you bite into an apple whether you're eating a Granny Smith or a Golden Delicious. It's much the same with wine. But I'm never going to talk about my new knowledge. About the benefits of barrel or stainless steel fermentation. Promise.

David Hunter charges Pounds 250 for a half-day course for groups of between 10 and 50; Pounds 400 for a full day. The trust also organises certificate (no previous knowledge needed), higher certificate and diploma courses. Prices start at Pounds 145. Courses are held in London, Nottingham, Birmingham and Burton-on-Trent. Its textbook for the certificate course, Behind the Label, is available from the trust for Pounds 8.95. Tel:0171 236 3551.

* See what courses are on offer at your local adult education institute. Wine shops may also run tastings.

* Specialist travel companies, such as Arblaster and Clarke, run wine trips to Europe and the New World. Prices start at Pounds 199 for a champagne weekend. Tel: 01730 893344

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