Food & Drink feature by Tom Hay
“I find it surprising that a food writer doesn’t know anything about wine.”
I’ve received that email several times, from different people. If they hadn’t already written me off for not eating meat, the idea of a restaurant reviewer who didn’t know their Barolo from their Bordeaux was a step too far.
Not that I haven’t drunk plenty of the stuff. I’ve had a lengthy love affair with its effects.
I like the way several glasses of wine make me much better looking, despite making my eyelids droop lopsidedly and my lips look like they’ve been beaten by a gang of blackcurrants.
And I like the way wine makes me more interesting. I’ve been known to be so interesting that I can repeat the same interesting confession to the same person five times.
“I’ve always thought you were really fashionable. I love how fashionable you always look. You’re just really fashionable. We should probably sleep together.”
Yep, me and intoxication have always got on. But given that I could achieve the same effects by drinking Listerine - and smell better to boot – I’ve possibly been missing the point of wine.
(Disclaimer: don’t drink Listerine. You’ll die a horrible, minty death).
So I did a course. A proper one with an exam at the end. I’m not sure it’s the kind of qualification you stick at the end of your email signature, but I think of it as lying somewhere between a PhD and one of those health and safety certificates that says: “Tom has learned how to correctly pick up a box.”
The Wine and Spirit Education Trust is a teaching organisation for people like me.
It’s also a teaching organisation for people who will describe wine to people in restaurants, teach other people about wine and, in rare cases, ascend the ladder of wine knowledge to become the drinks equivalent of one of those old bearded men on Chinese mountains who teach village heroes the secrets of kung fu.
They have to do more courses than I did, obviously.
Locally, a company called The Wine Academy passes on these hallowed learnings to wannabe wine enthusiasts. Courses are held in Leeds and, periodically, in Harrogate, where the Cold Bath Road institution that is William & Victoria (the town’s first wine bar) hosted the most recent example.
For three consecutive Wednesdays, students learned the ins and outs of wine production, grape varieties and winemaking regions, helped along by examples of the products in question.
Sometimes up to 18 a day, which is why it’s advised to spit them out after tasting unless you want to forget most of what you’ve been taught and spend the journey home falling into hedges.
Ushering them through this experience was Laura Young who lives in York and runs The Wine Academy.
A former student herself, she took it on late last year so its founder, Karen Hardwick, could put more time into becoming one of the aforementioned kung fu types.
The foundation of the course is a systematic tasting guide.
You eyeball a bit of wine to assess its colour, sniff it for familiar smells and their strength, then sip it and try to separately size up its acidity, sweetness, mouth-drying bitter tannins and body (body being the difference between full fat, semi-skimmed and skimmed milk).
You also try to pinpoint what it smells and tastes of. That’s where all that stuff about cherries, lemons, peaches, rosemary and forest floors comes in.
Then you cross reference it with what you’d expect from the grape variety as grown in whichever region and climate it’s grown in (all of which is helpfully written down in books). And then you decide how good it is.
It sounds intimidating, and it is, but when you break it down into bits and do it 40 times with somebody there to steer you though it, it starts to click.
And gradually the labels on the front of wine bottles and the descriptions on the back, along with restaurant wine lists, shop shelf labels and newspaper wine columnists, all turn out to be using some words you understand.
For me, it was like suddenly being able to read 25 per cent of a Chinese menu after spending years just pointing at stuff and grunting.
So I learned a lot of things I didn’t know. Here are some of them:
White wine can be made with red grapes.
Shiraz and Syrah are the same thing – the Australians renamed it because it tastes different in their climate.
When the waiter lets you test it to see if it’s gone off, you’re looking for smells and tastes of wet cardboard, matchsticks, eggs, vinegar or vegetables. Floating bits of cork may just be signs of clumsy corkscrewing, and a screw cap doesn’t give it a free pass because it might have gone horrid before bottling.
Critics and experts love Riesling, but the public “doesn’t get it”.
In a blend, there’s more of the first-named grape than the second. So Semillon-Chardonnay has more Semillon than Chardonnay.
There are 400 grape varieties in Spain, most of which never make it out of the country.
Dessert wine’s more expensive because the grapes have less juice.
That nonsense about blackberries, leather, bananas, mango, apples, bubblegum and tobacco isn’t nonsense after all – but anyone who tells you that a wine tastes like a walk through a West Country meadow in October while listening to Wagner and sniffing a clog is an idiot.
In a £5 supermarket bottle, the wine itself could cost as little as 10p. Insane though that sounds, the vast majority of the price is eaten up by tax,shipping, production and shop margins.
In a £10 bottle, the cost of the wine inside is more like £3 - so for double the price, you’re getting a liquid which is 30 times more expensive. The ratio gets better the more you spend.
Which still doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy wine for less than a fiver, because if you like it, then who cares?
Bordeaux is Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Merlot. Burgandy is Pinot Noir. Beaujolais is Gamay. Chianti is Sangiovese. Rioja is Tempranillo. The exceptions to these are endless.
And – maybe everyone knows this, but I didn’t – everything you need to make wine is contained inside a grape.
You just squash it, faff about with it a bit, wait a while, then drink the result. Obviously there’s all sorts of meddling you can do with the middle bit, but that’s the crux of it.
It’s either a demonstration of the existence of God or proof of the wonders of mucking about with science, depending on which side your religious bread is buttered.
Oh, and it gets you drunk. I knew that one beforehand, but it’s worth stating again for the record.
And any sniffy types who claim they aren’t in it for the alcohol are lying.
The Wine Academy’s next WSET Intermediate Course will be held in Leeds on September 24, October 2 and October 8. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 07870 585232.