Wednesday seems to be becoming the evening of the week designated for enjoying wine. There's lots about #winewednesday on Twitter. It so happens that my last two Wednesday evenings have been filled by wine tasting events. This week, my wife and I attended the 'Wine Course' hosted by Majestic wines in Sale. I stumbled across it while browsing their website and finding the events calendar for the Sale store. After this, I also noticed that Majestics advertise such events on Twitter too. I'm now Twitter-mates with the staff at Sale too! A swift phone call was all that was required to book our spots, and to pay the £5 deposit. Part of the lure for this tasting event was that they are all FREE! The deposit is refunded at the end of the course.
5pm saw us get the tram from town out to Sale. Incidentally, it took far longer than the timetable had suggested! The Sale store is only a 10 minutes walk from the tram stop, but we arrived a little hot and bothered due to the muggy weather. This was alleviated with haste , for as soon as we stepped through the door, we were presented with a nice, cold glass of bubbly. I'm can't remember what it was, but I do recall it was not champagne, maybe Cava.
The tasting table was already laid out on the shop floor. This was actually quite a good setting, surrounded by lovely bottles of wine. Each persons place was already set with 6 glasses of wine. Three whites and three reds had been placed atop of a sheet of A4, with fake condensation rings (stains) printed on it to denote positions that were also numbered 1 to 7. Confusing for now, but all will be explained. Laid next to these were little booklets to accompany the course. Inside these was information about tasting, wines of different kinds, different grapes, world regions and much more. There was also space for ones tasting notes, using the provided pen.
The evening started quickly. We all sat down around the table with Flick, the shop manager (presumably short for Felicity!?). She introduced herself, and then asked us to introduce ourselves, with our names and something about our wine preferences, or why we were at the event. This, combined with a glass of fizz, was a great way to relax people and break the ice. She explained a little bit about what sort of course the evening would be. It's interesting that the Wine Course is designed less as a showcase for certain wines and more as a general learning experience - as an introduction to wine tasting. It is much more about how to taste wines, rather than the about the wines themselves.
We proceeded to the white wines, numbered 1 to 3. Flick asked us to pick up the first glass, and took us through the process of tasting a wine. As a brief example; firstly, look at the wine. Hold it up against a white background to asses it's colour and clarity. Second, smell the wine's 'bouquet' or 'nose'. Here one tries to identify the aromas that can be found from such volatile liquids. Swirling the glass releases the magic. Thirdly, taste the wine. Here one takes a little mouthful, swills it around in the mouth and perhaps draws some air through the liquid behind the teeth. This helps to release the flavours (actually by releasing them from the liquid so they can travel to the nose again!).
We practiced these techniques with the white wines. We were asked to attempt to identify what the wines were, their flavours and what had given the wines those flavours. This was, of course, all guided by Flick. She knows a great deal about wine and was quite adept at conveying her knowledge. It's not really important what the exact wines were. They had been well chosen to illustrate the points being taught. There was a bone-dry, crisp, acidic, but fruity Sauvignon Blanc (Sancerre), a slightly less dry, mineral-textured, really mildly oaky Chablis, and another, more oaked and less dry, Chardonnay that smelled like honey and peaches, from Chili. From these is was easy to pick out the aromas, flavours and textures of each, then link them to the grape varieties, how they might have been made and the climate they came from. Comparison between the wines made this process a great deal easier than with a single wine.
What a great start! By now the tasters were all conversing and discussing what they thought of the wines and the tasting techniques they had now mastered. Here's where the numbering system was made clear. Wine number 4, which was missing from our place-mat, was a champagne. This meant that the 3 reds became 5, 6 and 7, and were identified accordingly on our sheets. The champagne was brought out by Flick's assistant. He's an assistant manager at the shop, I think he was called either Dan or Tim!? I'm not really good with names.
As we went through the tasting protocol, Flick took us through the extra steps required in the making of a champagne. This is know as the méthode champenoise, or traditional method. A secondary, in-bottle- fermentation is what gives the wines it's bubbles. Flick's knowledge was tested by questions, and not once did it fail us. The champagne was a lovely example, chosen because of it's great nose. This one was really yeasty, and had lovely (slightly burnt) toast notes. The mousse was also very classy. The 'mousse', by the way, is the texture of the fizzing wine in the mouth. Less fizzy, with smaller bubbles, means a smoother mousse, and usually better quality, I think.
So, by now, a touch tipsy. I speak for myself here, others were perhaps drinking a little less of each wine, and others were spitting. Spitting, incidentally, is something I need to learn to do. Not just because when tasting lots of wine its very easy to drink a bit too much, but also because it seems to be a bit of an art form. I think it's actually quite hard to do, without it going everywhere and leaving you looking like a dribbling mess!
The red wines were a similar affair to the whites, in that we made our way through them individually, assessing each one as we went, comparing them to each other in terms of aromas, flavours and textures. Guesses were made as to what each were and where they were from. I was quite please with my own guessing. My only downfall here was being fooled by a left-bank Bordeaux, into thinking it was a right-bank. Left-bank wines are traditionally made with a greater percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in their blend, which gives them a more ripe, blackcurrant nature. Right bank wines contain more Merlot, and so tend to be more rich and plummy, maybe like jammy cherries. These are of course generalisations, however, the lack of cassis in the Bordeaux we had made me think right-bank. I'm going to go out on a limb now and say that it was the... how do I put it... 'less than optimal' 2007 vintage that was to blame for my reasoning.
The red wines were, again, a great selection to exemplify what was being taught. The Pinot Noir from New Zealand was lighter, less tannic and a bit peppery. The Bordeaux was classically tannic and showed elements derived from oak aging (cedar wood and tobacco). Finally the Barossa Valley Shiraz was full bodied but richly flavoured with light ripe fruit, with a hint of spice in a long finish. These wines were great examples of their breeds and perfectly chosen for this occasion.
Having been through quite a lot of wine, and almost consumed our fill of information, the evening finished with a bit of food play, and wine number 8. This was, I thought, a great addition to the course. Several different foods were brought out, including tomatoes, spicy crisps, pate on toast and some cheese. In addition to these was a little bit of chocolate brownie, to go with a sweet dessert wine (No. 8). I have to admit that I can't remember what this wine was, sorry. I think it may have been a Tokaji from Hungary. The foods were tasted with the wines. This was to demonstrate that some foods don't go with some wines. The best example was the tomato, which went really badly with the Sancerre, because there was just too much acidity. It did, however, go really well with the Chilean Chardonnay and the Bordeaux. The pate went well with the Sancerre, as the acidity of the wine 'cut through' (as they say) the richness of the pate. The brownie and dessert wine were a great match to finish the evening.
The only thing that was left to do at this point was to finish the remnants of ones favourite wine and chat about what we'd learnt. I must stress again that Flick was a wonderful host. She's very knowledgeable about wines, but also a very relaxed and accomplished instructor. I think the aftermath seen below clearly demonstrates what a fun event this was. There was not much left in the glasses and everyone went away, not only happy, but with a slightly larger brain.
The Majestic's Wine Course is exactly that. It is a course, for learning. They have packed a lot of very basic, but essential, information in to it. Information that anyone with a slight interest in wine would love to know. There was also a great deal of advanced knowledge in there too, probably thanks to Flick's question answering. Information that even a seasoned pro might not know, or realise. There was a mix of people at the event. There was a couple of lads, who knew they liked red wine, but wanted to learn a bit more so they could make more informed choices from restaurant wine menus. There was a pair of young ladies that knew quite a lot about wine, but thus far had played safe and drank what they knew. They wanted to experience something different and broaden their wine horizons. Then there was someone like myself. I like to think I know a fair amount about wine. I'm not an expert, just and enthusiastic novice, but I know how to taste it, I know different varietals and regional variations. This said, I learned a fair amount at from this event. It was also a great chance to practice my tasting skills and confirm knowledge I'd obtained through reading, in a practical setting.
There's not much more to say now. Majestic Wines is a good shop, in fact, lots of shops. They have a good selection of wines over a wide price range (check out my other posts). The Wine Course is just one of a few they host at many of their branches, details of all of these can be found on their website. Whatever level you're at (or think you're at) if you want to learn more about wine, then I'd really recommend going along to one of these events. For me, a great evening was topped-off by, not only getting our deposits back, but also a £10-off voucher to use on a future purchase! Bonus ;-)