I’ve never won anything in my life. Unless you count the work Christmas raffle, where everybody gets something, but that ‘something’ is usually the last of those awful soap samples gifted by a client 7 months previously.
So, when a friend tagged me on a Facebook wine-tasting course competition, I nonchalantly followed the liking/sharing instructions and entered my name. Obviously, I won – otherwise this wouldn’t be much of a post. Not only was I slightly gobsmacked, but admittedly I was slightly tentative – because I don’t really drink wine.
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Just to be clear, I do love wine, but it tends to give me bad headaches, and I usually opt for a Guinness or a Tia Maria. There, I’m a philistine. Would I even ‘get’ what wine-tasting was all about?
Adding to the reluctance, this was a Level 3 Discovery Day based on globally recognised WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) qualifications, and I was worried that I’d hold things up if everyone else had done their Levels 1 & 2. So, how did I get on?
LOCATION AND GROUP
The workshop was held at one of the classrooms in the Talbot Campus at Bournemouth University in Dorset. Which was totally appropriate, although I’d originally envisaged a dark wine cellar and dusty bottles. There were 5 other attendees, including my plus-one companion Kathryn, who had nominated me for the competition – not only the fair choice, but she does drink wine, so I thought at least one of us might understand what was going on. The other four were a varied mix, united in enthusiasm, all of which had either passed Levels 1/2 or had experience in the gastronomy industry.
The WSET Level 3 Award Discovery Day, run by Erica Dent of Enjoy Discovering Wine, is designed to help you decide whether you want to take your wine-tasting knowledge to the next level. As such, it would usually be open mainly to those who have already completed Levels 1 and 2, but the beauty of it is that most of it can be appreciated by complete beginners, such as myself. After an informal introduction and lots of reassurance from Erica, we got down to the core business of wine tasting – armed with a makeshift spittoon (a ceramic mug in my case) and a crib sheet to help us with the terminology.
Samples of 3 unknown white wines were provided and I could immediately see some difference in colour and intensity. Using the crib sheet, I was able to identify whether the wines were lemon, lemon-green, gold in hue, etc and by looking at the opaqueness of the liquid in the glass, I could discern whether the sample was pale, medium or deep in intensity.
On the Nose
Identifying the aroma, or to use the proper term, nose, was a fascinating and amusing step. Did you know that you can pick up such disparate scents as kerosene, wet wool and toast? I had no idea that so much variety was possible, and it was also interesting to learn about the different stages of wine-making and their effect on the end product.
I was rather pleased with myself when I was the first in the group to identify lychees in the mix. I’ve only ever eaten lychees in Indian restaurants…you just never know when an experience or a little bit of knowledge will come in useful!
The third stage in the tasting process is, unsurprisingly, the tasting, where we get to explore and identify the palate. With several different elements, some easier than others, I found this part the most involved and intricate.
Identifying the actual flavours was relatively straightforward, bearing in mind that they should match the nose, so if you can smell honey the chances are you’ll taste honey. Which begs the question…what does wet wool taste like, and how do you even know?? That’s a tough one to answer, but I must emphasise that it’s all part of the blend and isn’t in the slightest bit out-of-place!
Other qualities, such as body and acidity, were less obvious for me to sense, but our tutor Erica was ever-prepared with tips and suggestions, such as the ‘dribble test’. You take a sip then lower your head towards your chest – the more you feel like your salivating, the more acidic the wine. It works! The body, or viscosity of the wine can be checked by literally ‘chewing’ on a mouthful and feeling the resistance of the liquid.
As for the alcohol levels, that was tougher for me, and I’d need a lot more practice to get it right. OK, I’ve just realised how that last sentence sounds…
The process was repeated with a selection of 3 red wines, the only difference being that we had to identify the tannin levels for each sample. Having context is the best way to learn, and it was useful to go back and forth between the wine samples to compare and check your initial judgement. There were quite a few ‘oh…yeahhh’ mutters of realisation to be heard, several of them from me.
Wine Quality Assessment
To conclude the tasting section, we used our written notes to assess the quality of each wine, including its potential for maturing. Our personal preferences had no bearing on the objective quality of the wine. For example, my favourite of all the wines was the 2011 Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer Clos des Capucins ‘Cuvée Theo’ (and not because of its extraordinary name!) – it was the second of the white wines and was assessed as ‘outstanding’, but there were two other outstanding wines I didn’t like anywhere near as much.
Wine Production Theory
This was the most difficult part for me, not having studied the principles behind it at all. Even so, it was an engaging task to end with, and I began to learn some of the reasons for variation in wine type and quality, from climate and topography to conscious market decisions e.g. mass-produced wine with a short shelf-life. It’s a fascinating and multi-layered topic and I can easily see why someone could become thoroughly engrossed.
Our genetic make-up means we are predisposed to be able to smell/taste/sense differently from the next person, meaning each of the attendees was able to pick up certain aromas and flavours more than others. Some were instantly obvious to me, others took a little more swirling around of the glass (and extra swigs of wine) and a couple evaded my senses entirely.
A bit more experience may change that to a certain degree, but it brings me to one of the most interesting lessons of the whole day – that you can study and learn as much as you like, but it’s our very individuality that makes the wine-tasting experience unique to each of us.
The Discovery Day proved to be great fun, relaxed and informative, and my initial reservations were completed unfounded. Erica’s perfect combination of knowledge, enthusiasm and humour means you can’t fail to enjoy yourself and I particularly appreciated her patience with my random and impromptu questions.
If you do have some prior knowledge of wines but are unsure whether the next level is for you, this workshop is ideal, but don’t worry if you’re a complete novice, because it provides a great way for you to dip into the wonderful world of wine appreciation without the pressure of a longer-term commitment. Either way, it’s going to be fruitful!
Erica is a WSET Certified Educator and under the Enjoy Discovering Wine title is an Approved Progamme Provider of WSET qualifications Level 1 to Level 3.
The usual cost for the Level 3 Discovery Day is £60 and the session lasts from 10am until 4pm, including an hour for lunch. Courses are held at various locations in the south of England.
Go to Enjoy Discovering Wine for more information
Disclosure: Many thanks to Erica Dent for hosting myself and Kathryn Burrington from Travel with Kat and for some images included in this post. All views and opinions are my own.