If you are free Tuesday evenings and are interested in learning about wines, then you could not do much better than enrolling at the Christie’s Wine Course at their educational centre in Great Titchfield Street, London. It is aimed very much as an introductory course, bringing amateur wine enthusiasts together, spanning five weeks in total and costing £300.
Many of the teachers at Christie’s are Masters of Wine, which, since 1953, has been the international accreditation for professional wine experts in both theoretical knowledge and practical ability in the art, science and business of wine. The tutors are wine writers and consultants Beverley Blanning, Nancy Gilchrist, Peter McCombie, Steven Spurrier and Anthony Hanson. They take the great grape regions of France as their bench marks, and from sessions one to five you smell, taste, discuss and learn about the classic winemaking styles of the vineyards of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, the Mediterranean, and the Champagne region.
The course aims to make you feel more confident and knowledgeable about ordering and buying wines, giving you a taste of this enormous subject in a friendly, open, communal environment. You are handed a comprehensive folder and notes to accompany the course, which details further reading and contact points as well as the latest edition of Decanter magazine, which is the most respected wine magazine in the trade, published by IPC media. This is a beginner’s class and it would benefit those people who feel intimidated at the thought of making the wrong choice when approached by a suited sommelier in a good restaurant. As only two hours are dedicated to each region you are only dipping your toe in the subject matter, but it makes you interested enough to pursue the subject further.
You may presume that booking a wine course with the oldest auction house in the world, founded in 1766 and renowned for fine art, sculpture, jewellery and textiles, that it would be held in an ancient vault, replete with oak barrels and candle lit sconces in vaulted ceilings covered with Georgian cobwebs, but in fact this could not be further from the truth. The Christie’s Education Centre is located in a very modern building and the wine course is held in a long, functional, neon-light filled room with institutional blue carpet and white trestle tables in rows. There is nothing here to distract your eye, or nose and taste buds, from anything other than good wine, and you feel as if you have gone back to a University lecture hall.
I was invited to attend “The Burgundy Grapes” evening with Anthony Hanson, and on arrival I saw the line-up of the nine different bottles we were going to taste and discuss for this evening’s talk. You can see the domains photographed here on the right. Anthony is a Senior Wine Consultant for Christie’s International Wine Department and ran a wine buying business which took him all over France. He lived in the Burgundy region for several years. His book “Burgundy” was first published by Mitchell Beazley in 1982, and never out of print, its 3rd edition is being written now.
The 40 or so students sit on tables facing Anthony and his assistants pour the individual wines one by one in glasses that stand on a numbered mat, from numbers 1-9. There is also ample fresh water, a spittoon and water crackers. In the folder you are given note taking paper and this is divided into the name of the wine, the grape variety, the colour and appearance of the wine, its nose/aroma/bouquet and your taste and conclusions.
We analyse the colour of the wine against a white piece of paper, denoting tinge, intensity, clarity, brilliance, fluidity and effervescence. We then smell it carefully, detecting aromas and describing them in terms of strength, quality and character.
The glass is then swirled two or three times and several gentle sniffs are taken. The second nose allows you to detect the stronger aromas. We sipped and gently trilled the wine in the mouth while sucking in a little air. This “retronasal” technique allows you to taste the aromas in the mouth.
Our first wine was a golden, lemon yellow Saint-Veran Domaine de la Denante, 2010, priced at £16 a bottle. It was quite acidic initially, but with good, clean, ripe and fresh flavour. Anthony thought it was full bodied, not heavy, with a rounded, soft middle palate. He asks what everyone thinks and we all express our opinions, favourable or unfavourable. He tells us about the particular region of Burgundy, a region that includes 27 000 hectares of vineyards, with 3800 wine-growing domains, 250 wine merchants and 23 co-operative vineyards, all spread across the four departments of Yonne, Cote-d’Or and Saone-et-Loire.
Geographically all parts of Burgundy derive from what was once a Jurassic sea bed. From village to village the soil, subsoil and micro-climates can vary enormously. There are four appellation categories:
The Regional Appellation Bourgogne – represent 50% of total production, named by the district, as in Macon, or Macon Villages, Bourgogne Aligote or Cremant de Bourgogne.
The Village Appellations account for 30-35% of production and carry names such as Pommard, Givry, Chablis or Pouilly-Fuisse.
The Premier Cru wines account for just over 15% of production and the name carries the top wine within a village, with the parcel of vines where the wine was grown added, such as Nuits-Saint-George Premier Cru Les Vaucrains or Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume.
Les Grands Crus is the smallest appellations and the name of the village is replaced by the special plot of ground in question. Examples are Montrachet, Musigny and Corton.
Anthony tells us all about the individual families that create each wine, how the soil and climate varies, how the flavours deepen during maturation and whether oak barrels are used. We learned about Malolactic fermentation, the secondary fermentation named after “malus”, the Latin name for apples, where the tart tastes are converted to softer, rounded lactic tastes. This was discussed with reference to the Saint_Aubin 1er Cru Gerard Thomas et Filles wine (2009): we also detected the complex, spicy vanilla tones brought about by oak barrels.
It was the tasting of the red wines that gave rise to more lively conversation. The students were divided between those which liked the young, bright red, cassis smelling Brouilly Vieilles Vignes Laurent Martray (2010), voted by Anthony as being “disappointing, not very smooth, lacking in roundness and charm.”
Buyers have lost interest in Beaujolais, once one of the most popular wines in the world, raced to connoisseurs who wanted to taste its youthful freshness as soon as it was ready to drink. Anthony told us that if we were ever interested in buying a vineyard in France then the cheapest real estate is the Beaujolais region, as the vineyards are no longer held in the high esteem of their former glory days.
The favourite of the night, for me, was the Lemelson Thea’s Selection from Oregon, made from the noble Pinot Noir grape. Priced at £20 it had a rich, garnet colour, a vibrant and ripe aroma, and a full structured and solid fruity taste, not strongly tannic.
Anthony showed us a number of useful tips: never serve white wines very cold, always take them out of the fridge twenty minutes before you aim to pour them; make sure the glass you serve wine in is very clean by smelling its neutrality and otherwise pour a small volume of the wine in, swirl it in the glass and then pour it out; forge a good relationship with a reputable wine importer of a region you are interested in so as to learn more about it and remain updated with new producers. Above all he urged us to take copious notes when we taste wines and keep lists of which domains give us the most pleasure.
By the time we came to our last wine glass, the Gevrey-Chambertin Domaine Drouhin Laroze (2006), the taste buds and the brain were quite tired. I could see that the pale brown colour of the wine indicated maturity, and the spicy woodiness of the new oak barrels created a gentle harmony on the palate. We ended on a warm and soothing note.
By the end of the whole wine course students will have notes on 45 wines, discussed by some of Britain’s leading experts, so I think it represents very good value for money. There is a broad range of students both in terms of demographics as well as nationality on the course, all eager, interested and starting from the same base. We were all in agreement afterwards that it opened the door to greater understanding and appreciation, and that the next time we sat in a restaurant and saw Burgundy wines on the list, we would feel much more informed and enlightened about their provenance and flavours.
Christie’s Education: www.christieseducation.com
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