The intro wine tasting courses at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) are a bit different from the mainstream ‘wine tasting’ evenings you hear about. Rather than just sipping and saying nice thing, the WSET course is a chance to really learn about wine and also to learn about our own tastes and palettes.
I arrived at the London office of WSET and shown into a bright and airy classroom, fully laid out for wine tasting. Glasses, breadsticks, notes and a rack of frightening looking test tubes with accompanying clinical pipettes.
Our course trainer was Jim Gore, a wine trainer and enthusiast who has lived in France, and worked in the wine trade before joining the Wine & Spirit Education Trust to share his knowledge.
Throughout the course, Jim Gore showed us what to do, how to do it and explained in plain English what everything meant, completely demystifying the process. We all felt comfortable and were actively encouraged to ask questions and join in the discussions. There was no room for wine snobbery here, and the methods we used for tasting was completely different to anything we had done before.
There were given a range of wines laid out on specifically labelled place mats, in uniform size glasses. Three reds – a Chianti, a Barolo and a Chilean Merlot, and two whites – a South African Sauvignon Blanc and a Chablis
When comparing wines, it is is really invaluable to taste them side by side and truly compare. We were able to do that at WSET, Jim Gore explaining what to look for as we went up and down between the three reds wines. We tried each and noticed the differences, then going back and resampling them to really develop our ability to notice flavours and aromas. It was noted that if someone mentions a flavour or aroma then many could identify it, such is the power of suggestion in wine tasting.
Jim Gore then also pointed out that the shape and style of the glass both changes your perception of the wine, as well as actually changing the taste. Glasses that close up at the top keep the aromas in and limit access to the air and does not letting it ‘breathe’. There is a WSET standard wine glass so that the conditions are the same for each test, but you would usually have different types of glass at home which are more general for the wine you serve. As an example, if you pour yourself a galls of wine, and then a china mug of wine and sip both, they will taste very different even though you know it is the same wine.
There are two main terms that crop up all the time in wine tasting; tannins and acidity. Tannin is the presence of phenolic elements that add bitterness to a wine. Phenolics are usually found in the skins and seeds of wine grapes but can also be introduced to wine by its aging in wooden barrels.
Acidity refers to the fresh, tart and sour elements of wine which are displayed in relation to how the acidity balances out the sweetness or bitter elements of the wine, nameley tannins.
Being able to identify tannin and acidity is a foundation to identifying how they will work with food matching. Rather than eating lots of food, we had a test tube rack filled with various flavours to simulate different food types.
It is so easy to do, we squeezed a small pipette of liquid from a test tube into our mouth and let the flavour swirl around. We then tried a wine and recorded how it tasted. Keeping a list, we worked through a range of different options to identify what we thought was the best wine/food type that was best for our own palettes.
Taking notes, and using the WSET handouts we were able to get a good understanding of which wine worked with which flavour of food and why is did so. This really gives you the basic skill to choose a bottle of wine type that will work with your food choice. Maybe you can now impress your boss or other half if taking a bottle to a BBQ or a dinner.
White wine like Chablis, which is acidity works well with salads and olive oil dressings (not just because its great chilled in summer) as the oil makes the acidic wine feel lighter. But salty food makes all wines, especially reds taste better. In our testing, we all felt the cheapest red was as good as the expensive one after the salty test tube. Some restaurants offer salted nuts and olives in brine before you choose the wine; that covers up the fact their so called ‘expensive wines’ are just inflated in price. Stick to the cheap ones and you won’t know the difference.
The WSET course was serious, but also great fun, and everybody learned a lot.
So now if someone suggested white and dark chocolate, cheese & Parma ham skewers or hot pepperdew and mozzarella for starters, you will know which wine works best with each, and why. Wine by the glass from now on maybe?
The WSET courses are the only Government Approved Qualification in wine and is recognised around the world. They have over 150 course providers in the UK alone, and have them in 18 languages, operating in 63 countries around the world. I took a sampling course in London, but as there are so many other course centres around the UK there is bound to be one near you.
A one day course will cost around £150 and that includes all the wine you need for tasting. It certainly is great value, and gives toy a recognised qualification too, on par with a GCSE. It is no surprise that most bars and hotels send their own staff on these courses to give them a good grounding.
London Wine and Spirit School in Bermondsey
39-45 Bermondsey Street,
London SE1 3XF