You reach an awkward stage as an amateur but shyly interested tippler. You are quite happy to blow pounds 4.79 on a bottle - pounds 6.99 even, if you are feeling flush. You might have got a little rack for the cellar and feel sniffily superior about Beaujolais Nouveau. But you are still not at ease with the subject. The Cru business makes you sweat and when faced by a restaurant wine waiter, panic sets in.
For those in a similar delicate stage of development, the auction house Sotheby's has launched a series of wine courses run by its educational studies division. Pupils can attend five evening lessons given by top Masters of Wine, choosing either a 'varietal' course, which looks at different types of grape, or a 'regional' course, which whisks you from Bordeaux to the New World and back to Alsace, all for pounds 160. The courses were devised by Serena Sutcliffe, the head of Sotheby's wine department. She was only the second woman to obtain the Master of Wine qualification and is also a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her writings on French wine.
Serena herself gives the first lecture in the varietal course, called 'Tasting Technique'. As we settled down before our eight numbered glasses, she explained the aim of the class. We were to learn identification of the chief grape varieties using the three vital senses: sight, smell and taste. But first came the glasses.
'Glass shape is fun-da-mental,' emphasised Serena, indicating the short International Standards Authority-approved model with a narrowed neck. 'It holds the bouquet at the top of the glass, so you go down to meet the bouquet. It allows the wine to express itself.' Once you get your glasses into order, next comes getting into the correct 'tasting mode' for a sniff. Swirling the wine in the glass releases the volatile aromas.
'Gather yourself before each wine as if you are about to dive off into a swimming-pool,' Serena encouraged. 'The first impression is so vital; you never get a second chance. Don't leave half your mind elsewhere, gazing at a lovely neighbour. Gather yourself into a bunch and say 'Wham]' ' Few of us had associated wine-tasting with such concentrated vigour, but Serena's enthusiasm met with no doubters.
Coming from anybody else, this would all have come over as mildly risible. Before this oenological Miss Jean Brodie, however, the classroom was transfixed. The actual tasting - roll it around the mouth and breathe out through the nose - is no more important than sampling the bouquet, according to Serena. 'A word on spitting versus drinking,' she continued. 'There is absolutely no difference to the maximum you can get out. The world may seem a bit better if you swallow but there is no extra flavour to be had in the throat.' (It was not until this stage that I realised the place I had chosen was the only one in the room minus a spittoon. I smiled weakly at my neighbour
Had we not been in Serena's capable hands, then the first of the eight wines of the evening would have had the shyer among us running for cover on its name alone: 1990 Kaseler Nies'chen, Riesling Kabinett, Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt. 'I personally adore Mosel-Saar- Ruwer wines,' breathed Serena, as the elixir was handed round. 'Absolutely typical, glorious, appley pale green / gold.' We tilted our glasses and held them against a white background to conduct our own examination.
Just as we were all about to go down and meet our bouquets, a cry came from the podium: 'Oh, no]' moaned Serena. 'I just got an unbelievable whiff of garlic. That must be Szechuan. I'm so sorry.' The Chinese restaurant next door had just stoked up the wok for the first order, and the powerful stench had made its way in through the window. 'Let's close those windows,' commanded Serena, lest our olfactory equipment be compromised.
With the windows closed we were ready to smell. 'So, let's go in . . . One of the easiest wines to recognise - acute keen smell, apple blossom. You absolutely know it's top German Riesling.' What with the build-up, the aromatic Riesling and the garlic, my salivary glands had by now gone into overdrive. 'Right, here we go,' said Serena, adopting her high-diver's stance. 'The moment of pure concentration. Over the tip of the tongue - as it first comes in it's vital you pay attention. It will be more muted the second time around.'
Into glass No 2 went a finger of Montagny, Premier Cru, Olivier Leflaive - an example of the Chardonnay grape in action. 'Chardonnay has been the buzz grape variety of the last 10 years,' said Serena. 'It seems to appeal to absolutely everybody. Now the colour here is quite, quite different - a rich, yellow gold.' Charles, the dark-suited City type sitting next to me and making notes with a Concorde pen, did not seem convinced. 'I don't know about you,' he muttered, 'but they both look exactly the same to me.'
Next up was Pouilly Blanc Fume, Jean- Claude Chatelain, an example of Sauvignon. I would hazard a guess that Sauvignon is not perhaps Serena's No 1 Grape. 'It's a grape that has transplanted very happily to what we fancifully call the New World,' she said, warning that some of its manifestations tend towards the 'coarse, vulgar and obvious'.
By now a warm, vaso-dilated bonhomie was permeating the room. At the desk in front a Middle Eastern man put his arm round his friend's shoulder. But we were falling behind time and so had to speed up for the reds. The Gamay grape was represented by a glass of St Amour, Les Poulets, Guy Patissier; Cabernet Sauvignon by a Chateau Chasse Spleen, Grand Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel - 'deep, intense, serious . . . what a massive flavour'; Zinfandel by 'one truly wild animal' - Zinfandel, Pedroncelli, Sonoma, from California.
Throughout Serena took us through all the characteristics and quirks of each grape: the late ripening of the Riesling; the high skin / juice ratio of the Cabernet Sauvignon, which creates tannin, the agent that dries the roof of the mouth; the perils of overchilling white Burgundy; the mysterious origins, possibly southern Italian, of the Zinfandel. Many notes were made and taken away.
She came to her finale with port. 'What is this beast?' she cried, as the liquid was poured into our eighth glass (a Croft 1982.) 'It roves on the palate. The alcohol is almost completely submerged.' And it did, and it was. We filed out on to the street flushed and with our fact files fuller than before. Try saying that after a wine tasting without a spittoon.
Sotheby's next course begins in September. Details on 071-323 5775.
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