Wine-tastings: not to be sniffed at

Richard Johnson finally conquers his fear of wine-tastings
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I was bored. Bored to the point where the boredom had become almost mystical. You see, I was dieting. I say "dieting", but of course I mean "engaged in a healthy eating programme". After years of No carbs! and All protein! I had decided to eat less. No more scraping the bun off my hamburger. No more egg-white wonders. Just your basic portion control. That, unfortunately, included cutting my alcohol intake. After one weekend, I decided to break out – and go find the wine for my wedding.

I was bored. Bored to the point where the boredom had become almost mystical. You see, I was dieting. I say "dieting", but of course I mean "engaged in a healthy eating programme". After years of No carbs! and All protein! I had decided to eat less. No more scraping the bun off my hamburger. No more egg-white wonders. Just your basic portion control. That, unfortunately, included cutting my alcohol intake. After one weekend, I decided to break out – and go find the wine for my wedding.

Confucius once said that plain rice to eat, water to drink, and one's arm as a pillow were quite enough for earthly happiness. Confucius was a wise and gentle soul, but he never tasted a decent drop from Tanners. Tanners is wine merchant to Shropshire's smart set. James Tanner knows that, when it comes to wine, you throw away the textbooks and invest in a corkscrew. Learn by tasting the stuff. So that's exactly what I did.

Not so long ago, at a tasting of the wines of Château Lafite-Rothschild, Eric de Rothschild was asked about his favourite vintage. "The '59," he answered, "if you like young wine." That snobbery explains why I once shied away from tastings. I didn't want to stand and "swill". I wouldn't just stop at "ooh, that's nice" when faced with eight different wines. I would give in to the pressure to contribute.

But I have learnt. Over the years I've seen dozens of men spit on their ties. I've seen a man spit his top set into the bucket. And I've seen two men aiming to spit at the same time. One ended up spitting on the back of the other's head. So I'm not frightened any more. I'll even voice my own opinions. There are, after all, plenty of "Emperor's New Clothes" wines out there.

You can buy cheaper – there's not a lot on the Tanners list for £3.99. But that's missing the point. Tanners is about "value", an altogether more esoteric concept. And its own-label Brut Extra Reserve Champagne was certainly a discovery at £12.95. The list isn't huge. But so what? "It would be like a doctor who gives you the choice of 20 possible diagnoses," says James Tanner. "Or a disc jockey who tells you to choose all your own music."

It's no surprise to discover the shop frontage of Tanners dates back to 1490. And the interior doubled as Fezziwig's warehouse in a recent production of A Christmas Carol. "I've been here for years," says Tanner, "but I'm still coming across drawers that haven't been opened in 20 years." Clogs made of alder were worn by the staff until the Fifties. Now they favour loafers. And cords.

When it comes to tastings, there are some classic combinations. My favourites include oysters and chablis, lamb and Bordeaux, and chocolate with Cabernet Sauvignon. But the only good wine is the one you like. And don't ever be frightened to tell that to the men in cords. And remember, when you're asked your opinion, "Ooh, that's nice," is perfectly acceptable.

Tanners Wines, 26 Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury, Shropshire (01743 234455)

You can e-mail Richard Johnson at drinkwithrichardjohnson@yahoo.co.uk

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