Outdoors: First the wine, then the party

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The Independent Online
The best way to learn which wine goes with which food is by making an occasion of it, writes Sally Staples

At the end of a busy day in the office, only the stout-hearted, or those on a strict diet, may be able to face the rigours of going straight off to evening class to broaden their minds. But some courses designed to widen horizons are set in a convivial atmosphere, round a large table laden with food and wine. And this isn't a class on the art of dinner- party conversation, but one that teaches how to match different wlnes with food. It combines learning something useful with unwinding at the end of the day, and you don't have to think about cooking dinner afterwards.

Most of the students I met were young business women who wanted to be more adventurous when buying wine to complement their cooking, or needed to know more about selecting wine when planning to entertain clients.

Among the few men sipping and sampling was a ship broker, Jonathan, who said he was embarrassed that he always had to hand the wine list to his guest when taking clients out to lunch. "I wanted to know more about what wines went with what food, and this course does just that," he said. "It's a relaxed and informal way of learning what I need to know."

The tutor, Jackie Graves, asks the class to bring their own tasting glasses to the venue, at Westminster City School in London, and she suggests they refrain from eating spicy food at lunch time, as this impairs the palate. She begins by offering three wines for the students to taste.

On the night I visited, these were chablis premier cru, sancerre and chianti classico - all bought from Wine Rack at pounds 7.99 a bottle. Everyone was given a tasting sheet and invited to write down their opinion of the wine's appearance, bouquet and taste. The emphasis is not on what is right or wrong, but on what they feel they like.

"The course is for people who don't know much about wine and want to learn more," said Jackie. "We deal with wines whose names they will have come across in restaurants, and the idea is to let them explore tastes for themselves, rather than stipulate that specific wines must go with certain dishes."

Confidence visibly grew with each sip, and even the quieter members of the group started volunteering views about the flavour of gooseberries, hints of spices, or an oily, buttery texture.

Once each wine had been tasted and assessed, Jackie produced paper plates and plastic cutlery and started handing out food. First came avocado vinaigrette. Everyone was asked to taste each wine and write down which one best complemented the dish. Next was avocado with a prawn mayonnaise sauce, then cold lemon chicken, then plain roast chicken with sage and onion stuffing, and finally a garlicky duck pate. With six bottles of wine between a dozen tasters, and plenty of food on the table, the class developed like a dinner party, with everyone joining in the discussion.

Elmar, an accountant, had signed up for the course with her flatmates, insurance broker Deborah, and Angela who works for a software company.

"I had been to wine tastings before, but it makes a difference when you are tasting food at the same time," said Elmar. "I eat out quite a lot and it makes it more interesting to know something about the wine you are drinking. Also, we all cook in the flat and it's fun to learn more about the wine we buy."

Across the table was Carlos, from Spain, who works in the catering industry and wants to be a sommelier.

Another taster with ambitions for a career in cooking was 24-year-old Emma, from Essex.

"I used to do home economics. I love cooking and I eat out a lot, so this course really suits me. Another reason I came is that I heard that loads of men come on it, and you get asked out afterwards. I suppose that's why there are so many women here - they've all heard that," she said with a rueful grin.

Jackie prefaced the evening with a run-down on each wine sampled, so students can learn that chablis is made from the chardonnay grape and sancerre from the sauvignon blanc variety. She warned against buying a cheap pounds 4 bottle of chablis, and urged her students to go only for the premier cru. The next week's session was to include German riesling, fitou and fleurie, to be tasted with goats' cheese, Parma ham and melon, lobster pate, roast pork, and pork and mushroom meat loaf. In other sessions, Jackie will deal with pudding wines.

At the end of the evening a vote was taken on which wine best matched each dish. Jackie gave her view, but occasionally she may be outvoted by her students. It may not be traditional, but in 1998, if you prefer a chianti with avocado vinaigrette, or a chablis with sage and onion stuffing - then that's fine.

The six-week course costs between pounds 27 and pounds 33, plus a pounds 50 fee for the food and wine. There are also courses on French wine appreciation. Both are run by Westminster Adult Education Services (0171-286 1900). Jackie Graves also offers classes for wine studies and the World of Wine certificate course at Kensington and Chelsea College (0171-573 5333).