Around the world in 80 glasses

Wine's amazing history goes back thousands of years. Peter Chapman drinks it all in at Vinopolis, a classy little number near London's Southwark Bridge
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The Independent Travel

Every man needs a hobby, a focus for all that potentially unruly energy, a way of passing time that includes some jargon, the chance to immerse oneself in a body of arcane knowledge and, preferably, regular opportunities to swap cash for assorted hardware. I'd tried stamp collecting, bodybuilding and DIY, and now I was heading towards Vinopolis, the city of wine located on the south side of the River Thames next to Southwark Bridge - to try my hand at wine appreciation.

Every man needs a hobby, a focus for all that potentially unruly energy, a way of passing time that includes some jargon, the chance to immerse oneself in a body of arcane knowledge and, preferably, regular opportunities to swap cash for assorted hardware. I'd tried stamp collecting, bodybuilding and DIY, and now I was heading towards Vinopolis, the city of wine located on the south side of the River Thames next to Southwark Bridge - to try my hand at wine appreciation.

It was a dreary Thursday afternoon and as I hadn't been able to find anyone willing to accompany me, I was resigned to experiencing solo the tour of the world of wine that Vinopolis offers. Fortunately, Oz Clarke came to my rescue.

Oz, author, TV personality and exuberant taster of all things vine-related, provides the commentary for the Vinopolis audio guide. His voice has all the marinated fruitiness of a man who religiously gargles every night with a glass of heavyweight Shiraz, which he was soon revealing was perhaps the oldest of all known grape varieties.

About 7,000 years ago, wine was already being drunk in what is now Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union. It was probably Shiraz, and the importance of wine in the lives of people back then can be gauged by an exhibit at Vinopolis of 7,000-year-old vine roots, each encased in a silver clasp. Vine roots were buried with the dead to provide them with the means of producing wine once they arrived in the underworld. Amazingly, the roots are still healthy enough to plant.

Vinopolis is situated barely 100 yards from the site of an archaeological dig that yielded several Roman amphorae, the clay pots our one-time landlords used to keep their wine in. In time, amphorae gave way to barrels, which are still used today. The Roman Empire, it transpires, was something like the Oddbins or Majestic of its day, sedulously spreading the gospel of fine wine to various parts of the globe, most famously to France.

Ahhh, France, the wine producer that still manages to separate the connoisseur from the glugger. And nowhere more successfully than in Bordeaux, the snootiest and most prestigious of all the world's wine regions. Cue Oz to explain Bordeaux's five-tiered system of classification, unchanged for the past 150 years, save for the single promotion of Château Mouton Rothschild in 1973. That, I suggest, is a fairly conservative set-up.

Things were slightly more relaxed over in the Rhône Valley, my preferred source of French reds, where, having positioned myself on the mini-Roman amphitheatre that Vinopolis thoughtfully provided, I watched a short film. In the Rhône, it seems, the church, in the form of an alternative papacy set up in Avignon, took a hand in maintaining and refining wine production. Hence, the prestigious appellation Châteauneuf du Pape - literally, the Pope's new chateau.

On to Champagne, Burgundy, the Loire Valley and before I knew it Oz and I had reached the first tasting table. Each ticket includes five tasting tokens, although you can buy more if the mood takes you. Oz was strangely quiet as I made my choice and proffered my glass. The Portuguese red I'd selected didn't excite, but an American couple nodded vigorously to each other as they swallowed.

Having nipped across into Germany, I found Oz bursting into life and holding forth on the various Germanic categories, from Kabinett to Auslese and on to ice wine, a rare and expensive cordial obtained by picking and crushing frozen grapes. In contrast, some grapes are left on the vine until they are infected with noble rot (Botrytis cinerea). Ironically, both techniques produce a sweet result.

I also learnt that Spanish conquistadors took wine to South America, while Franciscan monks took it to America. Ever since, particularly in the past 50 years, the New World, including Australia and New Zealand, has proved suitably keen on change and innovation, among other things marketing their wine by the grape used rather than by the producer.

As if infected by such youthful energy, Vinopolis itself is not ashamed of the kitsch manoeuvre. In the America section, you have to peer into movie cameras to view films on the country's wine history. After New Zealand, you have to board a stationary aeroplane in simulation of a flight to Australia. Vespa scooters create a similar effect when you get to Italy, with visitors seemingly transported through sleepy Italian vineyards.

I did as instructed by Oz - I was becoming pretty damn obedient - and made my way into the Dry Gin Experience. And indeed the cocktail mixed gin with cranberry and blackcurrant in a most appealing way. However, I'm still not sure quite where it fits into a history of wine.

Sometime later, I handed Oz back, although I'm not sure he said goodbye. I remember trying a memorable Uruguayan Sauvignon Blanc at the final testing table. Dazed, I wandered through a shop packed with branded corkscrews and T-shirts before finding my way into an attached branch of Majestic containing more than 1,000 varieties of wine. Listening to a David Gray CD pour out of the PA, I felt a little emotional about my hobby. Not quite tearful, but almost.

Other customers and I smiled at each other as we inspected labels and made various calculations of the cost per case. It wasn't necessary for us to speak - we were, after all, fellow enthusiasts, embarked upon a similar quest, to find joy in a glass.

Vinopolis, 1 Bank End, London SE1 (0870 241 4040) www.vinopolis.co.uk. Open Monday, Friday and Saturday, 12pm-9pm, Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday 12pm-6pm. Tours cost £12.50 for adults, £11.50 for seniors. Tuesday to Thursday £11, seniors £10. Last entry two hours before closing.

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