If you want to know about the finest wines in France, try a tasting weekend at Birmingham's plush new Hotel du Vin, says Fiona Sturges

In a dimly-lit back room at Birmingham's Hotel du Vin, a meeting of taste buds is taking place. Sitting around a huge candle-lit table, 18 strangers are being tutored in the ways of fine wine and getting quietly plastered in the process.

In a dimly-lit back room at Birmingham's Hotel du Vin, a meeting of taste buds is taking place. Sitting around a huge candle-lit table, 18 strangers are being tutored in the ways of fine wine and getting quietly plastered in the process.

The group is a mix of amateur swiggers, serious wine buffs and well-heeled wide boys on a weekend jolly. There's Terry and Trevor, a pair of forty-something financial advisers from Surrey who own half a racehorse each and rely on London brokers to stock up their cellars, and Abigail and Simon, who recently built of a wine cellar in their Normandy holiday cottage. Also taking part is Colin, a city banker who is currently pondering the optimum humidity and temperature at which to store his collection of Burgundys.

Birmingham is the only member of the upmarket Hotel du Vin chain to offer weekend wine courses, known as the École du Vin. Each course focuses on a different region, and ours is themed around Bordeaux's Left Bank. This is the area to the south-west of the Gironde river as it opens out towards the Atlantic, which comprises the Médoc, the Haut Médoc and Graves. In terms of wine classification, the region can be broken down into even smaller areas. The Haut Medoc alone is sub-divided into sections including Margaux, Pauillac, St Estephe and St Julien.

If it sounds confusing to a lay drinker, that's because it is. Napoleon III established Bordeaux classifications in 1855 to coincide with the Paris Exhibition - each division was delineated according to the price of wines throughout the previous century. Since then the produce of these regions has fluctuated in quality, though no one has come up with a new system to reflect the variation.

The guests meet for the first time in the Billiard Room on Friday evening, where a saucy painting of a woman languishing on a giant Cuban cigar immediately gets the conversation flowing. There the oenological brains behind the operation, Gerard Basset and Henri Chapon, introduce themselves over an apéritif of Vieux-Chateau-Gaubert 2001, a crisp white from the Graves region.

The softly-spoken, moustacheod Gerard is a Master of Wine and winner of the Best Sommelier of French Wines in 1992, who perfectly encapsulates the delicacy and refinement of his trade. Henri is former Chief Sommelier at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire, and is now the Hotel du Vin's chief wine purchaser. This charismatic couple are an excellent double act, telling boisterous anecdotes about their visits to various estates and the wheeler-dealers of the trade. After a sumptuous four-course dinner - scallops, rack of lamb, crème brûlée and cheese - and four more wines from Graves and the Médoc, we stagger full-bellied to bed.

A three-hour tasting session takes place the next morning - apparently this is when the palate is at its best. On each table sit 12 glasses - two half-filled with white, nine with red, and one tantalisingly empty - along with a small basket of bread, some bottled water and a spittoon. While Henri and Gerard happily give their own verdicts on the wines, they're clearly not in the business of telling us what to think. Wine is a subjective business, says Gerard, and there's no reason why ordinary punters should agree with the critics.

There's much talk of colour, nose and taste. We learn a lexicon of new words to describe the wine - firm, austere, glossy, thick - and struggle to come up with our own. Some of Gerard's phrases might seem contradictory on paper - "it's not heavy but it's got weight" he says of the rich, red Chateau Lagrange - but on tasting the wine you realise he's right on the mark.

Between each sample, Gerard and Henri tell us about the estates and how the wine is produced. A mind-boggling collection of factors contribute to the quality of a wine. Gravelly soil is good, and on a slope its even better, as it allows decent drainage. The weather is also a crucial factor - too hot and the sugar levels soar, while too much rainfall can make the grapes soggy and prone to disease.

We learn about the different vintages - the Nineties were a wash-out in Bordeaux, though 2000 was a classic. We also hear how buyers, or negotiantes, can be effectively forced into buying up lesser vintages with the threat of not getting next year's yield, and about the critic Robert Parker, whose opinion can make or break a wine's reputation.

Wisely, Gerard and Henri leave the best until last, uncorking a £175 bottle of Chateau D'Yquem (dark, fragrant, a strong whiff of melon), one of the leading sweet wines. Until now we have been quietly spitting out the wine but now all sense of decorum goes out the window and everyone joyfully lets it trickle into their tummies.

With school over it's time for a stroll around town. After a £30 glass of wine, even Birmingham's new Bullring shopping centre has a welcoming glow about it, although as the memory of the wine fades, so does our enthusiasm.

Eventually we head home for a rest. All the rooms at the Hotel du Vin, which was once a Victorian eye hospital, are named after vineyards. Ours is the Steenberg, a wine estate on the outskirts of Cape Town that by pure coincidence is the only vineyard in the world that we have visited. The room is as classy as the wines we have been tasting - decked out in sleek, unfussy luxury, with a bed the size of a small continent and a shower with the ferocity of a fireman's hose.

Later, after a nap, an aspirin and several glasses of water, it's back downstairs for the final instalment of the weekend. This time, the dinner, which includes a foie gras starter and a beef main course, is less spectacular, though the wine remains excellent. By now the pupils have gathered confidence and are given to loud proclamations. "This one smells like burning plastic," announces my husband, knocking back a Chateau Climens with gusto. "This one's got me pissed," mutters Terry, yawning loudly. "I'm off to bed."



The Hotel du Vin and Bistro, Church Street, Birmingham B3 2NR (0121 200 0600; www.hotelduvin.com) is in Birmingham's City centre, five minutes' walk from the Jewellery Quarter. The nearest mainline station is Birmingham New Street. From there a taxi to the hotel will cost about £5.


The École du Vin costs £570 per couple, based on two guests sharing a twin/double room. This includes two nights' bed and breakfast, pre-dinner drinks and dinner each evening with selected wines, plus école presentation. The price is £335 if you're travelling solo. There are still places available on the next École du Vin weekend, based around the wines of the Northern Rhône, which will be held from Friday 16 to Sunday 18 April.