As I age, life is becoming more about experiences. Experiences are what makes life interesting, both good and bad. Experiences challenge us and change us. Experiences are also what bring people real deep joy. Much more so than things.
I had a thought at the start of the year that I’d like to punctuate my time off with an experience that was something a little different. I wasn’t sure exactly what experience at the time. But if it involved travel, it had to be something that Louise and Sebastian wouldn’t be bothered about missing out on. Because I’d probably be doing it on my own.
I wanted it to be a bit of a challenge, so not just lying on a beach in Thailand. I’m also a little limited by dodgy discs in my spine which can freak out without warning. So anything too extreme, like climbing Everest, was out.
Because part of this mid-life-break is about growing I eventually settled on doing a wine qualification. Wine’s something that I enjoy, it’s incredibly complex, and they do courses in it. But rather than just do it any old place I thought why not go to the home of my favourite wine, Bordeaux.
Over the years, despite doing my fair share of wine drinking, I’ve not actually done much structured tasting. It often feels like one of the dark arts, to take a whiff of fermented grape juice and smell plums, mint, smoke, and any number of other seemingly out of context aromas. It’s the sort of thing that I’m sure most people just think is bollocks. How can you smell, or taste, rocks in a wine. And we’ve all heard someone ask ‘How can this be dry if it’s wet?”
Our course tutor was a French wine expert, Marie-Celine, and she had an amazing nose. No, not in that way. She could pick multiple complex aromas from a wine in one sniff. Something that might take me 5 minutes of trying to work out what a particular one was. Although she had been in the wine business for a long time.
This course was the first time in at least a decade that I’d done any structured classroom learning. And it’s tough. There’s a lot of information to be absorbed. There was some pre-study we had to do before the course and we then covered it in detail and did the practical part in class.
One of the first things I learnt was to forget everything I knew about wine. Things like, I don’t particularly like Pinot Noir, or the reason this wine tastes like wet dog is because the grapes were crushed by Alaskan malamute paws.
The second was that I knew nothing about wine. Most of my friends would consider me a ‘wine guy’, because I know perhaps a little more than them. But I often find that when you delve into any subject you have an interest in you realise there’s a chasm of more detail and you realise really how little you know in the ‘what there is to know’ universe.
Over the duration of the course in Bordeaux we tasted over 40 wines, and a few spirits thrown in for good measure. Every single one was distinct. Each wine had been pored over by experts all aiming to create the perfect wine.
What was fascinating, and something I didn’t really understand is that there’s generally a reason why a wine has particular characteristics. And it’s generally related to the region, climate and process etc. The earth in a particular region will bring certain flavours with it. But the climate – sun, rain etc. – will bring out those flavours in different ways. So a vine on one side of a hill might taste distinctly different to a wine on the other side because it gets a different amount of sun, or it’s cooler.
During the evening while in Bordeaux, when I wasn’t hitting the books, I also added to that list of wines by sampling a good range of amazing wines at wine bars. At one wine bar they served wines by the glass which is always a great way to taste a broad range. I left my palette in the capable hands of resident sommelier and he set about lining glasses of wine up.
About halfway through the night there was some fussing from the staff as they cleared a sofa area for a group of people who were arriving. There were three of them, one carrying his own box of wine glasses. A little strange as I’d have thought being in a wine bar you’d expect an abundance of glasses. As they sat down the staff started lining up a few bottles which include a 1970s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, similar vintage La Tache and some other equally impressive white wines. In all there was probably £3,000-4,000 worth in a few bottles. I was desperate to try even one of them, but it wasn’t meant to be.
After I’d taken the final exam for the course I decided to take a tour around the right bank of Bordeaux with Ophorus. We visited a small chateau in St Emilion which is run by Guy Petrus. For anyone that’s heard of Petrus you’ll know that’s a pretty big name in the wine world. Bottles of Petrus wine can cost from a few thousand through to 10s of thousands.
Guy’s son Vincent currently leads the wine production. This guy takes smelling to the next level. He does most of the winemaking himself and cares for it like a newborn. At the fermentation stage, when the yeast are turning the sugars into alcohol, he samples the wine every two hours for what could be a couple of weeks. This is to work out when the wine’s ready.
What’s a little extreme is that he also listens to the wine as it’s fermenting. Yep, listens to the wine! As yeast is a growing organism and it’s eating the sugars in the grapes it will make noises. He can tell when the wine is ‘done’ by the changes in sound of the yeast doing its thing.
There are so many things I’ve learnt through this experience, not just related to wine. One of those was understanding and seeing the pursuit of perfection. Too often now I find that people are happy with just fine. I’ve had internal debates with deciding if it’s worth the extra effort to get something perfect. I’ve sometimes settled, and almost always it’s annoyed me later. Although perfection is hard, if not impossible to achieve, I find the pursuit of perfection rewarding. Too many times I’ve compromised on something because it’s seemed like too much effort or thinking that others won’t even notice the difference. But I’ve also learned that I’m happiest when I realise that I’m not competing or being judged by anyone but myself. I’m also aware that I can be a pretty harsh critic.
Since completing the course, and thankfully doing quite well on the final exam, my interest in getting into the wine business has grown. I don’t think I’m quite cut out for running a vineyard, but I do love the idea of helping more people experience better wine. Or at least gain a little more knowledge about what they’re drinking.
So I’ve started a wine experience website – GetTasting.com.
Currently the site lists wine tasting events across the UK which are searchable by location and date. It also lists places where you can study wine and take wine courses. This was something I found difficult when I was looking into studying wine, there was nowhere that brought together all things related to wine experience. Get Tasting also lists UK Vineyards and gives an overview of their facilities. The UK are making some amazing wine at the moment and people should be encouraged to visit UK Vineyards and sample some gorgeous wines.
There are a couple of other wine experience products I have up my sleeve and I’ll be working on them over the next few months. So hopefully there will be even more ways to get more people experiencing wine. But until then Get Tasting!