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Reading Between the Wines: it's all in the tastings

Chairman Mao once said: “if you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself”.

Tastings allow you to remember the flavours of each wine so you can compare them
Tastings allow you to remember the flavour of each wine so you can compare them

I don’t know how he was on his drink (maybe he enjoyed a perry?), but the same applies to wine.

I note a few regular wine columns this week have been addressing the issue of what wines are best for drinking and gifting at Valentine’s Day. Despite this annual trend, I’m not going to fall into the same trap. I might as well write about the length of a piece of string, and to be honest, all that pink champagne will sell just fine without my help.

Instead of celebrating a declaration of romance that has been arbitrarily thrust upon you by convention, why not indulge your ‘passion’ for fine wine, and think about doing some tastings? If you are one half of a couple, you could make this a shared pursuit or new hobby together. What could be more romantic than that?

I suggest this because while old Mao was barking up the right tree (if applied to wine, that is - I’m not really qualified to write about revolution), I would urge that you take his advice a step further. I think it might be more useful to try lots of different kinds of pears, in close sequence with each other. And then commit the appearance, names, origins and flavours of each pear to memory! Sounds like fun, right? No, honestly – hear me out – it is fun.

Trying things in close sequence is how wine tasting works in the educational sense – we remember flavours more distinctly when they are directly compared to other flavours. Have two wines in the same sitting, and you can remember the difference between them better. Have them weeks apart, and you will have to try very hard to recall the difference – unless, that is, you have spent lots of time doing tastings in order to learn about wine!

You might feel a little intimidated about the prospect of walking into a room full of winos espousing their knowledge, but good wine tastings are not actually about people showing off, nor even the group dynamic – they are simply an economic way to try lots of wines next to each other.

All opinions on wine tasting are opinions; therefore they can’t be ‘wrong’, per se. And just because one person might be more willing to loudly announce their opinion more than those around them does not make them right! However, it can make them quite annoying...

So what can you do to attend a wine tasting? The easiest way is to perform a web search for tastings in your area. There should be frequent and varied public events that cover wines, spirits, beers, wine- and-food, and all sorts of themes and specialities. However, these will most likely be held in the cities.

The great news is that tickets to tastings start at around £10, but depending on the quality and range of the kit (as well as any nibbles or matched food courses), it can be more. These events have the ‘wildcard’ element, in that you cannot choose your host, or your fellow attendees, but invariably these are well run and great fun – only people with appropriate knowledge host, and people who turn up are also there to learn.

Your other option for tastings is a little bit more complex, but most likely even more fun. Get a party of friends together, and everyone attending has to bring a bottle, and do some basic internet research on it (grape, region, production method, etc.) before they come. Then, at the top of the evening, you all sit round with water glasses at the ready (spittoons are not strictly necessary!) and try very small glasses of your wines, one by one (looking, smelling, tasting), with each attendee introducing their wine alongside their homework assignment. The fastidious amongst you might want to bring a wee notebook, but be prepared for a gentle ribbing!

Choosing the tasting order can be a bit of a nightmare (even professional opinions on this can differ) but a rule of thumb is: fizzy wine, then whites, then rosés, then reds, then sweets/fortifieds (letting lighter-to-stronger alcohol volume dictate the order within each category). After you have done your tasting over a wee half-hour of chatter, you can relax and let the evening proceed normally as you all enjoy the rest of the wine.

The upshot here is that you managed to have a tasting AND a party with friends. Say, for example, six people attended, and everyone was told to bring a £10 bottle of wine – this means you tried £60 worth of wine in a tasting environment, and only spent a few quid on wine for the night (which you probably would have done anyway). If everyone has fun, you could start doing themed nights – Italian wines, fizz, wines to match a particular cuisine, or whatever takes your fancy! Do this with any kind of regularity and you will learn things, get better at tasting, and you might even – gasp – have some fun while you’re at it!


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