Put a cork in it

Drink - Victoria Moore goes back to school

Turning up to my wine class a bit late this week, I could not help but feel irritable when I saw that all the seats - my seats - on the back row were taken. Our lecturer had warned us against this sort of reaction in the first session. "Week after week, people sit in the same place next to the same people," he said. "For goodness sake, move around a bit. This is meant to be a sociable occasion."

Of course, it isn't. No one speaks to anyone else unless they know them already, although there is one bloke who shouts out smart-alecky comments ("There must be either a lot or no vineyards in England, or you wouldn't be asking us how many we thought there were"), only about 5 per cent of which are funny. A motley and bedraggled collection of harassed people traipses every week into a neutrally decorated classroom to spend the first hour of the lesson earnestly taking notes and keeping one dogged eye on the wine bottles that are about to come our way. As soon as the first arrives, we go rapidly through the assessing ritual before covertly gulping it down. Only once this relaxing glassful has been drunk is the poor lecturer able to elicit any sort of response from his work-weary audience.

Most difficulties seem to arise from a misunderstanding of technical terms. This week, the class shouted hopefully but without conviction that the young Riesling we were tasting was "lemon" (as opposed to gold) coloured. The lecturer assented. "Yes, because remember, lemon does not, for our purposes, refer to the colour of a lemon's skin but to its squeezed juice." A look of pure relief and sudden understanding settled on most people's faces.

It was the same when we were briefed on that old chestnut - corked wine. Contrary to common belief, wine with bits of cork floating in it is just wine with bits of cork floating in it. It is not necessarily corked.

Along similar lines, someone caused consternation at one session by declaring that the wine she was sniffing did not have a "clean" nose. The lecturer thought she meant it had off-odours and went rushing over to double-check it. What she meant was that it had a rather vegetal, earthy smell. In no other circumstances would you describe this as a clean fragrance: hence the confusion.

Then there is the question of "length". The length of a wine indicates not how long any traces of a wine - for example, the acidity or alcohol - stay in the mouth, but for how long the taste buds are able to detect the wine's flavour.

And lastly, you might think that a wine smells sweet, but you had better not say that - say that it smells of honeysuckle, bubblegum, bananas, hay or whatever, but unless you recognise the wine and know that it's sweet, you cannot gauge dryness levels with your nose. It's the tip of the tongue that has the sweetness receptors.

If in doubt, stick to brush-stroke descriptions - "fruity" as opposed to "floral" gets you somewhere, even if you can't put a name to the fruitiness. Placing terms in opposition - is the fruit tropical or citrussy, for example - helps if you don't trust yourself to pluck a flavour out of thin air.

And a word of reassurance. One lecturer related the story of how she had watched the head of wine at Sotheby's smelling a wine. "Oh, it must be Soave," she is said to have cried instantly, "because it reeks of garganega." Garganega is a white grape that usually constitutes between 70 and 100 per cent of the blend in Soave but, our lecturer confessed, "You can barely smell it at all. I wouldn't say that anything reeks of garganega."

"Perhaps," piped up the class clown, "she was just being pretentious." And, for once, I laughed.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Brown should hold his nerve

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.