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