A Day Of Wine Tasting, Wine Not?
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Photography by Sofy Robertson
I would safely class myself as an ‘enjoyer of wine’; I can happily spend half an hour perusing the wine sections of supermarkets, picking up bottles and considering their descriptions and I love the part that comes after: the drinking of my chosen wine(s). In terms of making an informed choice, however, I can honestly say that despite all of my perusing, I would always chosen an Argentinian Malbec, a Chilean Merlot or a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. All that was set to change as I arrived at Kenton Park Estate for my Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) course with the South West Wine School.
After spending nearly two hours in the car due to several wrong turns followed by a Devon Diversion, I was more than ready for a glass of wine, despite the early hour. As I joked to my husband in the car, we couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful place to be lost. With views reaching over lush fields and forest, Kenton Park Estate is nestled in a truly enviable part of the countryside.
We were meeting in The Old Winery, surrounded by vineyards stripped bare by winter, and olive trees twisting from large pots. The Motley Cru bar was laden with pastries and breakfast treats to reward our travels so these and coffee were the first orders of the day.
As I enjoyed my pain au chocolat and coffee, we did the rounds and I met Hayley Reynolds who runs Raw Food and Drink PR as well as the South West Wine School with her husband, Jonathan. Hayley and Jonathan’s passion for their industry was immediately clear and Hayley explained her own journey from wine ‘novice’ to holding a WSET Diploma. It’s also worth mentioning that on top of these two businesses, she has a young family to raise. Wonder Woman incarnate? I was beginning to think so.
After a bit of a natter and a sugar kick, our little group headed next door with our course leader Rebecca Mitchell, a wine expert with over twenty years’ experience, including a role as Head Sommelier at Gidleigh Park. Rebecca explained that the WSET course that we were about to undertake was the most recognised qualification in the UK.
We took our seats, each place laid with six wine glasses, waiting to be filled. This may have intimidated lesser wine ‘enjoyers’ but it filled me with great anticipation. My only slight concern was sitting the exam at the end of the day after who knew how much wine… but perhaps I would test better if slightly inebriated.
The timetable for the day was also laid out in front of us and so we got stuck in, beginning with an introduction to wines and wine-making which spanned the first fifteen pages of our booklet. Having been on many courses before, albeit most of them teaching courses where wine was a distant promise for the end of the day, it was clear that Rebecca knew her stuff. She didn’t teach exclusively from the slides or booklet and soon we were rapidly annotating our diagrams and the typed information given to us. My previous knowledge of wines began to seem laughably limited.
After a mid-morning break, the real work began; the wine tasting. We learned the systematic approach to tasting wine, a three-stage process, as well as how to properly appreciate the palate of wines. My husband has always deemed my knowledge of wine to be better than his and therefore the responsibility of tasting in restaurants has always fallen to me. In these instances, I’ve taken a quick gulp before nodding or smiling my approval. Not so here. We learned where to hold the wine in our mouths and how to allow air in to properly taste it, which I have to be honest, resulted in a lot of dribbling in my first few attempts.
Having always stuck rather rigidly to certain wine comfort zones (I’m fairly certain I have used the phrase ‘you can’t go wrong with a merlot’ on many occasions), it was refreshing to taste varieties that I wouldn’t usually choose and from countries that I wouldn’t always go for. Having also largely avoided rosé, perhaps due to the connotations that a binge-drinking culture has given it, I was pleasantly surprised by the French offering Rebecca provided.
After a hard morning of tasting and describing six varieties of wine, it was time for lunch and we were able to take through a couple of our glasses to enjoy with our sandwiches and cheese in the stylish Motley Cru bar.
The afternoon held a mix of theory and practical; we worked through a wine list, recommending wines based on our growing knowledge of varieties and flavours as well as learning about storage and service. The next practical part was the pairing activity. Here we had a variety of items to eat from the different taste categories. We had learned the theory of what is meant to happen when pairing a sweet food with a highly acidic wine, for instance, and now we were putting it to the test.
I have always enjoyed science, so adding alcohol into the mix brought the subject to a whole new level. I came to realise that I had been choosing wines wrongly for years; I had steered clear of varieties such as chardonnay, being of the impression that I didn’t like that style when actually I just wasn’t drinking it with the right food. At this moment I decided that my WSET course booklet would become my wine bible and that it would need to accompany me on every trip to the supermarket wine aisle.
We were now nearing the dreaded part of the day: the examination. As the other participants of the course were driving, they had begun to make use of the buckets on the tables as we tasted wine after wine. I, on the other hand, with no pressure to drive just couldn’t bear the thought of spitting away my wine. The result, of course, being that by the time we were sitting our practice questions, I definitely felt that warm, glowy feeling. Luckily, my answers didn’t suffer on this round and I could only hope for the same for the real deal.
There is something about the word ‘exam’ and being seated on separate tables that enhances that feeling of dread into terror. Fortunately, the paper was multiple choice and didn’t contain any nasty surprises; it was all knowledge from the booklet and our teachings of the day. It just became a question of remembering this newly acquired knowledge.
Am I now Level 1 WSET certified? I’ll have to let you know in four weeks, so keep your fingers crossed for me! I certainly hope that I’ll come away with the qualification. I may not be up to the level of sommelier, but my knowledge of wine has certainly increased drastically.
In many lifestyles, wine is considered a staple part of ones diet and although I won’t be taking up a career in hospitality any time soon, my personal consumption will benefit hugely from the WSET and I am determined now to stray away from my wine comfort zones.
There are exciting times ahead for the South West Wine School, who have moved their headquarters to Wakeham Farm, near Kingsbridge. Co-founder Jonathan has recently taken and passed his WSET Level 3 and explained the importance of the qualification:
“It provides such a comprehensive education on everything related to wine, from growing vines, wine-making and the different grape varieties to serving recommendations and food and wine pairings.
“With the hospitality industry booming in the Southwest these courses are vital for anyone working with wine and will hugely enhance their wine appreciation for everyone who attends.”
South West Wine School’s WSET Level 2 Course is already scheduled and will take place over three days; Wednesday 27th February, 6th and 13th March 2019. Depending on my Level 1 results, I may undertake the arduous task of another day of wine education.
If you would like to find out more about the WSET courses, including dates for further Level 1 and 2 courses, visit South West Wine School’s website. For information on their Valentine’s ‘Speed Tasting’ event, click here.