Three Ways to Learn about Wine in London:
Where do you start once you’ve graduated from that cheap bottle of Lambrusco and want to learn a little more about the wine you are drinking? If you generally buy your wine from the supermarket, you might find the information on the shelf is just a little limited, while those who shop online or from specialist wine retailers might find a bit more information at point of sale. Try Waitrose Cellar for example – where you can ask for one to one support with your online wine buying. What you are unlikely to find, though, is any way of getting an understanding of what the wine from a particular region is about or even the range of wines produced from a specific winery. And, if you want to get to know the different grape varieties, you’ll have to work through a LOT of bottles – there are over 10,000 single grape varieties and an infinite number of blends. Even if you only want to tackle the main varieties, the key is that you still need to taste – preferably a selection of the same type of wines at the same time.
That’s where a structured tasting comes in. And, one of the benefits of living in a large city like London is that there are plenty of ways you can taste wine and learn a little more, often without spending too much money. Here are some of the options you might want to consider.
Option One – Find an Event at a Restaurant
Many London restaurants run special wine tasting events and some offer great value. While you might find that you are only tasting the wines from one producer or one distributor, these events have the benefit of being paired with food (sometimes canapes, sometimes a full meal), so that you can really get an inside track on when each variety works best. I’ve been to events at Gaucho, where the focus was on Argentinian Malbec, at Paternoster Chop House, where we tried a range of Chapel Down English wines and at Chisou where I’ve tried Sake and Japanese food pairing and on a separate occasion, Nyetimber sparkling wines. These events are generally excellent value for money because the restaurants work with their wine suppliers, essentially to introduce customers to things they might not have considered.
As an example, the Chapel Down event at Paternoster Chop House was £20 – and for that, we were given five small glasses of wine (more than a ‘taste’ but less than a full glass) and some excellent canapes. You won’t generally hear about these events unless you are on the mailing list for a particular restaurant or group so, it’s well worth signing up. A good starting point is the D&D Wine Club; Covering a range of different restaurants, from International to Classic French and Italian to English, D&D are well placed to offer a wide choice of events. I haven’t reviewed every D&D restaurant but those I have visited are all high quality in their own sector. There’s a few fine dining restaurants in the group, with a scattering of Michelin stars, complemented by some accessible locations including Paternoster Chop House, where I went for the Chapel Down event. The Wine Club runs events right the way across the group. You can even buy the wines you enjoy in their restaurants online so that you can drink them at home too.
Option Two – Join a Wine School
I joined the East London Wine School for an evening of wine tasting lead by Isabelle Pangault, the winemaker from Foncalieu. While you won’t generally find the tastings at wine clubs and schools are led by the winemaker themselves, you will always learn a lot about the wines you are trying. And, usually, wines will be offered in a way that allows you to compare, for example, the results of a different vintage or of a different terroir.
In our case, with the help of Isabelle, we were able to get a real insight into what was the first cooperative winery in France. Foncalieu was founded in 1901 and is a winery that is now responsible for producing wines from around a thousand wine growing estate owners. At Foncalieu the estates cover more than 20 appellations and produce around 27 million bottles of wine a year! Yet they still produce premium and super premium wines. So, the benefit of that particular event was a unique opportunity to taste a whole range of wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon wine area, starting with their varietal wine brands (Le Versand and Griset) which include both international and regional varieties and working through to Premium and Super Premium wines from their Atelier Prestige range and from Chateau Haut Gleon. While the entire portfolio of wines is well regarded, this gave us the opportunity to try award winners that retail at around the £8-£10 mark against wines which retail at £25 upward and which are popular in many of the best restaurants in Europe. Apart from the wines, what made this event so special was that the winemaker herself was there and able to give us a real insight into the philosophy behind the wines of Foncalieu.
Wine Clubs and Wine Schools usually allow you to join an evening or weekend course, or if you prefer book for special events. Some run courses that allow you to study for the WSET (Wine and Spirits Educational Trust) Diplomas, others are just for fun.
Option Three – Visit Vinopolis (while you still can)
Finally, at the moment you still have the chance to experience Vinopolis, a large museum dedicated to furthering our understanding of wine. It’s a unique venue and will be closing at the end of 2015.
Take one of the self-guided tours (with tastings), upgrade to have a personal tasting session at the end of your tour, or as I have done, join one of the masterclasses.
I’ve been to a couple of the master classes there now and loved both of them. The Chocolate Pairing event, in conjunction with Lindt, has the added bonus of some rather good chocolate, while the Turkish masterclass that I attended last night was a real insight into wine from a part of the world I didn’t know well. Vinopolis events are excellent value for money with self-guided tours starting at just £27 and with events like the Turkish Masterclass priced between £40 and £50.
With many thanks to Vinopolis, Foncalieu, and D& D restaurants for inviting me to try their events.
You may also be interested in finding out about events at WSET in Bermondsey. Read Simon’s review to find out more.