At our wine school I often recommend starting or joining a wine tasting club. The best way to learn is through experience and a wine club offers a way to share your passion for wine with friends old and new, to spread the cost of expensive bottles and to get out of the rut of your favourite wines.
I recommend keeping the number of wines to around 6 particularly at the start. If you meet about once a month except say over the summer holidays this means tasting 60 wines over the year. This will provide you with a great libarary of knowledge particularly if you push yourself out of your comfort zone.
A few words on how you could start your wine tasting club
Invite a small'ish (6 to 10) group of friends to join you: people passionate about wine and eager to learn more
At your first meeting agree the basics
- what day: eg first Friday of the month and location
- what you are going to do for food - order in pizzas after the tasting/ provide cheeses, bread and crudites for a light supper / have the host provide a casual dinner
For your first evening ask everyone to bring any wine and do a blind tasting guessing what and where they are from plus rating them (the discussion about favourites alone will be fun). Try to agree a selection of tastings for the next five or six sessions so everyone gets a turn to elect their theme and you know what is coming and can follow a logical progression.
- Cover the bottles with foil or a long sock and number them
- Try to supply enough glasses so you can compare the wines at once. Pour the same small sample amount into each glass so you are comparing the same depth. Ideally offer eveyone a numbered placemat so you can keep track of which wine is in which glass...
- Take notes and do a summary at the end - maybe agree a very simple rating scale so you can collate the winning wine
- Offer a spittoon: for the rating part of the evening it makes sense to spit
- Have fun!
This is a great starter theme to bring everyone in your group to same level on basic wine tasting. Select 4 of the major grape varietals white and red (you can split this into 2 sessions with 1 for whites and 1 for reds if you want to go further into varietals:
A viognier or gewurztraminer
There are hundreds of grape varieties but relatively few that are widely available. Some are very scarce like the wonderful egiodola - a plummy, fleshy varietal - produced by BRAU in the photo.
I recommend starting with the most widely available varietals. Give everyone the list of the varietals in the tasting with what they should taste like (as per below) and play a game of guessing which is which blind (see starting a wine club for how to do this). This is good fun and educational.
Some of the most well known varietals and how to recognise them
Chardonnay: this grape is very dependent on climate. It is full, soft, buttery and fruity in hot climates but flinty, lemony and vibrant in medium to cold climates. Specific aromas that can be found in chardonnay: peach, pear, pineapple, citrus, lemon, melon, butter, vanilla
Gewurztraminer: exotic, spicy, perfumed, oily, rich. Specific aromas that can be found in gewurz: ginger, cinnamon, lychees
Riesling: fruity, lively acidity, oily. Specific aromas that can be found in riesling: apples, limes, passion fruit, minerals, petrol
Sauvignon Blanc: invigorating, acidic, grassy. Specific aromas that can be found in sauvignon blanc: grass, gooseberries, passion fruit, litchee, asparagus, flint
Sémillon: Round, smooth, honeyed, toasty. Specific aromas that can be found in semillon: peach, apple, citrus, honey, toast.
Viognier: delicate, floral and fresh. Specific aromas that can be found in viognier: flowers, peaches
Cabernet Franc: medium bodied and floral. Specific aromas that can be found: green peppers, redcurrant, chocolate, flowers
Cabernet Sauvignon: intense, has ageing potential which marries well with oak. Specific aromas that can be found: blackcurrant, cedar, peppers, mint, chocolate, tobacco, cigar box, 'smoked'.
Grenache: sweet, dusty. Specific aromas that can be found: strawberry, blackcurrant, tobacco, dried apricot.
Malbec (Cot): deep colour and tannin. Specific aromas that can be found: plum, anise
Merlot: a rich, plummy, spicy variety that blends well with the cabernet. Specific aromas that can be found: plums, spice, fruit-cake, blackberry, pencil shavings
Pinot Noir: fragrant and silky with heady fruit and sometimes gamey complexity. Specific aromas that can be found: raspberries, strawberries, cherries, violets, roses, game, compost, manure.
Syrah / Shiraz: complex, rich, spicy and masculine. Specific aromas that can be found: raspberries, blackberries, pepper, cloves, spice, leather, game, tar.
In each edition of the Wine Adventurer I will offer more info on French Wine. Join our newsletter below to receive these quarterly offerings:
A grand cru is a regional wine classification designating a vineyard with a history and a reputation for producing great wines. It is the classification of a vineyard’s quality potential rather than the actual quality of individual wines. The grand cru concept has been applied differently across the four regions in France where we find grand crus namely Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace and Champagne.
Bordeaux is the most famous for the grand crus because of the well publicised classification of the left bank vineyards in 1855 as requested by Napoleon III. In Saint-Émilion, on the right bank of Bordeaux, grand crus were put in place 100 years later in a different format. Burgundy was probably the first to apply the concept of grand cru vineyards back in medieval times but it was only formalised there in 1861. Champagne and Alsace followed in 1950 and 1975 respectively. But the idea of grand crus is very ancient. There is proof that the Romans classified their best vineyards more than two millenia ago.
The St Emilion Classification court case
Since its creation in 1955 St Emilion's Grand Cru Classés are revised every 10 years unlike most other classifications (e.g. Burgundy and Medoc) which do not change. For the first time in their history a group of winegrowers that had been downgraded fought the 2006 classification in court and had it annulled. Now those who were downgraded have been reinstated and those who were upgraded have been allowed to keep their status.
This court case made me consider whether there was something to be said for the method of classification which does not change... (like Medoc - one I had always considered unjust - how can a classification of 1855 stand unchanged today?). Seeing the St Emilion machinations I realise there are positives to this method and in the end the market decides. Look at Lynch Bages in Pauillac which is a 5th class but which achieves 2nd class prices.
So who are the recently upgraded chateaux to keep your eye out for?
Chateau Bellefont-Belcier, Destieux, Fleur Cardinale, Grand Corbin, Grand Corbin Despagne and Monbousquet were upgraded from grand cru to grand cru classé and those promoted from grand cru classé to Premier Grand Cru Classé B are Pavie Maquin and Troplong Mondot.
Until this review Chateau Angelus was the only property to have been upgraded from grand cru classé to Premier Grand Cru Classé. They now have their eyes set on joining the A class ranks of Ausone and Cheval Blanc and the next review. (see below for more on Angelus).
You can find details of our St Emilion day tour at DAY TOURS
Angelus offers classic clay & limestone vineyards at the foot of the hill of St Emilion (about 1 mile from the village). Planted to 47% cab franc, 50% merlot and 3% cab sauv, it has one of the St Emilion wines I have tasted. At €120 (2002) to €400 (2005) they're closing in on Cheval Blanc's prices. The high level of cabernet franc is like Cheval Blanc but they are in a very different part of St Emilion 'terroir' with clay, limestone and sand rather than the almost Pomerol gravels at Cheval Blanc.
Chateau Cadet Bon is one of my favourite Grand Cru Classés in St Emilion based on the core plateau (about 1 km from the village) and about 80% merlot and 20% cab franc. Key to their recent success has been new ownership (since 2004) and with it major investment and a new team with Antoine above as Wiinemaker and Stephane Deronencourt as consultant.
Chateau Fonplegade is a great Grand Cru Classé in St Emilion on the south facing slopes with limestone and clay and a small part of sand at the bottom of their vineyards. It is like most St Emilion blends mostly merlot with some cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. They offer great wines and a historic property.
Our wine weekends include a day of touring grand cru classés and a day of wine education at our wine school with a good dose of FUN see Try our Perfect Wine Weekend .
''Terroir' is not somone's dog,' Tim Mondavi. This humerous quote from Tim Mondavi is mentioned in the Mondavi book reviewed below. Tim says he realised that terroir wasn't someone's dog on a wine tasting trip with his Dad, Robert Mondavi, in Burgundy.
For us terroir is a 'taste of place'. It is made up of four key factors that affect a wine’s character: soil (place); grape variety (vine); climate (including microclimates eg exposition/ slope/ proximity to a forest or mass of water); man (viticulture & winemaking). It is these factors other 3 factors that make up taste as much as the varietal that is often the focus in the new world. This is why a chardonnay grown in chablis will taste totally different to a chardonnay from a hot climate like languedoc. When you tour with me we discuss the different terroirs of Bordeaux and Bergerac and taste the difference while looking at the vineyards. This is the best way to see and remember how terroir affects taste. You can only create true 'terroir' wines with natural rather than chemical farming.
These two books provide great insight into the rise of wine in the US over the last 50 years and a very interesting look into two larger than life personalities.
The Emperor of Wine; The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jnr: Elin McCoy. This is a fascinating picture of how Robert Parker rose to become the most powerful wine critic in the world and the effect that he has had on the wine world.
The House of Mondavi: Julia Flynn Siler. This book includes family fueds that make 'Dallas' look tame but makes for intriguing reading into how Robert Mondavi built his winery and how he eventually lost it.
Each edition of the Wine Adventurer I will offer wine book reviews and recommendations. Join our newsletter to receive these quarterly offerings:
These books all provide great entertainment and learning about wine:
The Battle for Wine and Love: Alice Fearing. A mix of anecdotes and interesting people in the wine world with a good dose of why natural wine is good by the New York Times Wine Writer. Sean also enjoyed this.
Red, White, and Drunk All Over: Nathalie MacLean. A voyage of stories about wine both old and new; some very amusing. Sean didn't enjoy it, I loved it: perhaps more of a 'chick book'.
Billionaire's Vinegar: Benjamin Wallace. An investigative journalist delves into the world of auctions for fine wines... a page-turning exposé.