“There are thousands of wines that can take over our minds. Don’t think all ecstasies are the same!” – Rumi
Rumi was thinking of more highbrow pleasures, but I’d prefer to take the phrase at face value. But, damnit, my wine knowledge barely stretches into the tens, never mind the thousands. A few weeks ago, I trooped to Hammersmith to spend six hours of a hard earned weekend doing something 25 year old me never thought I’d do. After years of buying wine that was either a) around £8 a bottle (because it’s a bit more than a fiver and I’m not made of money, Rockefeller) or b) something I’d drank before and therefore fine, recently I’ve attempted to become a little more mindful when buying something to drink. Subsequently, my own small research and reading over the past 6-9 months led me to Leiths, and the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) Level 1. A day of drinking wine AND learning something that’s not insurance related? That’s worth being in West London for a 9am start.
Leiths School is based just off a straight-outta-Colindale suburban road near Hammersmith. As a resident of south east London, I know that a house on this street is worth the same as my entire block of flats. Gentrification and social commentary on ridiculous house prices aside, Leiths really is perfectly positioned. Even approaching it, you feel infinitely more relaxed. There will be no London hustle and stress today. Just to seal the deal as you enter, the smell of croissants hits the nostrils. My jacket is already half off before I’ve ticked the register.
After eating one of the best gluten free cakes I’ve ever had (notes of apple, cinnamon, pine nuts with a lovely squidgy crumb), the day commences with Vivienne Franks – wine educator, former M&S wine buyer, and self professed “facilitator of liquid pleasure”. Fortunately, during the usual introductions around the room I learn that everyone loves drinking wine but people want to learn more. The advantage of being on a course such as this is that everyone is generally in the same boat, and everyone wants to learn more. So, no ringers or stereotypical wine nobs – check.
Introducing wine types and styles (there are only three types – light, fortified and sparkling) but many styles (red, white, sweet, dry…), and swinging by a little chemistry before landing on to some tasting notes, I’m only an hour in and my mind feels like I’ve learned plenty for one day. But at 11am, the tasting begins. We learn how to really taste wine – looking, swirling, sniffing and finally swilling, and how to describe it at a fairly simple level. It’s amazing how, after some structure, you can actually taste real flavours in the wine – not just “wow this tastes like… wine”. My personal favourite from this portion of the day was a Marc Hebrart Champagne, (12% Blanc de Blancs, NV, France – £29.99 from Laithwaites). A yellow, lightly moussed dry Champagne, even through a slightly blocked nose I could still smell fresh bread, honey, and melon. After a very enjoyable 11am sip, it was almost like a joyously light lemon drizzle cake or semifreddo. Even to an untrained palette, this felt like a good value Champagne – something perhaps for a Christmassy or celebratory toast alongside a few too many parmesan shortbreads or a special smoked salmon brunch.
After tasting a Sauvignon Blanc and a Malbec (one of my favourite wines, but this really needed a steak next to it to bring out its full merits), it was time to break for lunch. Leiths does not offer lunch as part of their day, however the local High Street has plenty of options for lining the stomach before an afternoon session.
Returning from the break, people begin to remember the upcoming exam. It’s amazing to see that the prospect of an actual test can still strike just a little fear into the heart at any age. But before any of that, it was time to explore the fundamentals of pairing wine with food. To paraphrase W.C. Fields, I often cook with wine, and sometimes even add it to the food, but choosing a bottle to go with a meal has often been an exercise in selecting something relatively familiar and keeping fingers crossed that it tastes, at least, “fine”.
One of the highlights of the day was how this portion of the syllabus was structured. Taking an example each of sour, creamy, oily, umami, chilli and sweet foods, we tasted six wines with a nibble of each type of food, making notes on which paired best with each. A personal takeaway from this was that one, Pinot Noir tastes disgusting with sour food (my own notes say “NOPE”) but amazing with Twiglets, and two, if you want to sell even the roughest plonk, offer a bit of decent cheddar.
I had never tasted Tokaji (Patricius, Royal Tokaji Late Harvest 2016 – £14.99 at Laithwaites for 50cl) prior to this, but would absolutely seek it out from now on when having a pudding and dessert wine in a restaurant. A honey-coloured, syrupy sweet drop, it reminded me of roasted stone fruits, tarte tatin or a treacly sponge pudding – and what a thought during a cold February day. It will not surprise anyone to hear that, after tasting the tenth wine, everyone was very happy to share their opinion on each…
The WSET 1 exam is not particularly difficult if you’ve managed to lend half an ear throughout the day, or have enough practical experience drinking wine to determine the correct answer. It is professionally done (signing the exam paper and ensuring that you hand in both the answers and the questions to the facilitator), but this is a hallmark of how, even at the lowest level, the qualification is taken seriously – it is after all one of the most respected qualifications for members of the food service industry as well as enthusiasts. While there were no class members who were working in the wine industry in this instance, I can see how even after just a few hours, anyone would feel armed with at least some knowledge to deal with a basic customer request, have a meaningful conversation with a sommelier, or simply be able to stand in the supermarket and pick out an accompaniment to your evening meal with confidence. I cannot recommend this class highly enough to anyone interested in learning a little more about this huge topic.
The Leiths one day WSET 1 course was £189 as at December 2017, including all samples, course materials, exam entry/certificates and light refreshments.