If you’re here, leafing through the pages of Decanter, it’s because you like wine. Why? Wine gives us sensual pleasure while lifting our spirits and bringing us (at least in non-Covid times) closer together. But that’s not all.
Unlike most simple sensual pleasures, wine comes cloaked in stories: about who made it, about where it came from and the season it grew in, about its plants and its soil, about craftsmanship. It challenges us to describe it, setting pen to paper or fingers to keyboards. We soon find others have done just that: article after article, book after book. Fierce study beckons, if you want: aspire to become a Master of Wine. Or… just please yourself, with a shelf of books and a couple of racks of bottles. Wine is unusual in offering this synthesis of easy sensuality and rich intellectual reward. Grasp that, and you may find that ‘liking wine’ ripens into a love for wine. And lasts a lifetime.
How, then, should you make the most of this journey of discovery?
Learn about wine: Read and taste
Few subjects are easier or more enjoyable to learn about at home, unaided, than wine – and the internet age truly does put the world at your fingertips via a vast choice, delivered to your front door, of books, magazines and bottles. Reading without tasting is sterile, but tasting without reading is a shallower and more ephemeral experience than it need be.
My advice here would be to create a little programme for yourself, rather than advancing by whims and fancies. Take a look at Italy one month, New Zealand the next – and don’t forget to take yourself off the beaten path from time to time, to Portugal, Slovenia or Georgia. Remember that the best wine selections from particular locations aren’t waiting for you in Lidl (though the occasional bargain can be), but tend to be sold by specialist merchants who often provide detailed background information, too. There are many free online resources that can be used for home study, notably the astonishingly rich selection of wine seminars organised by the London club 67 Pall Mall.
Books, though, are still my favourite route to wine knowledge: dense with information not only about wine places but about growers, too, and the best of them bright with maps and photographs helping you to understand the landscapes of which wine is an intimate expression.
Learn about wine: Go and taste
Buy single bottle after single bottle, and your journey of wine discovery will be congenial but slow. Understandably enough, you may have to bypass the most famous and expensive wines of all. Going out to an organised tasting (once, of course, these can take place again) has two big advantages: you can taste many more wines than you would be able to at home, and you can sniff and sip the world’s most famous wines without having to save up for months first (and then worry about the right ‘special moment’ to open the bottle). Tastings provide experience without commitment. That’s very useful on the wine learning journey.
Wine merchants or chains sometimes have tasting samples open, providing the simplest kind of ‘taste before you buy’ experience. Other tastings (such as those organised by specialist merchants – or the Decanter Fine Wine Encounters) are much bigger, and require a disciplined approach: mark your card in advance, don’t forget to spit, and take notes that you can review afterwards to get full value. Best of all for the deep dive are single- producer tastings with the producer in attendance talking about her or his work: not only do you taste and learn, but you can relate to the person behind the bottle.
Formal versus informal
A confession at this point: I have no formal wine education. I bought books and bottles and put the two together, worked briefly for a wine company (Direct Wines) before three decades as a freelance wine writer: the practical route to knowledge is possible, especially if you are lucky enough to turn a hobby into a profession. But I feel, guiltily, that my wine knowledge would be more complete and more thorough had I followed one of the many wine courses available from providers such as the Wine & Spirit Education Trust or specialist wine schools.
Informal wine education means you can go at your own pace and give your own tastes free rein: expert-level knowledge about red Burgundy, if that’s what you like most, while ignoring the world beyond Pinot. (It’s not a crime.)
The advantages of formal education are that you won’t have the gaps that may develop if you stick to what you like, and you can be tutored along a journey which others have made before you, using carefully calibrated reference wines. Best of all, perhaps, is the chance to make that journey in the company of fellow students. Wine is irredeemably convivial, and no evening class is less ‘dry’ than one that involves wine tasting. If you find the jangle of aromas and flavours confusing at first, you won’t be the only one; you can share your uncertainties.
You may, indeed, find the whole architecture of your social life changed as a regular study group becomes a group of friends who meet for dinners and tastings for years afterwards.
Some wines, it’s true, are an acquired taste: Sherry, maybe; Australian sparkling Shiraz; traditionally made Savagnin wines from the Jura; Txakoli from Spain’s Atlantic coast; or one of any number of skin-macerated white wines – which are often amber or orange. Those are just a few examples. If you just ‘drink what you like’, you may never acquire these tastes. Take the trouble to learn about them, though; work your way through a few of the best, and suddenly the sun may shine on a valley that had seemed dark and forbidding. Few wine-learning experiences are more exciting than those that see sceptics become evangelists.
Holidays with wine
Yes, we will all go on holiday again before long, and wine is the perfect way to leaven a holiday experience (or even, if you are really keen, make it the main attraction – via specialist tour operators or educational study tours). A visit to a grower is, for me, the ultimate education. You see, in many cases, the vineyards, the slopes and the sky overhead: all are significant, as is the care with which the vines are maintained and tended. You look around (and sniff) the cellar; you hear the full story (most younger growers now speak some English); you can feel the energy, the heartbeat of the domain. You’re able to taste the wines daisy-fresh, before they have travelled an inch… and you can often buy a case or two to put in your car to drive home, too.
If you’re a long-term Decanter reader, your educational journey may already be well advanced. I’m still learning, though! Every year brings a new vintage, new endeavours, new faces, new insights, new wine books… new wines. For all its shocks and privations, the pandemic has led to an explosion of online wine interaction: never before has it been so easy to meet and learn from those who are both making and buying wine on our behalf, or to make contact with others who share our enthusiasm. The wine world is a beehive of endeavour, dominated by hard-working small producers – and deliciousness is lurking around every corner. Is there a more attractive educational challenge than that?
Wine learning resources
Every wine student should own The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson MW, and The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson MW. For tasting, seek out Essential Winetasting by Michael Schuster. After that, choose something for inspiration (an Oz Clarke, maybe?) or a specialist book on your favourite region, such as Jane Anson’s Inside Bordeaux.
Best online teaching
In addition to both the Wine Scholar Guild and WSET courses, look out for the online resources provided by London members’ club 67 Pall Mall – and Decanter. com and Decanter Premium
The gold standard for general wine and spirit education are the courses run by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, or WSET, which has 900 approved programme providers in more than 70 countries. Specialist courses on French, Italian and Spanish wines are provided by the Wine Scholar Guild, both online and via its own network of 100 programme providers in 30 countries.
Best wine trips
The Wine Scholar Guild intends to resume its European wine study tour programme as soon as Covid conditions permit, as does global wine tour provider Arblaster & Clarke.
Best wine magazines
Decanter, of course! Subscribe here.