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Page last updated at 11:22 GMT, Friday, 3 August 2007 12:22 UK

Don't know your Merlot from your elbow?

Tasting wine

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News

The label says it's got cedar oak and blackberry notes. Huh? We drink more wine but tend to buy on price. How do you learn to taste wine - and understand the jargon?

Britain has become a nation of wine drinkers. You only have to go around the summer pubs and back-garden parties to see how much wine we're swigging.

We're on less sure ground when it comes to knowing about what we're drinking. The language and the science of wine remains a foreign tongue, with its hints of hazelnut, wafts of cut grass and notes of blackcurrant.

Tasting wine
The second-cheapest red on the list
How do you actually taste all these flavours of a glass of wine - can ordinary drinkers be taught to discern the flavours and complexities swirling around in those bottles on the wine list? An international project, linking south London and South Africa, is seeking to answer just this question.

South Africa is a major producer of wine - and as hosts of the World Cup in 2010, there are going to be plenty of thirsty visitors wanting to taste the local produce. But there are concerns about a skills shortage in the country's tourist industry. So a project is being launched to provide scholarships to train the wine experts - the sommeliers - needed in upmarket restaurants.

Rather than importing sommeliers from Europe and the United States, the aim is for South Africa to grow its own by training "young previously disadvantaged individuals from backgrounds with little tradition of wine culture". The scheme will start with just one trainee, to be chosen from South Africa this autumn - someone who can't afford to travel, let alone become a wine buff - and the hope is to eventually run a wine school.

The recipient will next year come to the UK to work with Kate Thal, a South African-born wine buyer and founder of the Green and Blue wine shops in south London. For six months, they will work alongside Ms Thal, learning everything there is to know about tasting and buying wine. This will include trips to check wines in vineyards across Europe, tasks such as choosing wines for hotels and eventually working in one of Gordon Ramsey's restaurants.

Pour beginnings

But this apprentice will be someone who at present doesn't know their Merlot from their elbow. How do you teach something as subjective as taste? First of all, says Ms Thal, we should stop being dazzled by pretentiousness. She blames the way that food programmes like to make a meal out describing wine.

It's not a big mystery, it's not rocket science
Kate Thal on wine tasting

"Television presenters are encouraged to get very purple with their prose. It does a great disservice to the cause of getting people to understand more about wine.

"It alienates people. They taste wine and they think they should be able to taste something like 'walking through the forest barefoot' or some other burbling like that. It's not a big mystery. It's not rocket science," she says.

And all that stuff on the labels about hints of mango on an autumn breeze? "Most of it is complete rubbish."

So how do you identify tastes? It's about the senses - before even tasting the wine, you have to look at it and smell it. Appearance is a powerful influence on what we taste, and much of what we think of as flavour is actually scent.

But that doesn't mean that every wine has to have dozens of separate smells. After a false start when three glasses all smelt of... er... white wine, it's possible to begin to distinguish the different scents. Yes, that's apple. Or a kind of citrus smell. I'd even claim cut grass.

Tasting is also debunked. There are basic elements to distinguish - sweetness, acidity and bitterness. With such a limited multiple choice - and a list of tastes and smells no more complicated than creamy, dry, flowery or flinty - it soon starts to become less baffling.

Scent packing

How each of these tastes is experienced will be different for everyone. But Ms Thal says it's like trying to talk about how you see a colour - we each might see a particular shade in an individual way, but we try to find a common reference point to describe it.

If you can tell the difference between orange juice and grapefruit juice, you can taste wine
Tom Forrest, Vinopolis
These shared descriptions then become a kind of benchmark for tasting other similar wines. To extend the colour metaphor, once you've established that red is like a ripe tomato, then you can start getting into more complex shades of scarlet, ochre or cherry.

After reaching the tasting equivalent of base camp, it gets more complicated, with talk of structure, balance, length, progression and a "hollow mid-palate".

But as Tom Forrest, the in-house expert at the Vinopolis wine centre in London, says: "If you can tell the difference between orange juice and grapefruit juice, you can taste wine."

There are so-called "super tasters" who are supposed to have particularly sensitive palates, and others with the tasting equivalent of colour blindness.

But Ms Thal says not to underestimate the importance of practice. "You can practice using your sense of smell with ground coffee or herbs."

Wine snobbery

But there is still a knowledge gap between the volume of wine we consume and the amount we know about what we drink.

A man rests after drinking champagne at Ascot
Wine sales are buoyant
Leta Overton, director of the London Wine Academy, says there is a British characteristic of "not wanting to be shown up or to look like you don't know what you're doing".

This has been a barrier to people feeling comfortable about choosing wines, and has created the habit for wine to be bought on price, rather than on preference for a particular variety.

Ms Overton also suggests that there has been a hangover from the days when sommeliers were rather haughty and French and the wine trade was filled with posh Oxbridge types.

"That exclusivity has gone now, the wine industry has worked hard to remove the snobbery." New world wines - those from South Africa, New Zealand and the likes - and new world attitudes are helping to bring about this change.

After all, if it's all about practice, there are tougher subjects to revise.

Below is a selection of your comments.

If you have ever watched Jilly Gouldon and Oz Clarke you will have noticed that they don't always agree (although they may not be far apart either). The smell/nose/bouquet of a wine can be more revealing than the taste, try "slurping the wine" gently, as for me this always seems to release more of the flavours. I find that as I drink more and varied types of wine I can detect different tastes and qualities. I don't profess to be an authority on the subject but I do enjoy tasting the wine before I drink it
Justin Othergalass, Wickford

I went on a one-day wine tasting course with a friend and we both learned to think about the wine a little before knocking it back. We now keep the labels, mark each out of 10 and make some notes that are relevant to us, that way you start to build a picture of what you like. We extended it to beer and cider too. I usually buy wine around the "up to 10" price but drank a 50 bottle of wine for the first time the other day and it was wonderful.
Jo, Wilts, UK

My partner is a wine merchant and has therefore dragged me up from the gutter kicking and screaming in terms of wine knowledge. The only way to learn about how to taste wine is to taste it with people, discuss what you each find and see where that takes you. It's amazing how you can suddenly start to tell the difference between wines. The main problem, however, comes in the false marketing of wine to and by the supermarkets. People buy wine on price, so we have created a culture where wines are inflated to double their retail value and offered at half-price. Match this with the fact that premium products are offered at cheaper prices to large stores who don't make the effort to educate their consumers, and you have a widening gap in the UK wine market.
Andy, Banbury, UK

I prefer a nice grape juice, and tend to find it tastes of grapes...
Alex El Jundi, The Hague

There is a massive difference between tasting wine for your own enjoyment, and assessing wine for its quality and value. As a consumer it's not really that important knowing what flavours are synonymous with different wines/grapes, but it's more a question of do you enjoy the wine? You don't have to know what torque, top speed and fuel consumption your car has to enjoy driving it.
David, Edinburgh

I used to like most of the New World wines due to their full flavours (and usually high alcohol content). As time has passed I'm now more in favour of the old world wines, mainly French as you begin to appreciate the character of the wine rather than the punchiness.
Simon, South Cerney

A tip I was given once was to look at the labels. Better wines can get away with plainer labels. I tried this at a supermarket once, looking at labels and not price. It seems you end up looking at the expensive wines, so perhaps there is something in it?
Ed, Clacton, UK

The bigger the dent in the bottom of the bottle, the better the wine (so I've been told).
Kate, Bristol

I go for three things:
1. Full bodied
2. New world
3. Half price
It's served me well so far.
Sue, London

My criteria: 1. must be between 5 and 10; 2. must have an animal on the label; 3. must be from S. Africa, Chile or Australia and 4. definitely not French.
Derek Ramone Crawford, Edinburgh, Scotland

I agree wine tasting is not rocket science. Generally most people taste and smell the same things but I guess one of the skills that can be learned is how to put those perceptions into words so other people can understand what you are experiencing. Once you have learned this you realise that some lengthy descriptions that are written about some wines actually do not tell you much at all.
Andrew Shipway, Barossa Valley, South Australia

I manage a wine merchant serving wine up to 150 a bottle. I drink stuff that's about 7 or 8, anything above that is just throwing money away. But if people want to throw it in my direction...
Ryan, Belfast

I always choose my wine by the alcohol volume.
Mandy Phelps, Quedgeley, Gloucester, UK

All my family choose on the shape of the bottle. A nicer shaped bottle is bound to have nice tasting wine inside and a boring, plain bottle something not so nice.
Annabel Cook, Ipswich

I am French, whatever you can think about sommeliers and haughty, do not forget that the experience of making wine in Europe as well as England is part of 1,000 of years of experience which cannot be replaced by technology. Explain first to people how wine is made and why tastes are different, keep your wine from your chemicals to get wine.
Frederic, Manchester

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