Educating your palate

 

I AM ALWAYS wary of people who promise to simplify wine. On one level, it is certainly uncomplicated; you take a mouthful, and decide whether you like it or not. Beyond that though, wine is actually a very complex subject, involving biology, horticulture and chemistry – as well as plenty of foreign nomenclature on the labels.

You could spend a lifetime just learning the wine regions and grape varieties. If that sounds daunting, or just plain boring, the good news is you don’t need to know it all. This is one case where a little knowledge can actually be a great help. At the very least, it really helps to know the basic styles of wine you like, so that you can make an informed decision when confronted with a long aisle of wines in the supermarket or a restaurant wine list.

For instance, if you are a fan of New Zealand Sauvignon, you are quite likely to enjoy Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and white Bordeaux, all made from the same grape, as well as South African, Chilean and Loire Valley Sauvignon. You will probably also enjoy other unoaked, crisp dry whites, including a host of Italian wines such as Soave, Pinot Grigio and Orvieto, or Rueda and Rias Baixas from Spain, or maybe even a Pinot Gris Riesling from New Zealand.

It is, of course, quite possible to learn everything from reading books, going on wine trips and most importantly, tasting wine. However, a good introductory course will give you the opportunity to learn all of the necessary basics, as well as taste your way through a large range of wines without spending a fortune. At the very least, you will find out which wines you like and also what to avoid in future.

A decent wine course can also be a fun social event. Many use the convivial atmosphere to make new friends and even to meet up with members of the opposite sex. As I have written earlier, wine clubs can also be a very sociable way to learn about wine. Most clubs and courses start up in September, so now is the time to start planning.

The recent closure of the Wine Board of Ireland is a blow to all interested in wine, and to the wine trade in particular. The board had been responsible for providing education to a generation of those working in the wine trade, as well as a host of others who had been bitten by the wine bug.

However, several former lecturers now have their own operations. For the moment, the only official Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses available in the Republic are operated by Wine Academy Ireland, run by Mary Gaynor, a very experienced lecturer who has taught a generation of the Irish wine trade. The WSET courses are designed with the trade in mind, and are structured to teach you everything from the bottom up. They are essential for professionals, but might be a bit dry for amateurs.

Nigel Donnan, a former lecturer with the Wine Board of Ireland, has set up his own operation, the Dublin Wine School, which is running a series of courses designed to appeal to everyone from the enthusiast to the expert. As he has promised to dip into his personal wine cellar, I would strongly recommend taking a look at his website. He is a passionate advocate of the Old World, so his courses on various parts of Europe look to be unmissable.

For Dubliners on a budget, O’Briens has an amazingly cheap four-week introductory wine course for €39.99. See their website for details. Mitchell Son has been running various very convivial wine courses (some including supper) for 12 years now, and will soon be starting up once more in Glasthule, Rathfarnham and CHQ.

Jean Smullen, one of the few people who can actually demystify wine, will run an introductory wine course for McCabes in Mount Merrion, Anne Moran runs a very good course in Gibneys of Malahide, as does Berna Hatton in The Mill Wine Cellar in Maynooth.

For those living in the Leixlip area, Kevin Ecock, a seasoned wine professional, runs his eponymous wine school twice a year. Sadly I do not have details of many wine courses being run outside of Dublin, but would be delighted to publish details if I receive them. jwilson@irishtimes.com

WINE COURSES

O’Briens Wines www.obrienswine.ie.

Dublin Wine School www.dublinwineschool.ie. Mitchell Son, Glasthule Rathfarnham and CHQ Tel: 01-2302301, 01-4933816, 01-6125540, www.mitchellandson.com.

McCabes 01-2882037, www.mccabeswines.ie.

Gibneys 01-8450606, www.gibneys.com.

The Mill Wine Cellar, Maynooth 01-6291022 www.millwinecellar.ie.

Wine Academy Ireland Mary Gaynor, 056-7724894, marygaynor99@eircom.net

Kevin Ecock’s School of Wine www.kevinecock.ie.

WINES OF THE WEEK

Verus Pinot Gris Stajerska, Slovenia 2007, 13%, €18.99.There are some excellent wines made in Slovenia, but sadly very few make it to Ireland. I was pleased to receive samples of the Verus wines, and even more delighted when I tasted them. This is one of the finest examples of Pinot Gris that I have tasted in quite a while – a wonderful fresh exotic nose with melons, grapefruit and ginger. The palate is medium-bodied and intense, with a superb quality of fruit, balanced by excellent acidity. It may seem pricey, but it is worth every cent. Great on its own, with salads or with richer fish dishes. Stockists: On the Grapevine, Dalkey; Cabot Co, www.cabotandco.com; Pount Gable Gifts, Clonbur, Co Galway; Market 57, Clifden.

Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling 2002, Eden Valley Australia, 12.5%, €20. The basic Pewsey Vale Riesling is one of Australia’s best. However, they also release an aged version, from the Contours vineyard high up in the Eden Valley. I have very happy memories of sipping a glass of Contours, while munching a bacon and courgette muffin, sitting in the back of a pick-up truck looking out over the vines that produce the wine. 2002 was one of the great recent vintages in South Australia, and this is a cracking wine. Crisp and elegant with very fine notes of toasted nuts to complement the refreshing lime zest. Stockists: Kelly’s, Clontarf; The Corkscrew, Chatham St, D2; World Wide Wines, Waterford; Sweeneys, Glasnevin; Jus de Vin, Portmarnock.

Trimbach Réserve Pinot Gris 2005, 13%, €19.99.Alsace is the true home of Pinot Gris, and makes a variety of styles. Some can be a bit too rich and sweet for my taste. Trimbach favours a drier, leaner style that I prefer. Lovely soft quince fruits, with a very attractive richness mid-palate, and good length. This would go perfectly with smoked salmon and sushi. Stockists: The Vintry, Rathgar; The Gables, Foxrock; Deveneys, Dundrum; Bin No 9, Goatstown; Higgins, Clonskeagh; Cellars Wine Warehouse, Naas Road; Greenacres, Wexford; Bradleys, Cork; Kinsale Gourmet Shop.

Cono Sur 20 Barrels Sauvignon Blanc 2007 Casablanca Valley, Chile, 13.5%, €22.49. This may seem expensive for a Sauvignon from Chile, but this is as good if not better than most Sancerre. A wonderfully expressive wine with peach and lemon fruits, a light herbal note, and a beautiful bracing mineral streak. Stockists: The Corkscrew, Chatham St; Redmonds, Ranelagh; The Vanilla Grape, Kenmare.

TWO UNDER €12

Quinta do Cardo 2005, Beira Interior, Portugal, 13%, €11.99. I really enjoyed this over dinner; good pure dark slightly chewy savoury fruits, and a nice dusting of tannin on the finish. It calls out for food; some grilled pork chops would do nicely. Stockists: Fresh outlets; Donnybrook Fair; Corkscrew, Chatham St; Fallon Byrne, Exchequer St; Mitchell Son, Rathfarnham; The Wine Boutique, Ringsend; The Gourmet Bank, Churchtown; Hole In the Wall, D7; Sweeneys, Harts Corner; Deveneys, Dundrum and Rathmines; Nectar, Sandyford and Mortons.

Viña Elena Pacheco 2008, Jumilla, Spain, 13.5%. €10.20.Rich, seamless with lovely ripe fruits and a warming kick of alcohol, too. Perfect with barbecues. Stockist: Wines Direct, www.winesdirect.ie.