Friday, 8 July 2011

Very Vintage Vino

As I'm sure most of you would have gathered if you've read the blog before, Sarah and I are rather partial to a glass (oh go on then, a bottle) of vino. We can just about distinguish the difference between some Sauvignon plonk, and some Pinot Grigio plonk, and we like to drink both, in good measure, and plenty more besides. However, the running theme seems to be.... cheap plonk. Cheap plonk in all it's whiffy, explosive hangover inducing, thousand-regrets-in-the-morning glory.

No more. It was time to get educated. It was time to make like a true oenophile and actually understand some of the wine-related commentary our more sophisticated peers bandy around at dinner parties (the frequency of which is becoming alarming - when did they all get so erudite? I'm sure last time we went out they were on the Jaegerbombs!) It was time to visit Jimmy, at the West London Wine School.

We wouldn't have heard about the school if it hadn't been for Twitter. Jimmy Smith (@WestLondonWine) is as prolific and enthusiastic in his social networking as he is about his wines. Although the school is very local to us, its position in the wine storage unit at The Big Yellow on Townmead Road makes it the ultimate hidden gem. But not that hidden it seems.... on closer inspection it seems the school has accrued a massive following, and some of the courses sell out within days. So, this is where all our more sophisticated Fulham neighbours have been sneaking off to...

The evening Sarah and I attended, Argentine wine was the focus of the session, and Jimmy had partnered up with the ebullient Christian, of Ruta 40 boutique wines, to introduce us all to the region. With fond (and not so fond) memories of drinking $3 vino tinto out of tetra paks whilst travelling through Mendoza on my gap yah, I was looking forward to seeing what all the places I'd visited could really produce. Eyeing up the eight (yes, EIGHT) glasses of wine laid out in front of us, along with a thoughtful selection of nibbles from smoked salmon rolls, to cheese and cured meats, Sarah and I began to wonder how on earth we'd not unearthed this place before!

And so our tour of Argentina began. From the high altitudes of Salta, to the famous wine region of Mendoza, Christian and Jimmy kept up a infectiously passionate, (extremely) well informed and fascinating commentary throughout. We learnt how everything from air temperature, to soil type, barrel materials and the thickness of the grape skin is delicately married together to produce a huge variety of finely balanced flavours. All the wines we tried came from the Ruta 40 selection of boutique wineries, 'boutique' being defined as producing less than 300,000 bottles per annum. Ex-financier Christian set the company up and has dedicated months of his life to travelling up and down the famous Ruta 40 in Argentina to unearth his smaller, often family-run wineries and bringing them back to the UK with the aim of introducing the British public to a slightly higher quality of wine than we are used to seeing in the supermarkets. After all, Argentina, we were informed, is the fifth largest producer (and consumer - lucky them!) of wine in the world, yet Argentine wine only represents 2% of the UK market. A Malbec is usually a very safe bet at a price point of £6-8 pounds, so imagine the value you get out of spending just that little bit more? We can tell you - a lot!

It's not for nothing that the West London Wine school has accrued a loyal following. A wine master at just 18, Jimmy is an exceptionally knowledgeable and passionate host, who manages to make you feel right at home, and encourages you to get the most of the session whatever your level of knowledge. It must have been patently obvious that Sarah and I had absolutely zero prior knowledge of the subject matter (Tetra Pak wine! Quelle horreur!) but Jimmy provided generous assistance (and top ups!) and made sure we captured the intricacies of the nose and palette, and ensured we didn't feel like the amateurs we really are. It also turns out that the Wine Cellars at The Big Yellow Storage is quite the wine-experts destination anyhow. It's the UK's first purpose-built wine self-storage facility, and apparently counts quite a few of the hotshots in the wine world as its customers. It's a really impressive affair, with huge care taken to ensure the temperature and humidity are kept at the optimum levels, and absolutely VAST amounts of storage.

Out of the eight wines we tried (you can imagine how we stumbled home!), our favourites were the Bodega Corvus 'Ala Negra' Torrontes from 2008 and the Bodega Vinecol, Malbec Oak Reserve of 2009. The former is a variety of white wine made from a grape we had not heard of before, and was brilliantly aromatic yet still crisp and refreshing. I'm not usually a fan of sweet wine but the acidity was very well balanced and we really enjoyed it, not least due to the surprise of finding a top quality white from a region not renowned for them. The second wine mentioned (a Decanter Bronze Medal 2011 winner no less!) was a soft, gentle and smooth red with a lighter appearance with a fruity yet also slightly spicy nose.

And, just to make sure we didn't slip back into nasty old habits, we picked up a bottle of each to take home with us. Tastings, it seems, provide an excellent opportunity to invest in a better quality of wine. You can try before you by, you'll have loads of background knowledge to impress your friends with and we got a small discount. Christian also deals directly with the managers of the Argentine boutique vineyards who provide his wines, so it's nice to know that a little more of your cash goes to those who've toiled over it.

Sarah and I enjoyed one of the best evenings we'd had in a long time. The wines and hosting were excellent, and there is a real sense of camaraderie amongst the guests that only grows as the glasses are emptied. There are absolutely tonnes of courses you can go (the 6-week introductory course looks right up our street!) and even more special one off events, from Tuscan to German evenings, and even British Beer Tasting ("A liquid study of our national drink from 2500BC to now" - I've already promised the boyfriend we can go to this!) and Champagne and Chocolate Matching (definitely one for the ladies).

And just incase you can't squeeze in a quick visit to Jimmy before your next dinner party, here is a brief "cheat's guide to wine" we'll certainly be referring back to in the future...

The longer the taste of the wine stays on your palette (the flavours should carry on developing) the better quality the wine.

Natural tannins are broken down by oxygen - some heavier red wines are best left to oxygenate for six hours or more

The greater the difference in air temperature at night and during the day in the vineyard, the thicker the skins that the grapes develop. This makes them rich in tannins and polyphenols, thereby producing wines that are concentrated and full of flavour.

Now go forth and blag it... and book into the West London Wine school quicksharp! 

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