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October 14, 2011updated 10 Jan 2016 4:07pm

Learnt it on the Grape Vine

By Spear's

Melinda Hughes has enjoyed plenty of fine wines in her time – but she couldn’t tell a Gewurztraminer from a Grenache. Then she got on a flight…
I’M ALL OF a sudden very grown up. I’ve just completed my first wine course held in a salubrious corner of Marylebone given by a fruity and confident Master of Wine. My palate has suddenly been given orders to taste and learn whereas before it had existed in a blissful state of ‘knock it back and enjoy’ and as with so many aspects of my life, this quaffable course came to me quite by coincidence.

You see, I was singing a concert in Monaco, as you do, and sat next to Stephen Williams, the owner of the Antique Wine Company on the BA city-flier from Nice. We got chatting about wine and music and two days later I’m attending their new introductory course on the back of an exclusive deal to write a song about wine for an event. I do enjoy a bit of bartering.

I was, surprisingly, the only opera singer and satirical comedy writer on this course and took my seat among the thirtysomething solicitors, city analysts and stockbrokers. In front of me were six glasses, a leather-bound booklet, delicious canapés and crackers (to cleanse the palate). That’s all I need from an evening really.

The Antique Wine Company are prominent dealers in fine wine and can stock your cellar with wines for drinking or for investment. Their tasting room is sleek and elegant: rows of counters incorporating wine barrels complete with their own lightbox serve as our station where we will sit and ruminate. I endeavored to extol the virtues of each wine with as many bizarre and superlative adjectives as I could muster in an attempt to impress Tim Atkin, our Master of Wine.

Tim, as it turns out, is quite a celebrity – and he’s funny too, which means I’ve got competition. Most importantly, he’s passionate about his role – passionate, unpretentious and with a funky taste in flowery shirts. Tim might digress with a madcap story about a visit to a remote vineyard or amuse with his outspoken hatred of Pinot Grigio (mind to stand out the way when he spits upon the mere utterance of this swill.)

Melinda Hughes is in the pink dress

He will also impress with an adage or two – ‘grape skins are like people, they can be thick or thin’ – but most importantly he’ll enhance information with unusual facts: ‘The smell of Pinot Noir is the closest smell to male pheromones. In fact, I like to compare this unpredictable grape to a diva,’ he says glancing my way. ‘This high-maintenance wine reminds me of Nina Simone: when it’s on form, it’s a stunning performer.’ Yes, thanks Tim.
WE START WITH a global selection of red and white wines and I dive into a world of vintage, tannins, colour, aroma, ‘umami’ and most importantly structure. Tim is big on structure and like so many of these terms I’ve heard bandied about over the years, I finally understand the complexities behind balance of acidity and sweetness. We taste a 2003 Rioja, an Australian Chardonnay, Sancerre Cuvee Nuance, Beaujolais and a Chateau de Cedre Cahors 2007.

No question is too stupid and no description too outlandish. We are taught to open our senses and frankly to understand what we are drinking. I also have it on good authority they are less stuffy than their rivals and from what I could see, it could prove to be good hunting ground if you are footloose and fancy-free. Of course, dating was far from my mind; I had years of confusion to unravel as I began to associate taste with region, grape variety and quality.

Although the wines served at the AWC were rather better than most, this didn’t stop Tim throwing us a red herring of a Rosé to illustrate the choice of middle England. I won’t even begin to describe how sickly it was but I was shocked to find that on a summer’s evening this is what the UK sits down and drinks.

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Our second night was white wines; my palette was overwhelmed by a superb array ranging from French Vouvray and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to a Chablis 2007 1er cru and Pierre Gaillard Condrieu 2007. By now we had all got to know each other so there was a small amount of banter in the class and the atmosphere friendly and relaxed but I was really looking forward to the third week: the reds.

Our summer had just ended with an abrupt jolt so what better evening to dive into large glasses of 2009 Domaine de Mus Grenache, 2005 Australian Schild Estate Shiraz and a wonderful 2006 Brunello di Montalcino? Lastly our treat arrived: a superb glass of 1982 Chateau Palmer Margaux Grand Cru accompanied by yet more canapés.

I really enjoyed this course. The staff at AWC are enthusiastic, welcoming and most importantly, generous in topping up your glass. I’m taking the cityjet from Nice more often. You never know who you’re going to sit next to. I quite fancy a cordon bleu course.

Antique Wine Company 53 Queen Anne Street, London W1G 9JR
Telephone: 020 3219 5501
Beginners’ wine course stars at £270 for three nights

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