I arrive in the centre of Oxford a little early. I am really rather excited at the prospect of spending a whole afternoon drinking, I mean, learning about wine, even though I have a slight hangover. As I pass a pair of priests (is that the plural verb?) I am reminded of the joke told to me by a friend studying for a DPhil in Theology at Oxford: “Turl Street is like the Anglican Church; Broad at one end, High at the other,” referring to the geography of Oxford streets. I leave Broad Street and turn into Turl where Exeter College is based, and I duck through the small wooden door, past the “College Closed” sign. I feel special, lucky, exclusive.
The porter directs me to the Rector’s dining room, housed in a grand building next to the chapel. I ring the bell. Suddenly nervous, I am reminded of being seventeen and coming for an interview at Oxford. The directions of the room, the unfamiliar and terrifying ancient buildings, the sense of shock and awe…as I build up a sweat, the door is opened by a handsome smiling man who welcomes me with charm. I immediately relax and remember this is not an interview.
The Oxford Wine Academy was founded by two Oxford DPhils and members (one is the president) of the prestigious and world-renowned Oxford Blind Tasting Society. Neel and James, both charismatic, charming and genuinely passionate about both their chosen disciplines and wine, overflow with excitement. They really can’t wait to share the immense amount of knowledge they have, with anyone who will listen. A great and rare quality that makes them perfectly suited to teaching. Within the first few minutes of arriving, I know I am going to not only learn an awful lot about wine, but I will enjoy the day immensely.
The groups are made up of no more than 10 people, so that teaching can be focused and one to one engagement is encouraged. The Rector’s large dining table is laid with glasses and a sheet where each of the six wines that we will taste today are listed. There are spaces underneath their names to write notes on colour, aroma, acidity and ‘mousse’ (the amount of bubbles found in a sparkling wine).
As the other participants arrive, we get chatting and it becomes apparent that there is a real mix in terms of wine knowledge. The course is structured as a beginner’s guide, so absolutely no knowledge of wine is required, but even so, there are some people who drink fine wine regularly and have a real appreciation and nose for them, and others who only know they ‘like red wine’.
The residential summer course, held in August, will offer a more in-depth exploration of wine tasting, history and production, along with a special sparkling wine feature. It will follow a similar format to the one day Introduction to Fine Wine Course that I’m attending. Also housed in the Rector’s accommodation in Exeter College with access to the beautiful gardens and grounds, judging by the quality of the introduction day, and the passion with which it is taught, the summer school promises to be an amazing experience.
On our Introduction to Fine Wine Course, James and Neel start by explaining that we will be tasting six different wines, carefully chosen to give us a broad overview of fine wine. For a short course, it is surprisingly comprehensive and all areas of wine appreciation are touched upon, including glassware, wine production, as well as a talk about what one is looking for when tasting wine.
Each of the wines presented for our tasting are of the finest quality – we start with champagne and each element of the wine is explained clearly and with passion. The different grapes used, the method of production, even the history of how sparkling wines came into existence. (A fascinating story I shan’t ruin by telling here. If you go on the course, Neel and James will tell you.)
We taste each wine carefully, assisted in identifying aromas and tastes by a Powerpoint collage of images. Everyone is pleasantly shocked by how many complex and varied flavours and scents they can pick up. The more wines we taste, the more practiced we become and the better we all get. The atmosphere is relaxed yet focused; James and Neel are jolly but professional. It is very fun and very educational.
At the end of the six wines, we have taken a tour around the Old World, and all agree that we have learnt an immense amount. The difference between this and any other wine tasting day I’ve experienced previously is the expertise and genuine enthusiasm of the people running it. It is abundantly clear that both Neel and James want to impart their knowledge. This is more than anything else, an exercise in sharing, and I leave slightly drunk on the excitement of rediscovering a passion, as well as on the wines.
The Oxford Wine Academy runs The Oxford Summer School on the Appreciation of Fine Wine with James Flewellen and Dr Neel Burton from 11-17 August 2012. Shorter one–day taster courses are held throughout the year at Exeter College and include a full day of lecture-style teaching and guided tastings of 10 fine wines from major styles or regions. For more information, visit the website.