Now there’s a word that’s not used as much as it used to be. In fact, no less a wine-writing eminence than Hugh Johnson urged, in an on-line piece for the World of Fine Wine, “May we revive this useful word, please?” To clarify, he quotes André Simon’s definition: ‘A connoisseur is one who knows good wine from bad and appreciates the different merits of different wines.’ In other words, Johnson says; ‘If a wine is good … you should appreciate its merits. He (Simon) doesn’t say you have to like them, but taste is a personal matter.’
How to become a connoisseur? Well, this is the very agreeable part: there’s nothing to beat tasting as much wine and as widely as possible. Now this isn’t such a fun thing to do alone and even with a group of like-minded friends, you’ll probably get more out of the experience if there’s someone who knows what they’re talking about to guide in an encouraging and enthusiastic way.
Enter Cathy Marston and the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses for which she’s an ‘approved programme provider’; decoded, that means she’s allowed to run the WSET courses in South Africa, which she’s done for the past two years. Check the website here.
First hand I can confirm Marston’s encouragement and enthusiasm, as she kindly invited me to lecture for the Level 3 course on Italy, something I’ve enjoyed doing several times this year. Although Marston does much lecturing herself, she also calls on others far more qualified than myself: both local Masters of Wine, Cathy van Zyl and Richard Kershaw, give of their expertise, as do some knowledgeable sommeliers.
But figures speak louder than my endorsement. Over the past two years roughly 300 people have signed up each year, many progressing from Level 1 to Level 3 with good results. It’s just been announced that the next level, Diploma, will be introduced in South Africa next year; from there, the Master-of-Wine sky is the limit!
Endorsements too come from those who have signed up, many who’ve started and passed Level 1, carrying on through to Level 3. The majority are from wineries or others involved in the industry, numbers are increasing too from hotels and restaurants; many from both sectors are paid for by their employers, who recognise the benefit of well-informed staff. The courses are also open to the public, so the benefits work both ways. Most are held in Cape Town, the surrounding winelands and to a lesser extent, Johannesburg but KZN will soon join in the fun, as Laurie Smorthwaite of Abingdon Wines has recently become an approved programme provider.
Each session has both theory and practical components; although we don’t have the breadth or depth of international wines countries such as the UK enjoy, those we do have (plus some kindly donated by importers) offer a more than reasonable kaleidescope of the major wine producing areas of the world. Expect to taste anything from dry white Graves and Etna whites, to Barolo and Pomerol, all enlightening experiences.
Marston’s positive influence continues beyond her WSET interests; she writes as well as lectures (no surprise when you learn she graduated from Downing College, Cambridge with a degree in English) and is enjoying deserved success with her first book, Love Your Wine. It’s a darned good read whatever your level of knowledge but what I really like about Marston’s writing is that she doesn’t dumb down but treats her readers as adults who just need a nudge to get the most enjoyment out of wine.
The Introduction sums up what it’s all about. She writes: ‘Wine is easy. No, really, it is. Wine is something you grow and you turn it into something you drink. Look at it this way: bread is something you grow and you turn it into something you eat, but you don’t see people in the baked-goods aisle of a supermarket flummoxed by the range of products or agonising over their choice, do you? No one gets confused by wholemeal bread, wholegrain, best of both, white, rye, pumpernickel, brown, seed .. Well, maybe they do, but you know what I mean. If you have enough confidence to buy a loaf of bread, then you should be confident enough to buy a bottle of wine.
And that is precisely what this book wants to do – give you confidence about wine.’
Connoisseur might sound a larney word, but knowing good from bad and keeping an open mind on a wine’s merits, even when you don’t like it, should also increase your enjoyment.
Love Your Wine is published by Bookstorm (www.bookstorm.co.za) and retails for around R180.