It all begins with an erotic whisper. Or, if you’re in a less romantic mood, a nun’s fart. “That’s the sound the champagne cork should make when you ease it out of the bottle,” explains Sandy Leckie, our teacher, cradling a bottle in his arms. He pauses for a second, gazing at the cradled object as if it were an infant babe. Then he uncorks it, so tenderly that it does indeed whisper (or fart, if you must) – certainly there is nothing as coarse as a pop.
” Never shake the bottle like racing drivers do,” shudders his co-teacher, “business and life partner” Lena Inger. Does it bruise the alcohol? “It’s just so naff!”
Lena and Sandy run champagne tasting courses. Which must be a nice line of work, judging from their anecdotes about visiting vineyards around the world.
In fact, they met on a champagne course, when Lena taught Sandy – “I taught him everything he knows” – and they make for a fabulous double act, one pouring, the other teaching. Champagne is clearly a subject on which they are equally passionate. In our two-hour class, there is a pause for a full-on 10-minute debate between the two about what pudding goes best with champagne. Strawberry pavlova is decreed to have a level of sweetness that would compete with the champagne. Instead, Sandy suggests, “just have strawberries with champagne poured over them – very healthy”.
Champagne is far and away my favourite drink, particularly (and yes, I know this is wrong) pink champagne, which is also, I once read somewhere, the favourite drink of Chantelle from Big Brother. “Pink champagne is getting an increasingly classy image,” says Lena, soothingly.
When I first heard about this tasting evening, I imagined it would take place in an elegant salon or perhaps a dark and woody cellar. Instead, the instructions read “Conference Room 5, Skills and Learning Centre”, which isn’t so romantic. But it turns out to be apt, because the class, although very jolly (after testing eight champagnes – no spitting – I can barely walk out), has a definite emphasis on learning. Sandy and Lena start with the announcement that Britain is “the second biggest consumer of champagne after France” which, judging from my and my friends’ consumption, comes as no surprise. My other favourite fact is that you should “always” buy champagne in bulk, “purely for economical reasons”. So very, very true. The other tip Lena gives is that “usually, the most expensive champagnes are the best – but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily worth the price”. Someone asks about Woolworths launching its own-brand champagne for a fiver a bottle. Lena’s face falls several inches in palpable distress.
We note our views on each champagne’s appearance, smell and taste. “Look for finesse, complexity and dryness,” urges Lena. I’m still struggling to think of any descriptions other than “yellow” and “pale yellow”, but others are now bandying around phrases like “hint of raspberry on the tongue” and “a yeasty scent”. I look over at the chart of my drinking companion, who has tagged along for the evening. “Polished and zesty,” he has written in the taste box for the Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve. I think he is getting into this.
Determined not to be beaten, I firmly note that the blanc de blancs from Waitrose is “very citrus”. “So what did you all think of the blanc de blancs?” asks Lena. “Not very citrussy, is it?” But no matter. While I might never get a handle on the connoisseur’s terms (how can a drink smell “buttery”? Does butter even smell?), I do learn an enormous amount, not least that there is, actually, a huge variety in taste as opposed to always tasting (as I’d always suspected, and this is by no means a criticism) like carbonated white wine. My favourite is the Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve (one of the more expensive bottles, of course) and I feel a small glow when Lena says that it is very popular, but any pride is quashed when the word “mainstream” passes her lips. Perhaps the biggest triumph, though, is that after a night of steady champagne chugging, I can’t face any of the stuff for almost a month. And that really is a result of sorts.
Hadley’s tasting was run by the Wine Education Service: wine-education-service.co.uk