Thirst for Knowledge: Wine Immersion Experiences in France
Jeffrey T Iverson reveals the top intensive classes for those who want to be able to do more than navigate the crisp whites and robust reds in their local wine shop, including a luxury boot camp for wine enthusiasts in Provence. Santé!
For many Francophiles, those same experiences that led to them falling in love with France also piqued a passion for wine. This love affair grows slowly at first, out of a constellation of moments. Perhaps the first time you follow a succulent oyster with sip of crisp, mineralesque Chablis, you find yourself living a page out of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and revelling (as he did) in this match made in heaven. Or you’re sitting outside a small seaside restaurant, taking in your first Provençal sunset, and you can’t decide whether the re-kissed sky or the rosé in your glass is lovelier. Or during your first visit to a historic estate in Burgundy, Champagne or Bordeaux, you take a sip of wine, look out the tasting room window, and realise you’re beholding the very vineyards that created the divine liquid in your glass. Such moments can spark a lifelong fascination for wine and, moreover, an abiding desire to explore its mysteries even deeper.
DRINKING IT IN…
So you return home and buy Hugh Johnson’s The World Atlas of Wine, start trying to decipher the labels at your local wine shop and, if you have time, attend a few guided tastings and lectures. But instead of appeasing your quest for knowledge, now you only realise how vast and complex the world of wine is.
Clive Barlow MW – one of only 380 people on the planet today to have attained the pinnacle of wine knowledge, the Master of Wine qualification – assures us this feeling is perfectly natural. “I think anybody involved in wine understands that the more they know, the more they know they don’t know.” Fortunately, today there have never been so many opportunities for wine-loving Francophiles to achieve real proficiency in this labyrinthine domain.
The same ancient institution in London that created the Masters of Wine Examination in 1953, the Vintners’ Company, went on to help develop a series of foundational courses in 1969 geared toward wine professionals, offered by what’s known as the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.
Over time, a growing interest among wine consumers to better comprehend what they’re drinking led WSET to open its courses to anyone interested in developing their understanding of the field. Now considered the gold standard in global wine education, there are more than 700 accredited sites offering WSET qualifications in 70 countries around the world – including France.
Plenty of wine lovers are content to stay home and take a WSET class in the evenings with a local course provider or even online. However, a growing number of shorter, more intensive WSET programmes have been created across France in recent years, geared towards busy English-speaking professionals who’d rather study wine in the country that first sparked their passion.
Based on the premise that a more immersive and intense experience will lead to better knowledge retention, they may pack the typical 14 to 21 hours of classroom time for a Level Two course – WSET’s most popular, offering both beginners and those with some prior knowledge a structured, highly informative, yet accessible, introduction to the world of wines and spirits – into just a handful of consecutive days, rather than spread over weeks.
Visit The Wine School in Paris, just steps from the Arc de Triomphe, and plunge for three days into a tour du monde of the world’s principal wine grapes, styles and regions. On the course you’ll learn a systematic approach to wine tasting and the basics of food and wine pairing, ending with the WSET Level Two 50-question multiple choice exam. Or head to the capital of Claret, where the Bordeaux Wine Campus, offers the WSET Level Two with an optional two days touring Bordeaux vineyards.
Strike deeper still into wine country, with a WSET class held at the Château Feely organic wine estate in the Dordogne. For true parachute wine lovers, Château de Pommard’s École V in the heart of Burgundy offers the entire WSET Level Two course in two days – 16 class hours and 50 wines packed into a single weekend.
The wsetglobal.com site lists many such options. Choosing can be difficult, especially since such a programme may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Which is perhaps why so many aficionados have happily splurged to go through what’s been called a ‘luxury boot camp for wine enthusiasts’ – the Chêne Bleu Extreme Wine Course. Yes, it is set on a luxurious private wine estate within a picturesque UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Provence, but the real reason people come is that so many experts agree it’s the most enriching, most deeply engaging wine learning experience created to date.
“The most immersive offering I know is the Extreme Wine course,” says The Wall Street Journal’s wine columnist Will Lyons. A five-day programme is so effective, enthuses House & Garden magazine, “no one has failed the test after completing the course” and “all go home with enough knowledge to test a sommelier”. For Financial Times wine correspondent John Stimpfig, it’s “probably the best course of its kind anywhere in the world”.
The Extreme Wine immersion begins the moment you leave the airport or train station in Avignon, and begin the hour-long drive northwest into the foothills of Mont Ventoux. Climbing higher and higher, you arrive atop a plateau overlooking the village of Crestet. At the heart of a vast, forested estate of more than 130 hectares, you finally reach a stunning, restored medieval priory situated on a hilltop and surrounded by vineyards – a holy site indeed!
From the moment the students gather the first evening for a welcome aperitif at the poolside bar – and Extreme Wine’s creator Nicole Rolet starts listing the activities of the week to come – it becomes clear the challenges ahead will demand a monk’s dedication. The agenda includes five days of lectures, video-conferences, blind tastings, food and wine pairing workshop lunches, vineyard and winery tours, wine games, tutoring sessions and guest winemaker dinners – an unrelenting schedule. The exam is sat on the last day and a black-tie evening gala follows. “Great teachers give a lot and expect a lot,” says Rolet. “And using that as a premise for our course had been fundamental.”
It’s the kind of learning environment Rolet herself long sought. Raised in Milan and New York by an American mother and Franco-Italian father, she left her career in international relations, public policy and finance to spearhead international sales and marketing for Chêne Bleu, the winery she and her financier husband Xavier founded after he acquired the ancient La Verrière estate in 1993.
Rolet needed to fast-track her wine education, so she started attending lectures at prestigious London auction houses. “I thought these fancy wine courses showcasing fancy wines would help me crack the code,” she recalls. “But the presenters tended to be raconteurs, extremely knowledgeable, but putting their efforts into ‘edu-tainment’ instead of a commitment to transforming someone’s knowledge and confidence to assess and appreciate great wine. It wasn’t until someone sent me to WSET that everything started to fall into place. Finally I had a ling system that would serve me well to acquire further information about wine.”
But Nicole was left with a regret – that it had taken so long. She started talking with a friend and mentor, Clive Barlow MW. He recalls: “She told me, ‘we need a course for people who love wine and have a certain amount of knowledge, but want to be empowered and to learn quickly, and we ought to create it!’.” And so Extreme Wine was born, blending the rigorous approach of WSET with engaging hands-on activities, and more than 100 fabulous wines from around the world to taste. “That reinforces what you learn in the classroom, and adds depth, growth and expertise to what a normal WSET course is – you’re almost learning by osmosis, by the weight of wine all around you.”
Many students are surprised when that weight first hits them. “At first I was quite curious, how ‘extreme’ can it really be?” says Steve Bardill, who attended the course in September. “Little did I know…” But while the pace was dizzying, Bardill, a reinsurance expert and avid Bordeaux collector, says all those extra activities – visiting vineyards and measuring grape ripeness and alcohol potential with refractometers – were illuminating. “I came here because I know what wines I like, but I’m not sure exactly why,” he says. “So I really wanted to work out this layering in wine, of its complexities and structure.” Apparently he did work it out. In a class competition at the end of the week to create your own blend with wines from three grapes, Bardill’s won the final blind tasting.
“We’re trying to deliver an experience that leaves everyone feeling more uplifted when they depart than when they arrived,” says Nick Dumergue, a vinologist with 30 years in the trade and Barlow’s co-instructor, “an experience that, in a short time, can shape the way they appreciate wine for the rest of their lives.”
In the end, perhaps the main reason the experience can be so transformative, is that it’s shared. “The first two days are quite fierce, you’ve probably never tasted so many wines before in a day, but you start to understand that everyone in the group has their capabilities and limits, and in the end you’re all learning, you’re all in it together. At that point everyone starts to bond,” says Barlow. It’s an aspect of the course many aren’t expecting.
“I definitely now know a lot more about wine, and what I should ask when I’m speaking to a sommelier at a restaurant or a wine club,” explains Fae Ren, a private banker based in London. “But I think the nicest, biggest surprise was the people. It was such a lovely mix, from different parts of the world, different backgrounds, professions, and experiences with wine. There is a kind of chemistry that takes place between everyone.” For Maria-Angelica Rojas, a Venezuelan-born marketeer based in Geneva, being part of a group that mixed neophytes with journalists, shareholders of prestigious wine clubs and vineyard owners proved enriching. “I soon realised I was not only getting the knowledge from Nick and Clive, but also from my peers. Each person brought a certain experience – whether they work in the wine industry or have a collection – which was very interesting.”
It’s a heady mix. As Clive puts it: “You’ve got the joy of wine, and the joy of learning, and those two things work together really well. And there’s a nice pool as well – don’t forget the pool…”
From France Today magazine
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