Sunday, November 02, 2008


Sat 25 October 2008

Earlier this year I won a pair of tickets for Vinopolis's "The Vineyard" tour. These tickets are normally £22.50 a person, so I was pretty chuffed. We haven't been to London much this year, so we ended up planning a weekend with a trip to Vinopolis as its main focus.

The Vinopolis literature advised us to allow approximately 2.5 hours for the experience, so I booked us in for 11am. After breakfast at Borough Market we arrived at Vinopolis about 10 minutes early. Despite not actually being properly open, we were handed our tickets, tasting vouchers and Vinopolis notebooks.

The tour is self guided, although it does begin with a 15 minute class in 'how to taste wine' - and we were told that the first of these would be at 11:30. So we had just over half an hour spare.

The tour begins with a room which focuses on Georgia. There are a few interactive computer displays, a couple of display cabinets and that's about it. The idea that's being communicated is that Georgia was the birthplace of wine. Having established that in the space of a few minutes we wandered past the area where we'd learn how to taste wine and had a look at some very cursory displays covering Burgundy (a few road signs, a model of a vineyard), Bordeaux (displays showing the cru hierarchies for reds and sweet whites, a Jancis Robinson narrated video), past the Champagne bar, into a room dedicated to Australia (corrugated iron, an Oz Clarke narrated video) and then, a bit bored, we decided to have a sit down.

Despite now being after 11, Vinopolis was still drowsy. We appeared to be the only members of the public there, and staff were arriving for work, moving stuff around, setting out glasses. We had the surreal feeling of being somewhere we shouldn't - as though it wasn't open yet and we were being treated to a behind the scenes experience. By this stage, Andy was also pretty cross (quite a few strong things were said about what would have been happening if we'd paid for the tickets).

Finally, 11:30 arrived and we took our seats to learn how to taste wine. No complaints there - the information was well delivered and correct but covered very quickly - necessitated by its 15 minute slot. This part of the Vinopolis experience is, quite clearly, sponsored by Chamarré. The wine used was Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc blend. It didn't really do a lot for me (at all) and I was a little surprised at the selection. It's not a blend you'll see often and it wasn't varietally expressive. I would have something like a textbook Sauvignon Blanc.

Having learned to taste it was time to put this into practice. As The Vineyard tour includes 2 'premium' wine tasting tickets, we thought we'd start there. There are four tasting tables at Vinopolis and one is dedicated to the premium wines. The man staffing the table seemed quite surprised that we were there to taste - apparently on a Saturday it's usually people who are intent on knocking back a few drinks. Right.

We saw evidence of this later: in amongst hen parties and people who thought it clearly hilarious to make a huge amount of noise drawing air through wine there didn't seem to be a lot of serious wine action (or education) at all. Having gone to the effort of teaching people the physical process of wine tasting it's a shame it's not followed up by well ordered tasting tables (the premium table started with a Port!) and more information about the wines. Most of the staff were really pleasant, and reasonably knowledgeable, people, but almost all seemed somewhat jaded.

The heavy corporate sponsorship we'd seen in our first session continued throughout the tour and I got (rightly or wrongly) the feeling that much of the wine selection was dictated by cold hard cash.

I was also extremely disappointed to note an incredible lack of attention to detail. I observed at least one board which contained grammatical errors, and the Vinopolis tasting notebook is riddled with them. In just half an A6 page I spotted SEVEN errors - without even trying. This sloppiness is also evident on the website.

It's probably obvious that I wouldn't go again, and it's not an experience I'd recommend. If you are genuinely interested in learning a little about wine, I think you're better off experimenting in your local wine shop, quizzing the wine merchant and doing a bit of reading. Between two people, £45 is going to buy you a LOT of good quality wine! Keep a look out for tastings in your area - they're unlikely to cost anywhere near as much to attend and will often have a broad range of wines to keep you occupied.

Rather than go through everything we tasted, I'm going to note the standout wine, which was from Brazil: a 2005 Miolo Quinta do Seival, which is a blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (which you my know as Tempranillo) and Alfrocheiro. This retails for around £11 and, aside from the obvious curiosity value (Brazil ... Alfrocheiro ...), it's a very pleasant drop. There are some vegetal notes on the nose with blackcurrant, blackcurrant leaf and damp woods (perfect autumn drinking then!). These characteristics follow through to the palate, accompanied by some soft tannins. It's reasonably full bodied - so at this time of year it's perfect with both roast meat and slow cooked stews. I'm not entirely sure where I'd put it on a value for money scale - I tasted it directly after a rather unpleasant Dornfelder and just before an extremely nasty Thai wine. We took a bottle around to a friend's house for dinner but by the time it was consumed my palate was less than clear (ahem).

There's a lot around Vinopolis which should be recommended: Borough Market, the Majestic where the wine tour finishes (the only Majestic in the UK to sell single bottles), and the Wine Wharf, which has an impressive (but expensive) array of wines by the glass. All of which you can enjoy without subjecting yourself to a costly and soulless 'experience'.

1. Vinopolis, No.1 Bank End, London, SE1 9BU, phone: 0207 940 8300, map.

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