Join Will Lyons for an evening of Rothschild wines

For those fortunate enough to have made the journey from Beirut, crossing Mount Lebanon and the fertile soils of the Beqaa valley, the Temple of Bacchus is one of the most extraordinary and impressive temples of the Ancient world.

It’s the scale that hits you first, more than 100 feet rising above the ruins of Baalbeck. Constructed by the Romans, around the time of Nero, in the 1st century AD, walking underneath its ancient stone columns one cannot fail to be humbled by the sheer scale of this celebrated sanctuary to the God of Wine.

There are many ways in which you can appreciate the complex world of wine: geography, science, viticulture even the intricacies of taste. But history has always been close to my heart and it is through this particular lens that I gain my most enjoyment. And in wine there is a lot of it.

Will Lyons will host an evening of Rothschild Wine at Waddesdon Manor
The Waddesdon Manor cellar where Will Lyons will host an evening of Rothschild wines

It was the celebrated American wine writer, Matt Kramer, who pointed out earlier this year at the Sauvignon Blanc Symposium in Marlborough, that in the context of ‘vinous history’ New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is barely a day old. He’s right. Leaving aside the birth of commercial wine production in New Zealand (which stretches back around 40 years) and looking to some of the first plantings in the Victorian era in the early 1800s even this pales when placed aside the vineyards of Burgundy, the Rhône valley and Bordeaux. Regions which can chronicle their history in terms of centuries as opposed to decades.

Wine, history and the Rothschild’s

It is a little of this history that I would like to share with you at Waddesdon Manor. In October the club will be hosting a very special evening in the cellars of Waddesdon, a nineteenth century estate surrounded by history and home to one of the largest collections of Rothschild wines outside of France.

As wine dynasties go Rothschild is almost as impressive as the ancient sand coloured columns of the Temple of Bacchus. Boasting not just one but two Bordeaux First Growths in Châteaux Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild the dynasty also owns properties in Argentina and Chile which we will be tasting alongside their more famous cousins from France.

Will Lyons will host an evening of Rothschild Wine at Waddesdon Manor
Joana Vasconceleos created these candlesticks with bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild

To explain the wines we’ll be joined by Rothschild wine expert, Peter Tompkins, who will lead us on a tasting of eight different examples before we ascend upstairs for an autumnal three-course dinner with ingredients sourced from the estate.

Of course there will also be time to explore the grounds and gardens; home to two spectacular giant candlesticks made by Joana Vasconceleos with bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild. And there is even an exclusive opportunity to see the first major exhibition of British painter Eliot Hodgkin. Then there are the cellars themselves where there is an eighteenth-century figure of Bacchus himself – the God of Wine. I do hope you can come and join us. It should be a magical evening.

An evening of Rothschild wine on Saturday 12th October

Arrive at Waddesdon Manor from 6pm to enjoy the gardens, the Eliot Hodgkin exhibition and visit the aviary.

At 7pm enjoy a tasting in the Wine Cellars where Peter Tompkins (Rothschild Wine specialist) and Will Lyons will introduce a selection of eight Rothschild wines, followed by a three-course dinner served in the Manor Restaurant which will be inspired by autumn produce from Waddesdon Estate and Eythrope Garden. Rothschild Wines will be specially selected to suit each course during dinner.

For an additional fee hotel accommodation is available at Five Arrows Hotel, on Waddesdon Estate.

Waddesdon’s wine shop, stocking more than 129 Rothschild lines will be open and all sales on the night will be discounted by 10%.

See full details and book your tickets here.

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So you want to learn about wine?

It doesn’t matter where you are along the wine route there is always the opportunity to learn more. I’ve been tasting wine for more than 20 years and I’m still learning.

Part of the attraction of wine is that it can be drunk for both pleasure and conviviality, as part of a gathering of friends or family, or it can be gustatory. The focus of an intellectual discussion on its merits or faults. I happen to prefer the former but that’s probably because the day job requires me to don my analytical hat and form an informed opinion on a particular wine or wines. But knowledge is power and the more you taste, the more natural it is to want to learn more.

Will Lyons, Vice-President of Sunday Times Wine Club
Will Lyons, Vice-President of Sunday Times Wine Club

But where to start? Believe it or not my journey began in my last year at school where (going on 18) we had a particularly enthusiastic Geography master who taught us the early principles of wine tasting. Looking back it was a surprisingly serious course. But you don’t have to begin so early!

The obvious place to begin is with book learning, which will teach you the basics. The World Atlas of Wine now co-written by our President Hugh Johnson with Jancis Robinson will provide a solid foundation and clear grasp of where most of the world’s wines come from. I learned to taste through the lens of the classic wine regions of France and Europe. This gave me a good understanding of the benchmark styles that have now become internationally successful. But I wouldn’t say that was the right or wrong way. If you mastered the regions and styles of Australia that would be a fitting start.

Taste, taste, taste

The key is to develop your palate and taste, taste, taste. By this I mean learn to understand what you like and learn to understand the different taste and flavours of the major wine producing regions and grape varieties. There are shortcuts but it can be a long journey. I like to use the analogy of an old record shop, browsing through the racks of CDs and vinyls. If you haven’t listened to Mozart or Beethoven, the Beatles or The Rolling Stones you have no idea what they sound like, until you buy an album, take it home and play it. It is the same with wine. If you want to understand the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy or Margaux and Pauillac you’ll need to buy a bottle to taste as well as read the textbooks.

In Britain, we are really spoilt for choice. London is home to the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. Their courses offer a very good technical basis. I completed my WSET exams in a cold lecture hall in Edinburgh when I was at University. It’s quite an academic approach, and can lead onto the Master of Wine – a self taught course for the fully committed.

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But for me wine is so much more than about the technicalities. It’s always nice to learn about what’s in the bottle, how it is made and what makes a good vintage. But I want to share some of the magic of the wine regions I have been luckily enough to visit. History, food, travel tips and the story behind the bottle always make their way into any of my wine tastings. Before that though I always teach people how to taste and develop their palate. The aim is to give you enough confidence to trust what you like and form your own opinion.

Before long you’ll be challenging my preconceptions and tasting like a professional. But don’t get too confident as, when it comes to wine we’re learning all the time.

Just keep on tasting!
Just keep on tasting!

Immerse yourself in the world of wine and join Sunday Times Wine Columnist and Vice President of The Sunday Times Wine Club, Will Lyons, as he shares his expert knowledge in his new evening and one-day wine masterclasses: thetimes.co.uk/winemasterclasses

The Art of Blind Wine Tasting

Eyes down. In front of you are six different glasses of white wine, each poured into an International Standard tasting glass. It’s your job to identify the country of origin, region, sub region, year the wine was made and the main grape variety. Do you think you can do it? After the whites come the reds, same drill. Come on, how hard can it be?

Welcome to the niche and fiercely competitive world of blind wine tasting. Believe it or not there are wine lovers out there who train for this sort of day. Who spend hours, weeks and months head down sniffing, swirling and spitting their way through the world’s myriad wine styles. Honing their taste buds and olfactory skills so when it comes to the final test they can correctly identify the wine style, country of origin and year.

If you think the Varsity Boat Race along the Thames is competitive you should try attending the Oxford v Cambridge blind wine tasting competition, held every year since 1953 at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall. Judged by our Club President Hugh Johnson. This year Cambridge took the Cup after a run of four defeats in what was described as a fiercely competitive competition.

Even though I have been tasting wine professionally for more than two decades I still find it the most terrifying and humbling experience

My roots in this amateur pursuit lay north of the Border. In 1999 I set up the first Edinburgh v St Andrews fixture, which is now held every year in the New Club on Princes Street. Back in 1999, when I was a recent past President of the Edinburgh University Wine Society, the fixture went down to the wire with St Andrews winning by just one point! Since then Edinburgh has been on a tremendous run, winning a slew of victories and distinguishing themselves as some of the best blind tasters in the academic world.

Last year not only did Edinburgh University’s Wine Society beat St Andrews, they went on to compete in and win the prestigious Left Bank Bordeaux Cup in France where they beat, among others, Yale Law School, Harvard, Oxford and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. A significant achievement by any measure. As Alex Wendelken-Dickson, who competed for Edinburgh says: ‘We were the first Scottish team to ever qualify for the final and the first to win the final so it was a huge achievement for us.’

Too right. I judge in the Edinburgh v St Andrews fixture every year and we taste the wines blind with the teams. Even though I have been tasting wine professionally for more than two decades I still find it the most terrifying and humbling experience any wine writer can put themselves through. Get it right. Well, that’s your job. Get it wrong? Well, it’s obvious he doesn’t know what he is talking about isn’t it? It’s good practice and over the years I have had some spectacular failures! But also some surprising successes. One involving a 19th century Margaux served over lunch in Champagne and the other a Right Bank Claret put in front of me in the cellars of a vineyard in Argentina.

This year, in what I thought was a particularly tough line up of wines including a Grüner Veltliner from Austria, a Pinot Gris from Alsace and a Barbera from Italy Edinburgh once again emerged victorious. Team Captain Alex Wendelken-Dickson said they had a little help from The Sunday Times Wine Club, using more than 65 different Club wines for their blind wine tasting practice with favourites being Dark Corner Durif Shiraz from Australia, 2010 Château Pericou from Bordeaux and Groote Kapp Cabernet Sauvignon from the Western Cape.

How did I get on? Well I’m glad to say it was a vintage year in that in terms of country of origin, region and grape variety I managed to get more than half of the wines. Some great successes but also some failures. I take it in the spirit of the late Harry Waugh, the charming and modest wine merchant who set up the first Oxford v Cambridge fixture. When asked whether he had ever confused a Bordeaux with a Burgundy he replied: ‘not since lunch.’