I love wine, especially South African wine. I love to sit outside on warm evenings and sip a glass of rosé. I love wine pairings and wine tastings and wine farms and pretty much everything to do with wine except the hangovers, which I try to avoid by drinking in (relative) moderation.

Even though I’ve blogged quite a bit about wine over the years (see here and here and here), I never really knew what the hell I was talking about. So when I met Janice Scheckter at a dinner party and learned she has a course that teaches people how to be a Wine Guru in one day, I asked for an invite.

Drinking wine at the "Uncorked1" class at the wine school
Obligatory wine-glass-in-hand selfie, featuring La Vierge Pinot Noir.

I’ve always enjoyed the delicate, complex flavors of wine and I know generally which types I like best. But I didn’t understand the lingo, at least not before this course. I would go to fancy tastings and wine industry events and cellar tours with prominent winemakers, and the words would go right over my head. Then I would have to write about it later and the best I could muster was: This wine is good!

Janice’s business, called the Wine School, was the solution to my problem. Janice’s background is in media so she knows how to communicate. She also has a certification from the Cape Wine Academy. This woman knows wine and how to teach people about it in a fun, informative, and unpretentious way.

Janice shaking up a glass of wine.
Janice shows us how to properly swirl a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. “I love wine but I don’t like being drunk,” Janice says. “Unfortunately, because of all the wine I drink, that is often the result.”

Becoming a Wine Guru

The course I attended was called Uncorked 1. (Uncorked 2 is a more advanced class.) Here is the basic layout of the day:

The course happened in the elegant kitchen/dining area at Houghton Place guesthouse, which Janice runs with her husband Sam. I arrived around 10 a.m. for coffee and the course began at 10:30. It ended just after 5 p.m.

There were six of us in the course: Priscilla and her partner Avile, Cole and her partner Darian, Royal (who recently finished culinary school and is about embark on a stint as a chef in Denver, Colorado), and me.

I loved the group. It was a diverse crowd and everyone was fun and asked intelligent questions. (Also no one got sh*t-faced, which I think is pretty remarkable after seven hours of wine-tasting.)

Wine guru crew
The Wine Guru crew.

10:30 felt a bit early to start tasting wine but I quickly adjusted to the idea. We started with a glass of Pomgracz Rosé MCC (the South African equivalent of champagne), ran briefly through the history of wine and the difference between “Old World” and “New World” wines, then spent the next two hours tasting and learning about white wine. We tasted three whites: Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Chardonnay.

Around 12:30 we broke for a tasty lunch of steak, salad, and wine (of course), then moved on the reds: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Pinotage. (Uncorked 1 focuses on the main grape varietals grown in South Africa.)

Uncorking (literally) the MCC.
Pouring the MCC
Pouring the MCC.
Tasting white wine
Durbanville Hills Sauvignon Blanc, the first white we tasted. Virtually all of my photos are from the white wine phase of the day; I kind of forgot to take pictures at the end, which is no real surprise.

One of the best things about this course is the manual Janice gave us, which she created herself. The booklet presents — among other things — the history of wine; descriptions of all the South African varietals; and tips on buying, ordering, serving, storing, and tasting wine. I took notes in the booklet throughout the day, took it home, and actually read it from cover to cover. It was digestible and surprisingly fun to read.

I don’t want to give away everything I learned but here are just a few of the fun facts I highlighted in my booklet:

1) Grapes are like people: Their skins might be different colors but their insides look virtually the same. Hence, a wine’s color is dependent on how much contact the inside of the grape has with the skin during the wine-making process. White wine is made with zero skin contact, rosé is made with a bit of skin contact, and red wine has a lot of skin contact. That said, red wines do come from dark-colored grapes and most (but not all) white wines come from green grapes.

2) All of the world’s wine barrels are made from either French or American oak. South African oak can’t be used for wine barrels because its wood is too porous.

3) White wine is generally good with fish, but Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t pair well with fish cooked in lemon butter sauce. Sauvignon Blanc’s high acidity competes too strongly with lemon flavors. Chardonnay, on the other hand, tends to pair well with lemon and citrus.

4) The lighter in color a wine is, the cooler it should be when served. I discovered I enjoy red wine much more when it’s served just below room temperature. (I mean South African summer room temperature, of course. South African winter room temperature is about the same as a wine fridge.)

5) A good way to experience the flavor of wine is to suck air through your teeth after sipping, while the wine is still in your mouth.

6) When ordering wine in a restaurant, the majority of people choose the second-cheapest bottle on the menu. This tends to be the bottle with the highest markup.

Life as a Wine Guru

Earlier this week I attended a wine industry event sponsored by Appellation SA (thanks for the invite, guys!), in which a bunch of winemakers gathered to show off their wines to restauranteurs and chefs and other wine-y types. I tested my skills as a Wine Guru and found I’m definitely more comfortable tasting and talking about wine than I was before.

I can taste the fruitiness in Chenin Blanc and the smokiness in Pinotage. I know what it means when someone tells me a wine’s grapes come from bush vines. I understand the difference between hot and cool climate wine production, and I definitely have a preference for cool climate wines.

I tried sucking wine through my teeth while tasting it but couldn’t figure out how to do that without looking/sounding like an idiot. I’ll keep trying.

Chardonnay at Uncorked 1
One of my favorites from the course.

Thank you to Janice for inviting me to Uncorked 1, which I attended as a member of the media. The course costs R1499 (about $100), including wine and food. Do not even think about driving yourself to this course — Uber is a must.

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