The importance of staff training in ely restaurants: understanding wine faults

Plumpton College June 2011

Plumpton College, near Brighton in the UK, is the only education institute in the UK and Ireland to offer winemaking courses. It has excellent facilities with a hands-on approach.
First year students learn about grapes and vineyard ‘best practice’, so much so that they work the college’s vineyards throughout the year and handpick all the grapes at harvest time. Second year students have the year-long project of processing the grapes and making the wine. It’s an arduous, but very rewarding task: alongside crushing the fruit, monitoring the ferments and bottling the wines they also have to pass a fork-lift driving exam!
Simon Tyrrell, one of our key suppliers, has just completed the 2 year course. He found the experience and knowledge of the college so essential that he suggested to Erik Robson, co-owner at ely, take the staff to Plumpton for a day’s training.
On the 10th July 2011 Erik and Michelle Robson and 7 staff members, chaperoned by Simon Tyrrell, boarded a plane to the UK for ely’s ‘Plumpton Training Course’.

The course started with a viticulture lesson. Jo Cowderoy talked us through the different parts of the vine and a typical year in the vineyard, from pruning in the winter to flowering in the summer and harvest in September. We then got a tour of one of the school vineyards. The school has over 20 varieties planted so students get to learn about many of the key varieties in the world. The grapes had just burst and but were not yet ripe enough for us to have a taste!

Following this we took a tour of the college’s small winery operation. Our host Pete Morgan took us around the winery, explaining the grape’s life cycle from vine to bottle. We looked at everything from the machinery used to process grapes, yeast types and even bottling wines.


The afternoon was spent out of the sunshine and in the tasting room – where the serious work began! Tony Milanowski, former head winemaker at Katnook Estate, Australia, took us through the tasting.

The tasting was made up of 3 parts: wine components, wine faults and tasting English wine.
Understanding wine is essential to being able to sell it competently, so our first lesson in the classroom was to taste the key components in wine. Firstly we were poured 3 glasses of what looked like tap water and were tasked with guessing what was actually in the glass. They all smelled neutral, so the answer was in the tasting.

The first glass had 1g/litre of tartaric acid (the acid naturally found in grapes) dissolved in water, the second glass has 5g/litre of tartaric acid dissolved in water and the final glass was just water. Why water? Water is the main component in grapes and accounts for 85% of a bottle of wine. The purpose of the exercise is to show two things: firstly what acidity feels like in the mouth and secondly what the standard level of acidity in wine is. Although the acidity in the second glass was searing, it was only the typical level of acidity found in wine. The reason it was searing was because there was nothing to balance out the tartaric acid, such as fruit flavours or alcohol! We repeated the process with sugar, alcohol, oak chips, bitterness and tannins; each time tasting a small amount followed by a considerably larger amount. We were all overwhelmed by the simplicity and effectiveness of the simple experiment. The final glass was a combination of all of the above which illustrated the standard structure of a glass of wine.

Standard composition of wine
Water: 85%
Alcohol: 12%
Acidity: 1%
Sugar: 0.5%
Proteins/Dry Matter: 1.5%

Now that we have experienced how a wine should taste, we were put through our paces on how wine shouldn’t taste: ‘wine faults’ was the second part of the lecture.
We were all quite excited about this aspect but after 5 minutes realised how scientific it was! Identifying faults can be done by visually examining the wine, by smelling it and finally by tasting it. We covered standard faults which included common examples like cork taint (TCA), oxidised wines (acetic spoilage), brett (brettanomyces), too much SO₂ as well as precipitation of protein, tartrates and phenolics to name just a few. A major part of the lesson was smelling and tasting these compounds so we can properly identify them.

Cork taint is often the only fault recognised in wine because it is the most common and most distinctive. Often people sit down to a glass of wine that doesn’t taste too bad, but that doesn’t taste too good either. What we are left with is simply a bad impression of the wine. Sometimes the wine might be dull, lacking in fruit, not bright in colour, or even yellow. ely cherry picks every wine on the list because it tastes delicious. In understanding the many faults that can occur, we hope to be able to make sure that every wine our customers have is in top condition, and if it’s not we can tell you why!

We finished up with a tasting of the wines produced by the Plumpton 2010 graduates, one of whom was Simon Tyrrell. Many of the grapes that work successfully in England are from Germany and Northern France due to the similarities in the climate. The whites were delicious, dry with mouthwatering acidity and floral fruit aromas, the reserve cuvee was lightly oaked and had similarities to Viognier, the rose was the perfect summer drink made from a blend of red and white grapes and the red wine was ‘interesting’ to say the least. The piece de resistance however was the award winning sparkling wine made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay: rich, complex and weighty it was the perfect drink to finish up our day at Plumpton College.

When we arrived at the college the night before we were giddy with anticipation at the day ahead, but as we left 24 hours later we were all disappointed: if only we could stay for one more day. The college, the staff, and the winery were all infectious. Pete the lecturer joked that spending time in a winery de-romanticises winemaking but we left completely enamoured with the place!

Big thanks to the wonderful staff at Plumpton, Simon Tyrrell and Erik and Michelle Robson for taking us out there!

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