wine tasting for beginners

A first step into the world of wine tasting



I spend a lot of time in France, mainly riding bikes, but my other activity is eating food and enjoying wine. It is a sin to not sample the products of the local terroir through which you have been cycling all day. Despite the volume consumed I know little about the intricacies and skills of wine tasting.

Having seen far too many elaborate, attention seeking performances by so called ‘experts’ I was if anything a little but dubious of the whole show. However an afternoon with Sam from Black Hand Wine, Brunswick Yard, Penrith changed my perspective.

Jary has worked as winemaker and grape grower in New Zealand, France and Northern Spain. He instantly put us at ease and dispelled any fears I had that we were going to feel exposed and stupid. Jary had us swirling, sniffing, spitting (and occasionally dribbling) within minutes, no long lectures, straight to the wine.





Discovery number 1: Not just pretentious wankery

Jary explained to us how oenologists use chromatography and mass spectometry to analyse wines and correlate the individual compounds in wine with their descriptors; for example pineapple. The same compound that gives a pineapple its ‘pineappliness’ can be found in a bottle of wine that a wine taster would describe as smelling or tasting of pineapple. Each bottle of wine will have as many as 600 volatile compounds that make up its aroma and flavour. So when someone says they can smell leather, or grass cuttings or a tobacco box they aren’t just being a pretentious wanker, chemically it is actually in there, it is real. This was an eye-opening moment for me. I went from cynic to believer in that one sentence.

Discovery number 2: Wine drinking is a ‘mindfulness’ exercise.

Drinking wine as a relaxation technique may be frowned on, though many of us do it for that reason. From  now on I am re-branding my wine drinking as a ‘mindfulness exercise’. Mindfulness is the big buzz word of the moment, you can buy ‘mindful’ colouring in books for adults, go on a ‘mindful’ walk or learn ‘mindful’ meditation techniques. Wine tasting is a mindful exercise, and one I enjoy far more than colouring in.

In learning to properly taste wine I discovered that if you try to grasp too tight to the aromas or tastes, to analyse too deep, they slip through your fingers. Your sense of smell has a very direct link to your brain and in particular the area which holds your memories.

Wine tasting, if you taste mindfully rather than just quaffing, can short cut your brain straight to a very detailed nostalgic moment of your past. Like a waft of aftershave that a former lover used to wear, or the smell of Lynx that always takes me straight back to a sixth form common room of hormonal teenagers. Once you get that memory the challenge is to unpick what it is in the wine that sent you there.

Letting the pictures form in my mind first was the key and once the picture was there I needed to work out why the wine had prompted that image. For example, a sip of one red-wine took me straight to the back seats of a coach on a school trip to Germany. How? Why? Jary explained the flavours of liquourice and strawberry bootlaces, ah ha yes, the bags of sweets we were eating. You see? Elusive.

I had to be a detective in my own memories. Next was the aroma of my Grandmother’s rose garden but what was it in the wine that took me there? Floral notes, the smell of sun-warmed earth or the damp vegetation? In another glass I was smelling secondary aromas of baked wood and remembering the sun-warmed, creosoted panels of the hut I used to sell ice-creams from as a teenager. Things I had not thought about for years.

It is hard to capture exactly what it is you are smelling. Sam taught us that the real experts scribble notes with their writing hand and taste with the other, a flow of consciousness of imagery and ideas. If you don’t write them down immediately they fly away, and if you try to analyse too closely you end up second guessing yourself. If that is not a mindfulness exercise I don’t know what one is.

Discovery number 3: Wine experts are not stuffed shirts.

Like so many things in life you can use your brain, or your heart. My perception of a wine expert was someone stuffy and uptight, formal suit and expensive tastes. Someone who wants to see you make a mistake. To flaunt their knowledge and expertise over your inadequate experience. An afternoon with Jary totally transformed this for me. With wine tasting you cannot be wrong (ok technically you still can but it is harder than I first thought) If you are smelling your grandmother’s rose garden, or custard cream biscuits, or liquorice All-Sorts it is because it is there in the wine. You might not know the right technical jargon for it, the appropriate phrase or where that sweet, creamy flavour is coming from but you are not wrong.



To be good at wine tasting, I imagine, requires a sensuous and exploratory personality, for how can you recognise an aroma or flavour if you haven’t smelt it before? Sticking your nose into cans of kerosene, running damp earthy humus through your fingers or squeezing fresh passion fruit in your hand is the only way to learn and label what you are smelling. May be you can only recognise the scent of dry hay in a champagne or oak aged chardonnay if you have indulged in a roll in a hay loft as the afternoon sunshine streams in? You cannot be uptight and still allow the wine to resonate. To have the flow of consciousness required to let the aromas and flavours flood your brain you need to be relaxed and open. You need to be mindful.

My image of wine has swung to the other direction, (and is probably no more accurate for it). Now I see wine experts as people deeply in touch with the sensuous world around them, people who are alive, who dig their hands deep into the soil, who sniff the aged leather of a horse’s harness or deeply breathe in the scent of an empty tobacco box. People who understand romance and nostalgia. People who when they are wine tasting are remembering sun on hot skin and an illicit roll in the hay loft (possibly).


France en Velo at Words by the Water literary festival, Lake District

Many thanks to Angela Locke the Lakeland novelist, poet and lecturer for hosting our talk at the magnificent Words by the Water Festival in Keswick.

Great to see such a good turn out on the last day of the festival. We finished our day off with a stroll down to Derwent Water in the fading early spring light.

Keep an eye out on the website for further France en Velo authors talks at literary and cycling festivals.IMG_2588IMG_2592


Stanfords Travel Writers Festival


Rummaging around in bookshop and studying maps is one of mine and John’s favourite past times. Its in a quiet corner of book shop that  the ideas for journeys start to brew and the practical information needed to plan can be found. If you are a lover of books and travel then you no doubt already know the name Stanfords.

Stanfords is the  UK’s leading specialist retailer of maps and travel books and it can justly claim to offer the world’s largest stock of maps and travel books under one roof. Established in 1853 by Edward Stanford if you need any inspiration for planning adventures this is the place to go. You’d be in good company as Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton visited when planning their expeditions, Bill Bryson and Michael Palin are customers today.

L-R William Fotheringham, Hannah Reynolds,Tim Moore, Oli Broom
L-R William Fotheringham, Hannah Reynolds,Tim Moore, Oli Broom

Stanfords Travel Writers Festival formed part of the Destination Show at London Olympia, a stellar line up of travel writers were there to discuss their books, travels and adventures. I had been invited to chair a panel of cycling travel writers; Oli Broom-Cycling to the Ashes, Tim Moore- Gironimo and William Fotheringham-Racing Hard. To be honest they didn’t need much chairing as once onto the subject of cycle touring the anecdotes started to fly! You can listen to it here: 

Despite trying to stimulate some semi-intellectual discussion about how the act of writing  a book changes the experience of travel we soon learnt that the audience’s main interest was in the practicalities of riding your bike for a really long time. “What do you take with you? How do you prevent your bum getting sore? Were you ever scared? “And of course the number one question “What was the worst thing that ever happened to you?”

So…. we’re starting work on a France en Velo ‘Everything you need to know about cycle touring and the bits no one ever mentions’ feature to be up on the website soon. In the mean time email us your questions at 



Ellie’s Experience


I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed riding through France for 2 weeks this September following your route.  It was a proper adventure.

My Mum lives in the Ardeche and I’d been talking about cycling to her house for ages (but avoiding the UK bit (I live in Perth)) and so when I stumbled across your book in the local Waterstone’s at the end of May this year I felt like it was ‘meant to be’ since the route actually goes through the wee village she stays in.  I’ve never done any cycle touring before and I thought having a route to follow would make life a lot simpler with all the things that need to be organised.

Spectacular view into Gorge d'Ardeche
Spectacular view into Gorge d’Ardeche

I decided with my lack of experience the 3 week itinerary would be the most realistic option, but I would get to my final destination in 15 days, giving me time to have a holiday when I got to my Mum’s too (I had 3 weeks leave).  So I got the train to Portsmouth, ferry St Malo and after a week in the Ardeche flew back from Marseille.  In the end I did the trip in 14 days, mostly due to meeting another cyclist in Mende (Simon) on my last night camping who was doing the 2 week itinerary and so I cycled with him from Mende to St Alban Auriolles – that final day is amazing – downhills that go on forever on quiet roads and climbs that are manageable even with a laden bike.

I think the only thing that I would add to the book is a wee line about being aware that in the shoulder season campsites/restaurants might not be open.  It wasn’t a huge issue but any extra miles at the end of a long day feel hard.  But mostly the whole experience was incredibly positive, the camaraderie of all other cyclists on the road, the greater courtesy that French drivers have to cyclist, the fantastic nature of the route following river after river exploring many parts of France I don’t really know – I thought the Lot valley in particular was brilliant.

I suspect the weather helped (13 and three quarter days of wall to wall sunshine then a drenching just as we left Les Vans) but I do think the route is well thought out.  I did undertake some ‘edits’ to my journey (as you suggest, making it my own adventure) as I used traditional maps for navigation, some of the editing was just evening out the day lengths on the itinerary so they were closer to fifty-ish miles – as I found they varied a fair bit.  I also chose not to take the rest day but to do 2 shorter length days as I’m not sure I would have managed 74 miles and 1500m of ascent with my adapted mountain bike (road tyres) and camping kit, especially over Goudard pass.

Do not be put off by this ominous sign at the bottom of Goudard.
                 Goudard                            an exciting challenge     with spectacular views 

I would (have already) recommend the book/route to anyone interested in touring or just exploring France generally.  It is a fairly hefty tome for cycle touring with but I did enjoy looking at my maps and the book of an evening to see what the next day had in store.  I didn’t have the book out during the day but quickly learnt that some of the salient directions for getting through towns noted down on a bit of paper with the map made navigation pretty straightforward. I know there’s lots of digital ways of doing these things but the maps gave a better sense of where I was and also let me adapt the route a little.

All in all this is just a big thank you – France en Velo – made something I’ve been thinking about for years come to fruition – and I’m chuffed to bits I did it 🙂

Ellie Willmott

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Tom’s Journey

One of the joys of researching and writing France en Velo was the chance to really explore France and then share those discoveries with other people.  Whether guiding with or hearing other people’s stories from the route it is always a great feeling to show someone an area that we think is really special and it mean something to them too.
“My name is Tom and last Saturday I reached Nice having cycled the entire route (and a little bit more).
Prior to departing for St Malo I had done little more than buy the book and to book my accommodation based on your recommendations. As such my two weeks were totally in your hands! However after one day I had seen Mont St Michel, had a photo stop at the fortified chateau in Fougeres and stayed at the Petit Billot in Vitre. I sat down to dinner that night knowing that it was going to be a special trip. Every road, every village and town and every suggested accommodation along the route was better than I could have ever expected. When the book said that somewhere was worth a stop, it really was worth it. After a hard day’s riding I would be filled with excitement as to what my stop for the night had in store for me. I remember vividly rolling down the hill and across the bridge in Brantome after 120 miles of riding with a huge smile on my face as I realised that it was somewhere truly special. Nothing beat the feeling of sitting on one of the terraces with a glass of red with the peaceful river running past.
I could honestly write forever to you discussing my favourite bits and how much I appreciate your book but I am sure you get it from everyone who has done the trip. However in one sentence, thank you for giving me the trip of a lifetime!”





POOLE – 23 July – Rockets and Rascals – Salterns Way – from 7pm 

NEWCASTLE – 24 July – The Cycle Hub – Quayside – from 6.30pm

We’ve been having a fantastic time at our book events, lots of French wine, fresh fromage and a chance to meet other cyclists keen to discover France en Velo.  Come and chat about your cycling plans and enjoy a small taste of France and it’s many food and drink delights. No need to book, just drop in. Books for sale at special discount. Or just come along for a glass of vin rouge!

Happy Campers!


A lovely email arrived in our in-box this evening from Rich, who has just arrived in Nice.

“Thanks to you all for your route, advice and pre ride input. We have stayed in most of the campsites you suggested and It’s been a great experience. Today we are just outside Nice, resting up after 10 days cycling from Villefort to Bar de Sur Loup. Some tough riding with panniers and tent in 35+ heat, but some great riding, and this is a lovely finish before rejoining the busy streets of Nice. Not a bad view for a campsite huh!”image

Book Launch Keswick – 2nd June

We’ve decided to celebrate the launch of France en Velo with a series of book launches around the country. First up is Keswick, John’s home town on Monday 2nd June at the Saddleback Cafe.

New cycling hang out in town, The Saddleback Cafe, will be hosting the evening from 7-9pm and providing some French themed nibbles. We’ll be bringing plenty of wine and cheese direct from France and some Brittany cidre and some bottles of sparkling Saumur Crément. Its not a celebration without a glass of bubbles.

Come and check out Keswick’s latest destination for outdoor enthusiasts, there is cycling art on the walls and  even bike locks available to lock up your pride and joy if you cycle over.

We’ll be doing a short talk about the book and cycle touring in France but the main purpose of the evening is to enjoy some good French wine and food. Do come along and have a chat with us, it would be great to meet you.

Saddleback Café, 135 Main St, Keswick, CA12 5NJ, next door to KMB


Print version of poster here