The concept of the masterclass, originally confined to the musical register, has always lent itself to liberal interpretation. Nowadays you can find masterclasses in practically anything - golf, ballet, sustainability, even particle physics.
For Rory and Minette Constant, a British couple who made the move from the UK to south-west France almost 20 years ago, the idea of offering wine masterclasses seemed a logical option.
Minette's references were impeccable. After completing a winemaking course at the local Lycée Viticole (winemaking school), working in a vineyard and setting up as a wine broker, in 1997 she became a Master of Wine, one of about 250 people worldwide to have passed this ferociously demanding, British-based wine qualification. Together the Constants found the ideal location for their new venture, an ochre-washed, 17th-century chateau set in the gentle Béarnais countryside, with views from the terrace of the snow-capped Pyrénées. They were dealt a trump card when Ryanair began operating a daily flight from London to Pau, 20 minutes from the chateau.
So was born Tastevin du Monde, which offers tailor-made, top-end short breaks for groups with a focus on wine appreciation. Granted observer status recently, I joined one.
Typically, a group will have varying levels of wine expertise and interest. Ours (featuring, among others, an artist, a soldier-turned-security-chief, an IT expert, a resting chef and a wine grower) was no exception. The first session was thus to be pitched at beginner/intermediate level, with a more advanced approach for the second.
We each received a clipboard and a printed list of the wines. In front of us, a flight of glasses was gracefully arranged, V-shaped, like geese on the wing. There was a tactful reminder that there would be eight wines and two champagnes to compare (before we even got anywhere near dinner). We could, of course, drink the wine if we wished, or we could use the elegant black spittoons provided.
We started with pairs of wines from the same grape variety, so we could get a handle on what each cépage (vine variety) had to offer and try to identify and memorise common traits. We got our noses around a pair of Chenin Blancs first, one from South Africa, one - a Savennières - from the Loire. Next came two Sauvignon Blancs, one from the Loire again, another from New Zealand. With glasses tilted against the white damask tablecloth, we began to pick up nuances of colour ranging from pale straw to greenish yellow to deep honeyed gold. Most striking of all, with both Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc, were the differences between the Old World version and the New World one - different traditions, climate, soil, explained Minette, even different clones of what is ostensibly the same grape.
By the time we progressed to the pairs of reds (Pinot Noir, Syrah) we were beginning to warm to our subject, exchanging ideas on what the aroma suggested ("strawberries", "tea leaves", "rotting vegetation") and how they tasted ("classic Pinot", "high acidity", "quite tannic").
After a pair of champagnes taken on the terrace (too good to spit out), we set off for supper at the ferme-auberge in the neighbouring village. The patronne appeared, drying her hands on her apron. She proposed home-made foie gras with salad, followed by grilled duck breast and roast duckling, all from the farm, including her famous pommes de terre. It was all disgracefully good.
Next day, the advanced tasting focused on sweet wines and posed the burning question: is it possible to make luscious white wines without botrytis, the so-called "noble rot" that gives fabulous complexity and long life to some of the world's finest naturally sweet wines? We snuffled, sucked and spat, silently making notes on a brace of Sauternes, an alluring Bonnezeaux from the Loire, three delectable offerings from the south-west, an extraordinary vin de paille from the Jura and a Hungarian Tokay. Most were botrytis-affected, all were luscious. The wild card came from Château de Cabidos with a late harvested (but nobly un-rotted), barrique-aged wine made from Petit Manseng, the grape responsible for the superb sweet wines of Jurançon.
We learnt our final lesson well: it's perfectly possible to make a thrilling sweet white wine without the help of the magnificent mould.