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Robin Ince on tour: Wine-tasting woes with Professor Brian Cox

In Australia with Professor Brian Cox, Robin Ince finds his wine-tasting skills far less powerful than his fear of spiders

I have quite gone off wine. I have discovered my mind has been making a fool of me. 

In Adelaide, I visited the Australian Wine Research Institute to make a show about grapes and their possibilities. I was accompanied by Professor Brian Cox

We had thought that it would be pleasant to make a Christmas special in the Australian spring sunshine, but Brian brings the weather fronts of Oldham with him wherever he goes. Last week, he brought drizzle to Los Angeles. 

As any viewers of Stargazing Live know, it was rarely a show that was able to show you the stars, but one that could allow you to imagine what stars might be behind the thick cloud cover over Jodrell Bank. 

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Brian is a wine connoisseur with a delicate palate. The kind of person who will gently swirl his Montrachet around the goblet and then tell you of the subtle tastes of burnt caramel, buttery mash and blackberry. My tongue is more clodhopping, but I give it a go and occasionally find a hint of kumquat or a Müller Fruit corner in the merlot. 

Beforehand, we had been quite certain that we had such educated palettes that the slightest hint of pinot or shiraz would be instantly picked up by our olfactory senses before we waxed lyrical and wrote tasting notes that soon became an epic novel. 

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It turned out we couldn’t even tell the difference between white and red. Place wine in a black glass, remove the visual clues, and it gets mighty tricky. Now I wonder if I could even tell the difference between Lilt and hot chocolate.

One of the flavour scientists was called Mango and it is hard not to believe that nominative determinism played a part in her eventual career. 

Every glass of wine since that day has tasted of a mix of suspicion and sneering alchemy. 

It was a good day to be reminded of how sceptical we should be of our perceptions and why I will stay on budget booze and allow my imagination to create the subtleties. 

Our next suppositions to be shattered concerned arachnids. In a music venue in Sydney, we were introduced to an orb weaving spider, a huntsman and a St Andrew’s Cross spider. 

It was here that I discovered that Brian, a man who has woken up to find a bat on his face and stood in arctic blizzards, is not keen on spiders, even when they are safely in Perspex boxes. 

It was the unveiling of the female St Andrew’s Cross that unsettled him most, sat in the middle of its web, as still as a stalactite. I could sense Brian’s unease. 

Mariella Herberstein, a behavioural ecologist with the perfect combination of expertise and eccentricity, introduced the tiny male spider to the web and the audience watched in anticipation of sex followed by cannibalism. Sadly, all remained calm. 

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The most dangerous Australian spider on stage was the huntsman, not due to its jaws or venom, but
due to the element of surprise. They find car engines a comfortable place to sleep, but once the ignition key is turned, they have a habit of crawling out and startling drivers, who then career into telegraph poles.

We didn’t quite get around to the decline in men being bitten on the penis by Black Widow spiders,
I think we would have had to unscrew the smelling salts for the professor if we had got to that stage of the conversation. 

Robin Ince is an author and broadcaster. His book, Bibliomaniac: An Obsessive’s Tour of the Bookshops of Britain, is out now. You can buy a copy from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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