Tasting Notes : Versatility in a glass

 

Michele Chiarlo, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Le Orme 2013

Region : Piemonte, Italy

Grape : Barbera

Price : $17

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I have done quite a few Nebbiolo tasting notes in the past and it is clearly the most prestigious varietal in the Piemonte region. However it is far from being the most planted. That honor belongs to the Barbera grape which makes versatile, affordable wines. There are 2 DOCG appellations for Barbera wines : Barbera del Monferrato Superiore and Barbera d’Asti, centered on the town of Asti.

Eye

  • Clear
  • Low to medium minus intensity
  • Ruby in color

Nose

  • Clean
  • Medium plus intensity
  • Developing
  • Aromas
    • Red fruit, red cherries
    • Red fruit, strawberries
    • Nut fruit, cola nut

Palate

  • Dry
  • Acidity medium plus
  • Tannins low to medium minus
  • Alcohol med minus
  • Body med minus
  • Flavor intensity med minus
  • Length medium
  • Flavors
    • Red fruit, redcurrant
    • Red fruit, tart cherries
    • Black fruit, blackberries
    • Hint of smoke, very faint

Conclusion

  • Quality : acceptable
  • Price category : mid-price
  • Ready to drink

A little underwhelming in terms of body and intensity, but as advertised a versatile wine that would go well with many Italian dishes.

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A long weekend in Napa

I moved to the US 5 years ago, and I have been annoying people about my love for wine for about as long. A question I always get is “Have you been to Napa?” And my answer was always “No”, quickly followed up by “Not yet.”, followed by “But I’ve been to Oregon”, followed by crushing waves of self-loathing as my inadequacy as a wine lover becomes obvious. My point is, when you think wine + US, Napa pops up, it’s the flagship region for the US industry, so I need to get my butt there. Also, my point is, I have crushing self-doubt.

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As of last week one of these issues has been fixed, I have visited Napa Valley, and Sonoma too for good measure. I still have crushing self doubt but that’s ok, there was wine in Napa and Sonoma.

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Right off the bat a few thoughts on the general experience, I’ll give details on some particular wineries in subsequent posts. I had a great time. A good friend of wine actually works at a Napa winery and she was able to take us on some visits that we definitely would have missed otherwise and it made me realize a few things :

  • Takeaway number one : It’s easy to miss some awesome spots if you don’t have an insider to help guide you along.

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  • Takeaway number 2 : it’s easy to end up at wineries that remind me of Disneyland rather than wine country.

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  • Takeaway number 3 : Even in the most Disneylandy wineries, everything is still beautiful. I mean, villas, sprawling grounds, lovely tasting rooms, everything is built to be pretty, which I guess weirded me out after more casual tasting experiences in Europe.

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  • Takeaway number 4 : People say Sonoma is more chill than Napa. Well, people are right, Sonoma feels more chill than Napa.

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  • Takeaway number 5 : Napa wines are expensive given their quality and I’m not a huge fan of the wine club approach. It seems exploitative at the very least.

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  • Takeaway number 6 : Generally speaking, I’m not that into Napa wines. The price points compared to quality are part of it, but a bigger component is stylistic approach. With some exceptions (Hello Fume Blanc), I’m not a huge fan of the Napa style

I know most of these takeaways sound negative, but I have to say that my overall impression was still positive. Napa is beautiful, it is the closest we have to a wine themed amusement park, and who doesn’t like a good amusement park ?

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Maybe it’s my formative years when a winery visit took place in damp cellars between agricultural equipment and industrial quantities of cobwebs that makes the “family-friendly” look hard to process. Maybe I’m just a French snob. I just know that I look forward to going back.

Dueling Rieslings

Last weekend, I tweaked my drinking homework a little bit. Instead of blind tasting a single bottle, I tasted 2 wines side by side. The idea was to train myself on differences and help calibrate my “sensors”. It’s easier to say that a wine has medium + acidity when you can compare it with a wine that has medium – acidity. I did that sort of thing before, in a much less structured way with a couple of red burgundies.

The wines were both from the same grape, Riesling. One came from Australia and the other one from Germany, both can be found in retail for between $15 and $20. Those are the common points, now we need to taste the difference

The wines :

  • Pewsey Vale, Eden Valley Dry Resling 2014
  • Nahe, Kreuznacher Knonenberg Auslese Riesling 2013

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Appearance

  • Pewsey Vale : clear, medium lemon with legs
  • Nahe : clear, medium lemon with thicker legs

Similar in color and intensity, the Nahe’s higher sugar shows more legs

Nose

  • Pewsey Vale : clean, medium intensity. Notes of citrus (lemon), vegetal, green fruit (pear), white flowers and mineral (rock, with faint petrol notes). The wine is young but developing.
  • Nahe : clean, medium + intensity. Notes of tropical fruit (mango), flowers (elderflower), stone fruit (yellow peach). The wine is developing

First big gap here, with the Nahe showing a very different set of aromas, much riper and exotic compared to the greener, citrusy Pewsey Vale

Palate

  • Pewsey Vale : dry, medium + acidity, medium – alcohol, medium body, medium flavor intensity, medium – finish.
  • Nahe : medium sweet, medium + acidity, medium – alcohol, medium + body, medium + flavor intensity, medium + finish.
  • Pewsey Vale : notes of citrus (lime), mineral (rock, oil), green fruit (apple)
  • Nahe : notes of tropical fruit (pineapple), stone fruit (yellow peach), flowers (elderflower)
Delicious homework

Delicious homework

Conclusion

  • Both wines are good. I would give a slight edge to the Nahe but not enough to move it to very good.
  • Both wines can be drunk now but they have potential for ageing

After doing some research, I think I did ok, one big mistake on the alcohol level however because the Nahe is only at 9% ! That’s definitely a low, not a medium -. The whole exercise was fun, I’ll definitely try it again.

 

Blind-tasting challenge #2

Here are my tasting notes for a second blind-tasted wine. This time a white, selected, opened, chilled and hidden by a trusty assistant (she had a couple glasses too).

Appearance :

Clarity : clear

Intensity : medium

Colour : lemon

Other Observations : with legs

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Nose :

Condition : clean

Intensity: medium +

Aroma Characteristics : citrus (lemon), white flowers, oak notes (smoke),

Development : Developing

Palate :

Sweetness : dry

Acidity : medium +

Alcohol : medium

Body : medium +

Flavour intensity : medium +

Flavour characteristic : citrus (lemon), oak (smoke, toast), green fruit (green apple)

Finish : medium –

Conclusions :

Quality level : good

Level of readiness : can drink now, potential for ageing

Identity : Chardonnay, oaked, from a moderate to warm climate. I ventured a guess of Australia. I thought about California but I was missing the usual peanut notes.

Price category : mid-priced

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The wine : Au Contraire, Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, 2013

Once again, I didn’t disgrace myself too badly. I did misfire on the region : Sonoma California instead of Australia, but I got the variety, the climate and the wine making technique. Encouraging. Also this is a good value wine for $20 or less, very well integrated oak, nice roundness. Have a trusty assistant get you a bottle.

Blind tasting challenge #1

As part of my WSET training, I force myself to blind taste wines and go through the description process that I have to apply. This could potentially be embarrassing, but it could be fun too. I grab a bottle off my wine rack (among a dozen options), then I put it in my trusty blind tasting sock, open it and then well, the magic happens. Well the magic is basically me going through my checklist of characteristics of the wine, it’s not very exciting as a spectator sport even though it’s like the Superbowl in my mouth. At the end I will venture a guess as of the nature of the wine and a judgement on its quality Simple in principle, complicated in practice.

The trusty wine sock

The trusty wine sock

Appearance :

Clarity : Clear

Intensity : pale

Colour : Ruby

Other Observations : with legs

I need better lighting for these pictures...

I need better lighting for these pictures…

Nose :

Condition : Clean

Intensity: medium +

Aroma Characteristics : red fruits : red cherries, raspberries, strawberries, fruit jam, stewed fruit, plum

Development : Developing

Palate :

Sweetness : dry

Acidity : high

Tannin : medium –

Alcohol : medium

Body : medium –

Flavour intensity : medium +

Flavour characteristic : red cherry, plum, prune, stewed fruit, redcurrant

Finish : medium –

Conclusions :

Quality level : acceptable

Level of readiness : can drink now, potential for ageing (but not much, maybe a couple years)

Identity : New World Pinot Noir, warm climate

Price category : mid-priced

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The wine : Mohua Pinot Noir 2012 from Central Otago, New Zealand

I got the New World and the variety and Central Otago is considered a warm region so, I didn’t do too bad. The winery’s tasting notes mention liquorice and cranberry, which I didn’t get at all… This did not end up too badly. I’m sure the next one will see me comically fail. Trust the process they say.

 

Weird Science

I started on the reading material for my class last evening. The first chapters are the “technical” ones, first biology : the vine, its parts, how it lives, what it needs, photosynthesis and all that. Then, it’s chemistry : fermentation, alcohol, sugar, blue meth,… It’s all well and good if you ignore the fact that I hate science. Chemistry and physics were the two classes I always dreaded in school and to this day I feel nothing but apathy at best and loathing at worst for science.

But, wine science serves a greater good, so studied on I did. I was reminded of a quote by Rabelais, 16th century French philosopher ( a class I didn’t dread in school) about “Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’ame.” Science without conscience is just ruin of the soul. If you switch “conscience” with “purpose” in the quote, then you get something. Science for wine isn’t too bad, it serves a purpose, the purpose tastes good. I’m willing to see science as a necessary evil if it leads to grapes being fermented. Also, topically, Rabelais is often associated with good food and wine, especially Chinon wines from the Loire Valley, coincidence ? I think not.

Credits : Wikipedia

Credits : Wikipedia

Having reconciled myself with science, I kept studying. A big challenge is going to be the vocabulary, since I’m learning english words whose French translation I don’t know. It’s a process, nothing a little googling can’t solve. I am now familiar with buds, nodes, canes, spurs, shoots, tendrils and of course, permanent wood (not to be confused with transient wood which just phases in and out of reality). Okay, vines are plants, roots go down, sun comes in, photosynthesis happens, the plants grows. Everybody wins.

It gets more interesting when the lesson moves on to grafting. Basically, every vine producing grapes for wine is the result of grafting. Grafting is the process of joining 2 species of vines together to get qualities from both. Example : vitis vitifera is a vine that can produce wine grapes, which is good, but it is really fragile against the phylloxera parasite, which is bad. In fact, it those little bastards almost destroyed european vines in the 19th century. Enters vitis berlandieri, its grapes are unfit to produce wine, which is sad, but its roots can stifle phylloxera parasites by filling their greedy little mouths with sticky sap, which is good (and also really funny). Grafting the top of vitis vinifera on some vitis berlandieri roots, you get a vine that produces good grapes and can resist phylloxera. Jesse, you take this one.

fbd

Thanks Jesse. Now I’m starting to look at the scary part for me : chemistry. Compounds and reactions, fermentation, stuff turning into other stuff because stuff happens. I’m not kidding, “stuff” is an accurate snapshot of my knowledge level here. I’ll have to take copious amount of notes. I can’t wait to get to the part of the class where there are maps. I like maps, I understand maps. In the meantime, onward, for science !

Back to school

It’s definitely weird, after 10 years or so of actual work, to go back being a student. The perspective of classes, homework, and reading materials seems deliciously youthful. This week, I started the WSET Level 3 course (I took and passed the Level 2 back in 2014) so the studious feeling is very fresh in my mind.

The class is split roughly between two thirds of people from the wine industry (buyers, sales, restaurant) and one third of people like me who would just like to learn more and maybe, one day, God willing, weather allowing, stars aligning and pigs flying, transition to the wine industry. My girlfriend’s reaction when I told her that my classmates worked for certain restaurants in Boston: “Be sure to network, so we get invited to their events.” She is the best.

Most of the class was devoted to introductions and to the tasting approach that will be emphasized. A very structured, systematic approach, that is similar to the one I learned for level 2, but much more detailed. The cheat sheet for the methodology is roughly twice the size than the level 2 one. So is the textbook.

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That seems to be the point overall, Level 3 is supposed to be challenging, it is the first “real” class of the program, and the exam at the end will be significantly tougher. The next part of the class was discussing the exam format. On top of the multiple choice and short answer questions, the exam will include blind tasting of two wines, one red, and one white. Basically we will have to give a structure description of looks, nose, taste of the wines and conclude by guessing the nature of the wine, judging its quality, ageing potential, and estimating its price range.

I’m not going to lie to you, it seems daunting at first. Especially after we did a couple wines as a class, so that the educator could take us through the methodology. I felt that it was going fast, that I didn’t get most of the things other students did. It was scary. Test subjects were a very enjoyable Auslese Riesling from the Mosel, and a meh Chinon from the Loire Valley.

And it immediately got scarier as we concluded the class with a mock exam: 2 wines, 2 tasting sheets and 20 minutes! I was panicking a little bit as I started taking notes, sniffing, checking the color against a white background,… Time seemed to fly as I was debating between passion fruit and pineapple notes, between pale lemon or medium lemon-green color. When the clock ran out I was dejected.

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The teacher then took us through the results. As it turned out, I would have passed. I got a 40 out of 50, 26 being the passing grade. I did well on the quality/price range/ origin conclusion but flunked both color appreciations. I also misjudged some of the acidity/body/intensity/alcohol levels. To me this will always be the tough part “how do you distinguish between medium + and high acidity, or between medium – and medium body? Apart from those “calibrating” issues, I was a bit relieved. It helped that both wines had fairly distinctive profiles, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Rioja Reserva.

Overall, I’m excited to start on this new learning journey, for a couple hours every week I get to be a student again, on a subject that I happen to love. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some homework to do.