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.

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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.

Judge not lest ye be judged

It’s a valid question, especially for someone starting out on the wine learning path. One of the stated goals of the WSET courses is to learn how to judge the quality of a wine by tasting it. By definition this means ridding oneself of personal tastes and preferences to give a dispassionate opinion of a wine. A wine could be of good quality and yet depending on personal taste, some people might not like it. I think that is one of the great challenges facing me.

For a long time I had an purely hedonistic approach to wine, simply trying to judge what I drank by whether I liked it, whether I enjoyed it or not. It’s not a bad approach, it’s open-minded, it’s simple and it makes wine drinking accessible for the profane. Gone are those days! I now must drink seriously, furrow my brow and take inspired and intense poses as I ponder the deep mysteries of the wine in my glass.

Appropriately furrowed brow

Appropriately furrowed brow

Nah, just kidding, that sounds like too much work… I still try to ask myself whether I enjoy a wine or not. The difference is that I should make myself form an objective opinion first. I hope the brow furrowing will be kept at minimal levels, it sounds painful. Plus I’m not sure I can pull off the inspired, focused look for extended periods of time… I’m not really sure it’s in my nature.

It remains hard to separate taste and quality, especially since I’m really a beginner. What is quality? I tend to think that a wine tastes like a wine from its region/variety/style should taste, then a certain standard is reached. Granted this is more like judging the representativity of a wine than its quality, but I think it’s a start. Of course it’s possible for an outlier of a wine to be of good quality while not being a good example of its style of region.

I really believe this is just a first step in the right direction. Eventually I’ll learn to be more specific about the quality of the wines I taste, judging, for instance, the aging potential for a young wine. But the road is long, and it’s a good thing. I mean it’s a good thing if tasting wine remains enjoyable; I never want it to become a chore, just an exercise of my taste buds and my wine knowledge. There is the intellectual thrill of learning and expanding your knowledge of course, but wine, by itself, has a thrill of its own that I do not want to lose along the way.

Getting schooled

Being French comes with a sizable amount of drawbacks but also a few noticeable advantages. First and foremost, growing up in France, wine was always present at family dinners, functions, events…My family was actually making wine in Burgundy and my grandfather was an agricultural engineer so I picked up some wine knowledge as I was growing up. It’s pretty awesome to have your grandfather casually explain how grafting American vines helped save the French winemaking industry that was dying because of phylloxera (I’ll write about that in another post because that’s a great story).

But picking up bits and pieces of knowledge around the dinner table or the vacation house only gives you just that: bits and pieces. It’s hard to have a global view with those; you need more structure, a more comprehensive approach. That is why I started taking classes, to replace what I knew in perspective, make sure my basics were solid and then expand outward. Furthermore, growing up in France, I had more experience with French wines, I’m taking classes in Boston where I live and where US, Australian or South African wines are more easily available which (hopefully) corrects my French-centered wine education.

The classes are really fun; they mix theoretical knowledge with tasting, trying to establish the basics and illustrating it with relevant wines. There is also a tasting method which has the merit of assuring a systematic approach to the wine. That way, comparisons between wines are easier since you tasted them the same way.

This is by the way my single biggest takeaway from the classes: it is much easier to pick up flavors, intensity, acidity levels, tannins… when tasting 2 or 3 wines in succession. Going back and forth really helps me distinguish wine characteristics; it’s really a case of comparison and contrast. This being said it remains hard to pinpoint aromas with the trained and imperious certainty of the wine expert! Try and recognize an elderberry or gooseberry aroma!

Anyway I’ll take my first exam in a couple weeks then start the next block of classes early next year. I intend to practice a lot in the meantime. And yes, by practice, I mean drink. And yes, by a lot, I mean a lot.