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.

1424908359

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.

1424910325

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.

Thai food, Game of Thrones and Riesling

Last night’s episode of Game of Thrones was special to me. As you probably know, I self-identify as a nerd and this series, both books and TV show, have been at the top of my love list for a few years. I went through the books like Leo Di Caprio going through fashion models, and, ever since the TV show started, I have been waiting for the adaptation of one particular scene. And they adapted the hell out of that scene last night.

House-Martell

I knew it was happening, the title of the episode left no doubt about that, so last night, I took steps to ensure I would be ready. Thai food, spicy Thai food, and a glass of Riesling were needed, with them I knew I could face what was coming. And see, that’s the thing, I knew it was coming; I read about it years ago, I talked about it, I re-read it, and still I was emotionally invested in it. Part of me is angry at myself for caring about things that are not real, and part of me just wants to applaud what is, ultimately, great storytelling. Storytelling so good it sucks you in when you already know how it ends.

Glass of German Riesling in hand, I watched one of my favorite fictional characters do what he does best. I watched him channel Inigo Montoya, Casanova and Bruce Lee at the same time and I felt like a little kid being able to enjoy something so much. Why do I like Oberyn Martell? He’s everything I’m not; he’s cool, suave, agile, a real ladykiller… He even has a widow’s peak when I just have a plain boring receding hairline, the dude has everything.

One thing I do have though is my glass of Riesling. I’ll stop pestering you with inane thoughts about a TV show and talk about the wine.

Loosen Bros. “Dr L” Riesling, 2013

Region: Mosel, Germany

Grape: 100% Riesling

Price: around $10

Loosen Dr L

Loosen Bros. is a fairly renowned German winery and they specialize in producing Rieslings. The Riesling grape is extremely versatile and can be made in a variety of styles, for instance by varying the level of sweetness. Of course, besides styles, you can also produce Riesling from different areas, vineyards and parcels. Basically you have two whole set of variables to play with.

That explains why, while they focus on the Riesling grape, Loosen Bros can still have a huge list of different wines.

The “Dr L” is their non-vineyard Riesling line; they describe it as “introductory” which I guess is a good way to call it a gateway-Riesling.

Eye: clear, pale lemon

Nose: clean, medium minus intensity, notes of lime, mango and pear

Palate: off-dry, medium plus acidity, medium body, medium length finish

Notes of apple, candied limes and lemons along with something definitely more tropical, like pineapple. The finish is nice with lingering candied citrus notes.

Food pairings: Spicy food (Thai, Indian), rich fish dishes (try saying this fast 5 times), desserts

Overall opinion: good value for money, nice off-dry Riesling with a very aromatic character and nice acidity. If you’re like me and you love Thai food, it’s a great wine to pair with larb salad or basil fried rice.

Grade: 7/10

A wise choice : Badger Mountain Riesling

Badger Mountain Riesling, 2013

Badger mountain

Region: Columbia Valley, Washington State, USA

Grape: 88% Riesling, 6% Muscat Canelli, 6% Muller-Thurgau

Price: around $12

My last post about the Riesling variety was prompted by the wine I’m writing about today. I had a friend over and I wanted to flex my cooking muscles which resulted in Chicken Grandee and macaroons for dessert. Thus I ended up looking for a wine that could go well with that meal. I started thinking I had two options, either go big and bold with an Aussie Shiraz to try and match the dish, or go fresh and acidic to try and complement it. Unable to reach a decision, I got both and let my date decide. She chose the fresh option, she chose the Riesling. She chose wisely.

choice

This bottle comes from the Columbia Valley, the biggest growing region in Washington State. It is known for having a variety of micro-climates and the ability to produce wines with “European-like” complexity, especially in comparison with the more fruit-forward wines of California. This is the common word, I don’t necessarily agree with that.

Eye: medium lemon

Nose: Clean, medium plus intensity, candied apples and tropical fruit

Palate: Off-dry, medium-plus acidity, medium body.

It’s a very refreshing wine with nice acidity. Strangely this wine made me think of apple cider on the nose. Very nice aromas of tropical fruits, like kiwi or mango. It should be noted that this wine is organic and made without any addition of sulfites. Those traits are heavily promoted by the winery so I thought I’d pass them along. I’m not sure how I feel about Organic growing. I’m definitely not against it, I’m just not sure it brings more to the table.

Food pairings: Worked well with the New-Orleans dish I had made: Chicken Grandee, roasted chicken with potatoes, sausage, garlic and peppers with a lot of rosemary. It was fresh enough to stand up to this rather heavy dish.

Overall opinion: Good value for the price, cool looking bottle, easy to drink, good example of a slightly off-dry style of Riesling. I think it’s a winner and a go to bottle if you’re invited to dinner during Spring or Summer.

Versatile and aromatic : Riesling

Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Syrah… Most of the international grape varieties originally came from France. I can think of only a couple that are from other countries, Grenache from Spain (Garnacha) and Riesling from Germany. Since I’m all for reconciliation, and because I had a very good one last weekend, let’s take a look at Riesling.

Riesling is from Germany, from the Rhine region to be more precise and it’s been there for a while with first records of the grape dating back to the 15th century. It’s a pretty easy going grape as far as growing it goes and, most importantly, it’s more than capable of surviving long and cold winters thanks to the fact that it ripens late. And a good thing that is because German and Alsatian winters are indeed long and cold. Ironically, Riesling doesn’t do as well in warmer climates where it tends to produce flat wines without much interest.

riesling

Like Chardonnay, Riesling is known to be a grape that reflects the terroir in which it is planted, with different aromas and characteristics depending on where the wine comes from. We’ll go through those in a minute but let’s first see what the common characteristic of most Rieslings is. At the core of Riesling, you’ll find a high acidity that gives it both a refreshing feeling and the ability to age long and well, especially for a white wine. To preserve that freshness, Riesling producers rarely use oak or malolactic fermentation and tend to favor a “clean” style to better express the characteristics of the grape.

Riesling aromas can vary a lot depending on the terroir. It is a fairly aromatic variety that gives off strong aromas that can range from tree fruits notes, like apples, in colder climates whereas Rieslings from warmer regions can summon peach, or even tropical fruit flavors. Depending on the ripeness of the grapes when harvested, the level of residual sugar in the wine will vary.

Another factor in the wide variety of Rieslings is that several winemaking techniques can be used. Riesling can be made as a dry white wine or as a very sweet dessert wine, and also as pretty much any style in between. Various levels of residual sugars can be achieved through various techniques, late harvesting, noble rot, ice wine, which gives even more potential style for Riesling. The Germans have a classification system for the sweetness of the wine, it starts with the dry Kabinett and then in increasing order of grape ripeness (and by consequence, residual sugar) Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.

I don’t think this variety is used in blends; it is mostly made as a varietal. Germany is the main home of Riesling, especially in the Mosel and Rhine regions. Riesling is also the main grape in the German sparkling wine Sekt. Across the French border, Alsace is definitely the second home of the grape. Alsace Rieslings are usually more acidic than the German ones and have longer life expectancies. Outside of Europe, Riesling is a grape growing in popularity in regions like Australia, New-Zealand and especially Washington State in the United-States.

To sum up, Riesling, is versatile and has high acidity like Chenin Blanc, reflects the characteristics of its terroir like Chardonnay, thrives in cold to moderate climates, can age beautifully and has a wide range of possible aromas.