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.

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Serious but not austere, Pecina Rioja

Bodega Pecina, Rioja Reserva 2005

Region: Rioja Alta, Rioja, Spain

Grape: 95% Tempranillo, 3% Graciano, 2% Garnacha

Price: around $22

I bought that bottle a month ago after a tasting of the various products of the Bodega Pecina, and I brought it to a friend’s house for our regular tasting session. I was never a big fan of Rioja in the past but I remembered really liking this wine during the tasting, that’s why I bought a bottle, I mean, I can be logical sometimes.

Rioja classifications (Joven, Crianza, Reserva…) are based on wine ageing. To qualify as a Reserva, a wine has to be aged at least 3 years (including at least 1 year in oak barrels) before being sold. This particular wine has spent 3 years in oak barrels and 2 years in bottle afterward. As you can see, the producer went well beyond the mandatory requirements for a Reserva. A word about the producer would be a propos right about now I think: the bodega was founded in 1992 as a small family operations and has been growing ever since. They are starting to be recognized in the US for the quality of their products, hence the tasting at the wine shop.

Pecina 3

Eye: medium garnet

Nose: Clean, medium plus intensity. Notes of dark plums and prunes, cooked fruits. Leather and gamey aromas.

Palate: Dry, medium-plus acidity, medium-plus body, well rounded tannins, great structure and complexity, long finish with coffee and tobacco notes

Composed, collected elegance, that’s what this wine felt like to me. Sure, there are fruit notes, mostly dark plums and even prunes but you never feel overwhelmed by them. The oak aromas give the wine complexity with notes of coffee and tobacco, a toasty, smoky quality that blends well with the fruit. It is definitely a serious wine, not a playful, fruity one. You have to pay attention to the body, the tannins, the smoky, gamey aromas from the oak… I think serious but not austere would be a good tagline for it.

My friend tasted it blind, went through a series of logical assumptions and ended up with two final choices: Rioja or Nebbiolo. Unfortunately she chose Nebbiolo, but she was close.

Food pairings: I had it on its own, it would work well with red meat I think.

Overall opinion: It’s a very good wine, well made, very complex and structured that gives a good insight of what Riojas should be like. And the price is pretty good too. I’ll definitely put it on my recommendation list.

Crash course in Rioja : Bodega Pecina

There is a wonderful place in Boston that organizes free wine tastings every Friday afternoon and early evening (and then goes ahead and offers a significant discount on tasted wines). I went there last Friday for a tasting entirely devoted to wines from not only a single region, but a single producer.

The Bodega building

The Bodega building

The region was Rioja and the producer was Bodegas P.Pecina. Rioja is probably the most famous wine producing region of Spain, it’s in Northern Spain, the main grape used is Tempranillo and what makes Rioja special is a very codified use of ageing in oak. Basically depending on how much time your Rioja spent in oak barrels before being bottled, it will be classified into a specific category. Ageing in general is very important for Rioja wines, Tempranillo is a grape that ages well and that conditions the way Rioja wine is made and sold.

–          Joven : no oak ageing at all

–          Rioja : less than a year in oak

–          Crianza : at least 2 years of ageing including at least one in oak

–          Reserva : at least 3 years including at least one in oak

–          Gran Reserva : at least 2 years in oak and 3 years in bottle

The tasting took us through those nuances, five different wines, from the same producer, with the same variety breakdown (95% Tempranillo, 3% Graciano, 2% Grenache). As you can see the Tempranillo proportion is rather high, a traditional Rioja usually is aroung 65% Tempranillo. This particular Bodega was fonded in 1992 as a family operation and it has been growing organically ever since. Onto the wines now

Pecina Joven Cosecha 2012 ($15)

No oak ageing, very fresh and vibrant, lots of cherry and plum flavors

Pecina Crianza 2007 ($20)

2 years in American oak barrels, already smoother and rounder with tobacco and vanilla notes starting to appear

Pecina Reserva 2005 ($30)

The main wine of this producer, 3 years in oak. The wine feels broader and has more depth than the Crianza. It is more concentrated but remains fresh. I loved it and bought a couple bottles after the tasting.

pecina reserva

Pecina Gran Reserva 2003($50)

Only made in great vintages and spends 3 years in oak and at least 5 years in bottle before being sold. Very special stuff. Extremely concentrated with toffee notes. It would be interesting to see how it is in 10 years.

Pecina Vendimia Selecctionada 2006 ($50)

A wrinkle from this producer, a selection of the best old vines at harvest time during exceptional vintages. It is not aged as much as the Gran Reserva but it feels even more concentrated while remaining fruity.

Overall a great introduction to what Rioja is all about and an interesting take on how winemaking techniques make a difference. I wonder what kind of tasting this little shop will have next Friday, and the Friday after, and the Friday after…