Champagne Castelnau relaunch

Champagne Castelnau, the substantial Rheims-based cooperative which produces 9m bottles a year, has just had a  brand-refresh. The new, clean, attractive labels  have been updated. The refresh is intended to the take the brand forward in the competitive market of the second decade of this century. Here is the old and the new: 

The new design is very attractive but the best thing of all is that the quality of the wines remains unchanged.  The company has high standards and will take this forward:  a high proportion of Chardonnay in the blend (40%, sourced in the Montagne de Reims and so a bitter riper and fuller), 20% of reserve wines and a remarkable six years on the lees for the Brut Reserve and even longer for the vintage wines.  

For the London launch we were treated a full tasting of the range including some old vintages.  The stars of this show for me were the Brut Reserve which balances freshness with the aforementioned toasty six years on the lees very well and, at the other end of the scale, the great 1990 served in magnum.  Some of the intervening vintages – 2003, 2000, to a lesser extent the 1999 – I found a bit tough with an emphasis on development, rather than fruit. But I loved the fresh and candied lemon of the 1990, long and savoury, while retaining Chardonnay’s leanness.  Also very good was the new prestige cuvée: Hors Categorie, a multi-vintage blend with a fine, focused, intensity and green apple and toasty notes.  While the labels may have been updated, the wines continue to perform splendidly.  


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Class at the Harrow, Little Bedwyn

Andover Wine Friends made a pilgrimage to The Harrow, Little Bedwyn last night.  We were treated to outstanding food and a great range of wines, mostly in magnums, which we brought with us.  Here is the menu, the wine list … and a few random jottings on the wines from me.  

Harrow menu

A few personal favourites.  My favourite course was the sublime Northumberland Roe Venison with parsnip purée.  Such a tender and flavourful meat.  And the lobster ravioli was pretty special too.  You can see my comments on the wines above. Clearly the La Lagune 1982 was truly outstanding – so youthful, such tannic finesse 35 years on. But the Muscadet was beautiful and absolutely textbook, the unfashionable Val d’Orcia, 100% Sangiovese from our friend Marco Capitoni was excellent and, hardly surprisingly, the Bollinger was brilliant too.  Thanks to Sue, Roger and all the staff – in the kitchen and the efficient and courteous front-of-house – for a great evening.  

I took a few photos which now follow.  

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2015 Burgundy excitement!

We depend on wine critics to be level-headed and to cut across the hype of merchants who have a natural and understandable motive to be enthusiastic about new vintage releases.  But if you love red Burgundy there is no reason not to believe the hype which accompanies the release of 2015 wines.  To be straightforward this is a simply stunning vintage which every lover of Burgundy should buy – at what ever level you can afford. The Bourgogne Rouge is as good, no, better, than it is ever going to be, the village  wines are rich and have an intensity you would expect from Premier Crus.  Some of the Premier Crus are as good as you would expect from Grand Crus in a lesser year.  The Grand Crus are less easy to judge as they will take years to unfold but I doubt any of them will disappoint if you have the patience to wait for them to evolve. two colours of Pinot

Are there any downsides?  Yes, given the superb ripeness some producers have been a bit lavish with the new oak. For example, I found Thierry Mortet Chambolle Musigny PC Beaux Bruns a bit over done, similarly Ferdinand & Laurence Pillot, Pommard PC Les Rugiens … but that is really a matter of taste. But on the whole, this is a straightforwardly excellent vintage.  

Three favourites at three price levels

No high quality red Burgundy is cheap these days but these are great value for the price (or in the case of the Grand Cru good value): 

Chorey Les Beaune, Les Beaumonts, Domaine Joël Rémy, £150 in bond for a case of 12 ( = £18.80 per bottle with excise and VAT paid): tight, raspy raspberry fruit, lovely fruit incisiveness, needs a year or two but not more in bottle for it all to  knit together but a good value wine with real finesse. Wonderful, enjoyable, simply drinkable red Burgundy. 

Gevrey Chambertin, Les Crais, Domaine Huguenot, £300 in bond for 12 bottles (£29 a bottle duty paid) –  a real ‘wow’ intensity here, so refreshing, such bright fruit but with depth, great integration between ripe red fruit and smoky/vanilla oak.  

Money no object?  There is so much to choose from but Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru, Domaine des Lambrays (£895 for 6 bottles in bond, £181 a bottle duty paid), is pale but remarkable intense: an elegant and powerful palate, razor-sharp red fruit, taut with a well concealed tannic structure which will develop over many years, genuinely outstanding.  In ten years time crack this open and invite me around!  

And don’t forget the whites which are also very, very good.  

Wines from Lea & Sandeman en primeur tasting, 9 January 2017









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State of the Amarone nation

Amarone – the grand wine made by the semi-dried (passito) grapes method within the Valpolicella region – is riding on the crest of a wave. It seems that we northern Europeans and Americans love its rich, dried fruit character and accessible structure. This can be seen from the enormous success of the related Ripasso style and, the surest sign of all, cheaper imitations of Ripasso from Sicily and other Italian regions. But what of the real thing? The wine making method – fermenting meticulously semi-dried Corvina and minor grape varieties, – and the often late release on to the market make for expensive winess. With top examples costing between £50 and £200+ a bottle, how good are these wines? And what might you drink them with? These are my picks from a blind tasting of nearly 20 good to outstanding examples.


Middle of the (high quality) pack

Bertani, founded in 1857, is one of the historic and most widely distributed labels in the denomination. The empty trophy bottles of multiple vintages decorate the walls of Verona’s most famous wine bar and restaurant, the Bottega del Vino. In a blind tasting organised by Robin Navrozov ahead of an article for Decanter, the very first wine of the tasting was Bertani Amarone 2007, 15% which was the ideal primer. Bertani sets a benchmark by which to calibrate the Amarone palate. A russet amber rim leads to a complex nose with lifted cherry fruit, almond kernel, herbal and smoky themes and a touch of pleasant volatile acidity. This is proper traditional Amarone which spends six years in traditional large casks before release.  On the palate there is powerful dried berry fruit and a well struck balance between richness and density on the one hand and drinkability on the other.  This touches on the one of the issues about Amarone: the richer and more alcoholic they get, the less they become normal wines, accompaniments to food.  But there is no problem here. Despite the semi-dried fruit method the wine has just 15% alcohol and enough acidity to carry the moderate richness. At about £75 a bottle this is reasonable value and a very good representative of the traditional style.  

Artisan Amarone

As in all Italian regions there are numerous small family growers in the Valpolicella region. In the past many would have taken their grapes to the cooperative, for example, the Cantina di Negrar. But with rising prices for Amarone and Ripasso, and the buzz around artisan food and wine, the younger generation may well be tempted to make, label and sell their own wine. There were a number of examples in this tasting: Marion, Monte dei Ragni, Monte dall’Ora, Corte Sant’Alda. The last named is perhaps the best known, certainly in the UK market, and it shone in this tasting with its Amarone 2011, 15.5%. A traditional entry of sour cherry, orange peel and acetic notes with a nice lift, rich mid palate and a long savoury finish with a touch of sweetness. The wine is properly weighty but is lifted by its citric acidity. The textural weight of the wine and the balancing acidity make this a wine to drink with rich, meaty casseroles and roasts, and with mature cheese.  

The best of the best

Amarone is a grand wine style and so it absolutely appropriate to search out the best of the best.  The bad news for my bank balance (at least notionally) is that in this blind tasting I unerringly picked out the two most famous and expensive names of the denomination, Quintarelli and Dal Forno Romano as my two top wines.  These are substantial and statuesque wines and ones which are only released after  a significant number of years in the bottle.  Quintarelli Amarone 2007 (£200+) weighs in with 16.5% alcohol by volume and the Dal Forno Romano 2005 (£300+) tops the scale with 17%.  Quintarelli is pale and tawny in colour and has outstanding red and black cherry fruit with a long, rich, opulent palate supported by really fine tannins.  Some of the weight is from residual sugar and I did wonder whether this might tire after a glass or two. Dal Forno Romano is absolutely dry but does have 17% alcohol. Despite it being the oldest wine in the line up at 11 years old it is still deep ruby in colour with a fabulously rich palate with rich blackberry and black plum fruit.  Dal Forno Romano work very hard to to minimise the exposure to oxygen through the years in wood.  The tannins are still firm, promising many years, even decades, of development.  This is a wine of truly remarkable intensity with a rich, dry finish.  Although it is a cliché, these two probably are best drunk and admired on their own as vino da meditazione.  

At this top end of the quality tree, it is absolutely clear that Amarone as a wine category is in robust good health.  It showed a range of styles from blocky and rustic (Marion) to sleek and approachable (Allegrini) to rich and glorious.  Sadly most cheap supermarket examples, as with Champagne, are best avoided. In fact a good producer’s Ripasso is probably a better bet than a cheap Amarone.  But the quality wines do have a richness and depth which adds something unique to the world of wine.  

With many thanks to Robin Navrozov who sourced these wines and will be writing them up for an article in Decanter magazine. Many thanks for sharing these riches and I look forward to your article, Robin!  

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Taste like a wine critic?

I was very excited to find that Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW had published a full, book-length, study entitled Taste like a Wine Critic. A Guide to Understanding Wine Quality (The Wine Advocate 2014).  The literature on tasting as an activity is quite limited, while there are any number of books about wine regions or reviews of individual or groups of wines.  Plus Lisa (as we will call her) is eminently qualified for this task. She is a Master of Wine (including winning the Madame Bollinger Medal for excellence in wine tasting) and is Editor-in-Chief of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.  Having read the book I am both impressed by it … and have a sense of disappointment.  Why is this?  There is a huge amount to commend here in terms of understanding wine production.  But really the book has the wrong title, setting up the false expectations which then are then not fulfilled.

Quality, negative and positive

Let’s start with the positive. What Lisa has done admirably is to introduce the subject of tasting and then proceed to the main subject of wine quality.  She deals with quality first negatively (various types of wine fault) and then positively (fruit health and ripeness, concentration, balance, complexity, length, other factors).  The former is an excellent and balanced treatment of familiar baddies.  Cork taint, brett, oxidation, reduction, volatile acidity and superficial faults.  For example, the treatment of brett and the two (usually) unpleasant chemicals it leaves behind, 4EP and 4EG, is exemplary. The science is clearly explained, as is how to deal with this issue in the winery. The effects on wines are outlined as are the exceptions where a small level of brett in some styles of wines can be seen as a contribution to quality.   

It was once I got on to the main chapters about positive attributes that I  began to have real problems.  The chapter headings are fine and unconventional. Under ‘fruit health and ripeness’, ‘concentration’ etc what we are actually given are the underlying reasons – in the vineyard and winery – which can contribute to desirable qualities in wines.  Thus, dealing with ripeness, the topics covered are the effects of diseased/pest affected grapes, the process of ripening on sugars, acids and tannins, the debate about yields and the development of aromatic compounds in juice and wine.  This is the pattern for all the chapters that follow – a statement about the implication for wine quality followed by a theoretical and general account of the technical factors which result in different outcomes in wine.  

Quality and wine production

So what is the problem?  Firstly the discussion is all very theoretical.  We never read the author’s reflections on how these processes affect the style and quality of, er, actual wines.  If you think about what you would like to see in a top quality Loire Cabernet Franc and in a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon you will immediately understand that the treatment of ripeness, extraction, ageing and resultant wine styles are very different.  ‘Concentration’ and ‘balance’ would mean very different things for these two styles.  It is really frustrating to not have one of the world’s leading wine critic’s reflecting on the aromas, flavours and textures of leading wine styles. This is surely what you are expecting from the ‘taste like a wine critic’ of the title. Or to put this the other way around I doubt that wine critics spend many hours of the day thinking about ideal conditions for shipping and storing wine which is given 10 pages of text here under the heading of ‘supporting quality factors’. There is nothing wrong with the subject matter or its importance. It’s just that it is not what the reader has been led to expect.

A demanding read

And then there are some minor gripes. The book has been published by Wine Advocate itself and it feels that they lack the expertise of a book publisher. The visual appearance on the pages is tiring and, to be honest, ugly. The extensive glossary of wine terms, in itself very useful, is related to the text by printing every glossary word in red every time it occurs. This results in a sort of rash of what looks like highlighting but is in fact cross-referencing. It reaches its nadir with a phrase like ‘pre-fermentation cold soak’ (p. 79) with a cross reference to ‘fermentation’, not to the cold soak which is the point of the sentence. Then some of the quite long FAQs which break up the text (in the modern manner) just don’t answer the question that they ask, e.g., can you reduce the vegetal character in the winery (p. 69) or fruitiness (p. 81). Once again what we have is a theoretical account of factors which lead to certain outcomes in vineyard and winery.   Some of the diagrams just don’t capture the nuance and balance of the text. For example, the tannins diagram (p. 59) does not distinguish between the amount of tannins and the nature of tannins – a strange fault in a book on wine quality.  On the positive side the book is well-illustrated with the author’s own photographs.  

If this book had been called something like ‘Wine Quality – how wine production effects the wine in your glass’ then the reader would indeed get a rich feast provided by a very capable chef.  Once you have understand what the author is interested in, then it is highly suitable for advanced WSET diploma and MW students.  But it will only indirectly help you to taste like a wine critic.  

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Bracali – cuisine and wine

Francesco and Luca Bracali have created something extraordinary in their restaurant just outside Massa Marittima.  Theirs is the last property in a very, very ordinary row of houses in Ghirlanda. The garden outside with its stylish planting hints that this is somewhere special but the real magic is inside.  In the kitchen of Francesco and the service of Luca, in the elegant rooms they have created and in the complete attention to detail and hospitality.  

We have been coming to Massa Marittima for ten years and have enjoyed the many restaurants and trattorie in the town itself.  We have never felt the need to push the boat out and try this restaurant with a reputation across Tuscany and beyond.  But this year we did  and it was worth the wait.  The pictures tell some of the story. 

What strikes me about the whole evening was its consistency.  Usually when you go out one or two dishes will stand out and be memorable.  Here everything was of a consistently high standard, a creative play with flavours and perhaps especially textures.  In my starter the slight bite of the raw fish is set against the serious crunch of the nut coating and the dense, stickiness of the squid ink.  And so these subtle combinations continue throughout the meal.  

If Francesco stars in the kitchen, Luca shows equal perspicuity in choosing wines.  Although physically large the wine list is chiefly remarkable for the quality of its choices – this is a small restaurant and can’t carry huge stocks. But Luca will make really good suggestions and serve a range of wines of very high quality by the glass.  We drank:

Cabochon, Monte Rossa, Brut, Franciacorta DOCG, 2011 – 70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Nero, fermented in barriques, 40 months on the lees during second fermentation: a fabulous, rich, sparkling wine where the depth of fruit is well integrated with toasty and vanilla notes from its passage from barrique to bottle.  Well balanced acidity, superb.   

Ariento, Vermentino, Massa Vecchia, IGT Maremma Toscana, 2013 – Vermentino fermented on its skins from the very talented – and extremely local,  about 1 kilometre away – Massa Vecchia.  We are already Massa Vecchia’s biggest fans but this is an outstanding wine for its exuberance – orange blossom, lemon, ripe yellow peach – with sufficient structure from skin contact to make this a very versatile food wine. Luca thinks this is Massa Vecchia’s best wine yet and a testimony to Francesca Sfrondini’s growing stature since she took over the winery from the previous generation.  

Chianti Classico Reserva, Badia a Coltibuona, 2011 – this wine made a great contrast with the one that follows.  This was as subtle and elegant as its neighbour, also Sangiovese, was rich and textured.  A blend of Sangiovese with local blending varieties: Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo and Colorino; aged for two years in a mix of French and Austrian casks.  All the refinement of sour cherry fruit, tobacco and herbal notes that one could wish for.  

Pian del Conte, Brunello Riserva, Talenti, 2010 – from the great recent vintage, this 100% Sangiovese was stunning for its rich fruit, for the density of its satiny texture and, given its extreme youth, the resolved nature of the tannins.  20-25 days of maceration on the skins at around 25ºC, aged for three years, 50% in French oak tonneau and 50% in Slavonian large casks.  

Many congratulations to Bracali for pushing the boundaries and turning this unpromising suburb of Massa Marittima into a real gastronomic and vinous destination, worthy of its two Michelin stars.  

Antipasti and first courses: €40; mains €65; desserts €25; astonishing petit fours with coffee. August 2016 


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Nebbiolo vintages

My birthday offered the chance to taste a range of vintages of Nebbiolo-based wines with some wine-loving friends. All the examples were from the Barolo or Barbaresco.  How do these potentially majestic wines develop?  When or do the tannins begin to soften?  How easy or difficult is it to judge the vintage of a wine amid all the other variables of producer, winemaking style and weather?  Here are a few thoughts.  

Six shades of garnet

Even relatively young Barolo/Barbaresco is already garnet.  The youngest in the  line up was a 2010 but it has been through a couple of years of oxidative ageing in a cask.  The most old-fashioned wine here was Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barolo Classico Riserva 1998 and it had spent a full six years in a large cask. And Nebbiolo is not a deep coloured wine from day one.  So unlike tasting vintages from Bordeaux or Burgundy, the range of colour between 1998 and 2010 was remarkably small.  

Vintage variation is important in Piedmont

It would be easy to think that Italy is a warm place and the vintage variation is not important. And it is the case that we have not really had a dramatically different vintage since 2002 and 2003, which will soon be 15 years ago.  But our 2003 and 2010 showed what a difference vintage can make.  2003 was a famously hot year and our example bore this out.  I opened a first bottle and thought it was gone – no fruit, some off-flavours. I opened a second and got a better result – stewed fruit, rich texture, ripe tannins.  In fact the first of these two recovered and we happily drank it over the meal but unless your 2003s are from exceptional growers, it’s time to drink up. By contrast the 2010, as elsewhere in Europe a great vintage, was un-Barolo like in its accessibility.  You couldn’t exactly call it fruity but it had a precision and freshness unlike all the other wines.  

Age is to be counted in decades with Nebbiolo

This was a vintage-spotting blind tasting and it is only fair to say that we struggled, in general, to put these in vintage order.  Not surprisingly, most people thought the 2003 was the oldest wine, not the 1998 on account of its brown colouring. Equally it was tough to separate the 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.  But that is because these wines start with some mild oxidation and then take decades, not mere years, to develop.  And those famous tannins take decades to resolve if they ever do: I remember tasting a wine blind and not considering Nebbiolo as a variety – until it was revealed that this lithe and silky texture was a 40-year old Barolo.  

Wine making choices determine style

There was revolution in the Langhe in the 1990s in which a group of young growers, the ‘Barolo Boys’ challenged many of the traditional practices.  A critical view was taken of very long maceration times of 40-50 days, the use of Slovakian or Austrian oak and ageing in large casks for years to soften all the tannins extracted in those long maceration times.  In came shorter maceration times or even rotary fermenters (does the job in a few days and extracts less tannin) and ageing in French-oak barriques, with a proportion new.  The heat has long since gone out of the controversy.  Most producers now do a form of well-executed, modified, traditionalism. This means picking riper, better quality, fruit, perhaps three weeks of maceration on the skins and ageing in large format oak, little or none new. But there are still those who are more ‘modernist’ than that and will age in French-oak barrique.  This gives a glossy sheen to the wines and retains a deeper colour than the traditional styles.  Our wines were mostly modified traditionalist in style with one exception: Enzo Boglietti, Barolo, Arnione, 2006, 14%.  This goes through 20 days fermentation at controlled temperature, plunged and pumped over daily. It then spends 16 months in French barriques (40% new; 60% used), followed by large oak vat for 6 months, stainless steel tank for a further 6 months before bottling. Modified modernist?  While the tannins are there to remind you that this is Barolo, this is undoubtedly in a more international style.  

Wine of the evening? 

The 1998 was just to tough to consider – I doubt those tannins will ever soften and it was not a great vintage.  There was some support for the modernist 2006. But most plumped for Luigi Oddero Barolo Vigna Rionda, 2004, 14%.  While still a relative youth this is beginning to show that beguiling array of red cherry fruit, leather, smoke, something earthy and more.  I just need to keep my remaining bottles for a decade and see how they are getting on. 

The full list

And yes there was a ringer in there, with most of us spotting the rogue Left Bank Bordeaux: 

Aperitivo: Erbavoglio, Colline Novarese DOC, 2013, 13.5% – a classy, mildly nutty Piedmontese white made from the local Erbaluce variety.   

Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barolo Classico Riserva, 1998, 13.5%

Château Hortevie, Saint-Julien AC, 2000, 12.5%

Tenuta Rocca Barolo Vigna San Pietro, 2003, 14%

Luigi Oddero Barolo Vigna Rionda, 2004, 14% 

Enzo Boglietti Barolo Arione, 2006, 14% 

Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Montestefano, 2007, 14.5%

Cantine Giacomo Ascheri Barolo Sorano, 2010, 14%

The cast 

This is what summer in England looks like: 

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Things that can go wrong … in the MW tasting exam

My recent post trumpeted my last minute preparation for the MW tasting exams.  I have now done the exams, the list of wines have been published but we are still some months off knowing the results.  It is now time to reflect on the experience of things that go right in the exam and, sadly more interestingly, things that go wrong.  The full 2016 exam can be found here.  

The challenge of the MW tasting exam

First some context.  The MW tasting exam is made up of 12 wines per morning for three days: whites, reds and everything else (sparkling, sweet, fortified).  It has a notoriously low pass rate – about 10% a year and those are overwhelmingly people who are doing it for the second, third, fourth, fifth or even occasionally sixth time.  These are overwhelmingly professional wine people who taste wine – and often fine wine – every day so it is remarkable that the pass rate is so low.  Or to put this personally, from our very able and conscientious tasting group last year, remarkably seven out of eight of us passed Theory but just one passed Practical.   And this was after two to three years of weekly tastings, annual residential seminars of a week at a time, study days, many wine trips, countless trade tastings and pretty much nightly tasting at home.  You couldn’t say that we hadn’t tried!  

The reasons why this exam is so difficult include: 

  • needing a comprehensive knowledge of the ‘widely available and commercially available’ wines of the world, not from book knowledge, but in the glass. That means everything from your favourite supermarket guzzler to Bordeaux first growths
  • developing a combination of two skill sets which are rarely held to a high level by any one person – precise, analytical tasting ability and the ability to argue in a ferociously logical and concise manner.  To put that another way: what are the aromatic characteristics and structural elements (acidity, tannins, extract) of the wine in the glass and how can you persuade the examiner that you can demonstrate why it is this wine (or something very similar) and not any one of thousands of other wines in the world 
  • having to get an average of 65% on all three papers with no mark below 55%. And a 55 is only OK if your average is still 65%, e.g., a 55, a 65 and a stunning 75%.  
  • the 2 hours and 15 minutes per exam means you basically have a minute and a half to taste, analyse and write notes on each wine and less than 10 minutes per wine to answer persuasively the three or four questions you are asked about. This involves writing a tightly argued page of A4 about it.  
  • there are other pedagogical reasons for the low pass rate – but that is a subject for another day.
When things go well

So much for the context, now for some reflections on what can go right and wrong in the exam.  For the competent taster there are those lovely moments in the exam when you really know what the wines are and can write about them with a genuine confidence. Last year we had four Italian reds – two from Piedmont, two from Tuscany – which are very distinctive (pale colours,  high acidity, all very tannic, one with a real wall of high, firm tannins). These are wines I know well and there was simply no doubt that they were Nebbiolo d’Alba or Langhe, Barolo, Chianti Classico or similar and Brunello.  Hurray!  They could not really have been anything else. Or rather they could have only been other relatively pale, Italian, tannic and acidic varieties (Nero di Troia or Nerello Mascalese) but the exam is fair and usually puts the most famous examples of wines in front of you.  Otherwise it would be impossible. But the point is that, if you really know the wines well, then you can write about them authoritatively.   That, in short, is the whole point of this exercise.    The same happened this year with the first two whites which were a Bordeaux and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  I was quickly 80% confident what they were – sadly this didn’t last with the other wines but it is great when it does happen.  

Equally, just occasionally, using your tasting skill and knowledge you can work out what a wine is even if you are not familiar with it.  Thus the method works. Recently in a mock exam I worked out what a wine was even though I had either not tasted it before or perhaps only once. But I knew about it and could it work it out because it was in a flight of wines from the same country and by excluding other possibilities.  More typically, in last year’s exam I missed the highly distinctive Vin Jaune from the Jura because I had only tasted it once in the preceding year and a couple of times before that. In exam conditions (more on this in a moment) you can fail to spot really blindingly obvious wines if you have not got a secure, even deep knowledge of them.  

And when they don’t

Finally let me share some puzzling experiences from this last week.  I am normally not phased by exams but in blind tasting, both inside and outside of exam settings, I find myself doing the strangest things and not thinking logically. It is something to do with how those two skills sets meet up in the brain – or indeed how they don’t.  

(Not) answering the question

This year on the white paper there a number of short flights so that the first eight wines were in four different pairs with different questions. On reflection I failed to keep the various flights of wines and their questions separate from each other.  There were a big majority of oaked wines in the first eight wines and the question for flight 2 did ask about post-fermentation maturation which could include oak.  But some how I unconsciously persuaded myself that oak was a theme of flight 4 when it wasn’t.   

Brain freeze

On the red wine paper there was a single wine at the end with an intensely deep colour and pretty bright fruit character.  I had tasted Carmenère within the last week … but it did not cross my mind as a possibility.  Mental block.

Exam muddle

Most distressingly, I had practiced a good number of classic pairs which share some characteristics, Tokaji v. Sauternes, Sercial v Amontillado, as recently as last week. Over my three years of preparation I have been good at keeping Sherry and Madeira apart … and then I got these pairs the wrong way around in the exam.  (OK, it is possible that when, after the exam, I wrote down what I had argued for, I could have misremembered the order.)  It is not the wrong identification that matters, it is misreading the aromatics, the alcohol level, the acidity and, in the case of the first pair, the oak character.  


More mundanely, there is an odd dynamic that the better you get and the more you have to say about a wine, the more you have to guard your time.  I did manage to write something in answer to every question about every wine – a golden rule as otherwise you are just throwing away relatively easy marks. But I did not have enough time to do justice to those last two deep red wines from one region. As these came at the end  of Paper 3 many of us guessed – wrongly – that they had to be Port, only for one of them to be dry and the other sweet but not very sweet and definitely not 20% alcohol.  I correctly got these as a dry wine and a passito from Italy but didn’t really have time to do them justice.   

Misreading the wines

And of course there is the most basic problem of all, just misreading the wines – not noticing distinctive aromatics, misreading residual sugar, high acidity or tannin profiles … One just has to hope not to do that too often or rather you have to work towards not doing it too often.  

Is there a conclusion to be drawn?  Tasting wine for MW exam purposes is a multi-factorial problem involving a significant number of parameters (what a wine looks like, its aromatic and taste profile, its structure and its quality) and just as importantly, how all these interact with each other.   In order to succeed in the exam you need to be able to evaluate all that, do it quickly and then be able to convey that in a logical argument in what you write.  I conclude that to do that you need such a robust tasting ability and such a secure, quickly recallable knowledge of the main wines of the world that you can carry out that task under the pressure of the exam situation. And of course, in the full knowledge that it is this exam, among other things, which stands between you and the achievement and prestige of those two coveted post-nominals, MW.  

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Final week before MW exams

MW exams loom. What does the MW student do in the final week before re-sitting the tasting exam?  Three papers of two hours and 15 minutes each, 36 wines in total to be discussed in detail, all served blind.  The task is to discuss their origin, the varieties they are made from, how they were made, their quality level and how they might be sold – all with evidence from the glass in your hand and nothing else.  As a colleague said to me, it is the strangest exam in the world as all the answers are there in front of you.  Well yes, if you can decode the wines.  

This year I had five full days to focus on my preparation in the eight days before the exam.  There is a lot of knowledge to revise – key varieties and the wines made from them, fermentation temperatures, alcohol levels, residual sugar and much much more.  But hopefully my study through the last year has given me a good basis for that revision.  These last few days are a chance to refresh my memory with how key wines taste, what their texture is like, what the key indicators are for these wines.  The week panned out like this: 

Saturday: four of us students meet in central London to do our last full mock exam, 12 wines in two hours and fifteen minutes. On this occasion it is Paper 3, the so-called mixed bag.  This went encouraging well and confidence is everything at this stage.  One look and sniff is enough to detect Prosecco – very pale, lively bubbles, pear aromatics, no toasty autolysis.  You still have to construct a water tight (sic) argument why this wine is Prosecco and can’t be anything else but it is a huge help to know if a coulpe of seconds what the wine is. Similarly for a Vin Santo – deep colour, much more acetic acid than most modern wines, nutty and dried fruit notes, pretty high acidity but not as high as Madeira.  Had it not been for a spot of bother confusing late harvest and botrytized wines this 12-wine rehearsal would have been a really successful tasting.  Of course it not really a case of getting all the wines right; the vital thing is how authoritatively you argue your case for each wine, its quality and so on.  

Before we get to the wines of the next four days, what about the practicality of tasting a lot of wines on your own?  A huge debt is due to Greg Lambrecht and his remarkable Coravin device which allows you to extract wine through a cork without opening the bottle.  (The resulting void is taken up with the neutral gas argon and so the wine does not deteriorate in the bottle.)  Some of the wines we need to taste are expensive and it great to make a beautiful bottle of Côte Rôtie last many months, one taste at a time.  For wines under screw cap or plastic corks, the next best bet is to open the bottle, taste it and decant the rest to fill up completely a half bottle or a 125ml bottle with a screw cap, excluding as much oxygen as possible.  The wine can then be retasted over a few weeks and perhaps more with no problem.  And of course you, your loved ones and your neighbours can just drink what you can’t keep. Or if it really ordinary (Croft Original?) you pour it down the sink.  

In the days of the week I then tasted the following categories of wine:

  • neutral whites
  • oaked whites
  • Italian whites – as  I would be annoyed not to give myself a chance to spot these
  • Spanish whites – trendy, not tasted that often
  • Chardonnay in its various guises, aromatic whites
  • big Bordeaux red flight – left and right banks, good and less good vintages, quality differences 
  • Grenache blends
  • light confusable reds: Valpolicella v Beaujolais 
  • Rioja and other Spanish reds
  • new world Pinot Noir 
  • Italian reds apart from the classics from Tuscany and Piedmont 
  • oddities: Carignan, Zinfandel, Carmenere, Douro blend, Pinotage 
  • sweet wines: ice wine, various botrytized wines, late harvest, semi-dried grapes 
  • basic Sherry (it’s that Croft again) and Port – so that you don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because it is Port is is a high quality wine 

My method was to put these wines in their flights in glasses numbered underneath, an approach passed on to me by Anthony Moss MW. That means you are tasting with a knowledge of the range of wines but not what is what within the flight.  That then shows you where you need to taste and re-taste until you can distinguish between left bank and right Bordeaux, between (here’s hoping) Carmenère and Pinotage … and many more.  And once you have tasted the wines and know what they are you can consolidate your knowledge of how they were made, what price or quality bracket they belong to, what you might (will?) confuse them with.  

What were the key learning points of the week?  

  • wines must be similar in every respect for importance differences to show up clearly: I couldn’t reliably spot 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant Bordeaux (where the fruit has begun to develop) versus 2012 Merlot-dominant Saint-Emilion (Merlot has less obvious primary characteristics in any case). But when the pair was from 2012 – where the fruit characteristics are still more evident, I can.  The structural differences don’t change quickly but they are not always clear enough for my ability to spot 
  • oaked whites are difficult – try some Rioja v Hermitage/Crozes v Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Bordeaux whites have more evident fruit and often some more new oak too.  
  • Italian whites are a predictable nightmare, so many version of rather neutral wines with such subtle differences. Fiano at least has the decency to have a distinguishing satiny texture
  • my most difficult flight was undoubtedly the oddities: youthful Carignan from Chile can be as floral as a Douro red (though the latter should be more mineral), my Ridge Zinfandel which previously had been so subtle seemed to have dropped a class or two; Carmenère and Pinotage share many characteristics.  One issue here was that some of these wines were of good but not outstanding quality and therefore their qualities are more muted.  But of course the other issue is that I just don’t taste these wines enough to be really familiar with them.   

Another big challenge is to set a wine on a spectrum with related wines. I can fairly reliably tell you which wine is fruitier, more acidic, more tannic and so on. But when I tasted a full on fruity new world Cabernet followed by a Bordeaux, I find it difficult to place the latter in its correct place accurately. It is of course more restrained than the first wine, but the power of the new world Cabernet tends to make jump to a conclusion about the second wine.

I have had similar issues between correctly judging on its own high quality 2010 Late Bottled Vintage and a vintage port with a bit of age but still youthful, say 2005. The former has spent four to seven years in a neutral barrel while the latter has had much shorter wood ageing but a longer time for slower maturation in bottle. The higher quality fruit and the less developed tannins of the latter are the clues here. But the subtle softening and rounding out of a bit of wood ageing in the LBV can easily be misread for better absolute quality. But then this is the sort of complex differentiation which the MW requires.

How useful was this prep?  We shan’t know until the results are out in September.  

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Homage to the Harrow

On Saturday Janet and I went to The Harrow at Little Bedwyn to celebrate the end of MW exams week.  As it was a special occasion we chose the set 8-course gourmet menu.  For wine we started with glasses of Nyetimber (fabulous) and Hambledon (very tight, lean, refreshing) English sparkling; moved on to Pewsey Vale Riesling 2009 (excellent as always) and quite stunning Lenswood Semillon Barossa 1998 (this was so good it had to be forceable extracted from the restauranter’s hand!); and then tackled the very good Comte Armand, Volnay AC, 2007 – a complex wine with pronounced blackberry, herbaceous and farmyardy aromatics, a creditable effort in a very difficult, cool and rainy vintage.  The food was spectacularly good – precision cuisine which tasted as it good as it looks in the photos below.  And the staff are very professional, knowledgeable, helpful and friendly. We can’t recommend the Harrow highly enough.  


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