Archive for the ‘Tastings’ Category

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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Grand Syrah tasting

In June 2016 Andover Wine Friends were treated to a great line up of single varietal Syrah wines.  It was fairly comprehensive (with apologies to N America) and showed what good  wines are being made a range of price levels.  We finished the evening with two older wines, one of them truly outstanding.  I tasted the main line-up in advance and here are my notes. 


1. The Society’s Rosé, Pays d’Oc IGP, 2015, 12.5%

Cheerfully bright pink and bursting with strawberry fruit. Great value at under £6.  And of course made from Syrah.  Perfect summer quaffer with a bit of substance too. 

France: northern Rhône

2. Offerus, Saint-Joseph AC, J. L. Chave Selection, 2012, 13.5%
Notionally a négociant wine (‘selection’) but actually mostly from two of their own very good vineyards

Purple tinge with a rim already developing; initially stern on the nose with pepper, herbal and stony fragrance; zippy, refreshing palate with lively raspberry fruit over more restrained herbal and spice touches; decent length, carries its 13.5% abv well, moderately tannic youthful grip. Very good, quality matches the Chave name at £20.

3. Saint Cosme, Côte-Rôtie AC, 2011, 12.5%
Whole cluster fermentation; aged for 15 months in barrique, 50% new

Pale ruby in colour with no youthful tints; taut, concentrated nose with lifted violet and stony notes with cranberry fruit; promise of bouquet carries straight into silky, elegant, textured palate with real finesse; richness from 50% new oak; long with refined fruit and a smoothness of touch; fine firm tannins and racy acidity with that precise fruit and oak all point to a decade or more of further potential. Elegant and powerful. Oak still not completely integrated; drink from 2018/19.


4. Case Via, Syrah, Fontodi, Colli Toscana Centrale IGT, 2010, 14.5%
wild yeast, maceration for 3 weeks; 12 months in French oak barrels, 50% new

Deep almost impenetrable purple-tinged colour, closed nose with some evident warmth, black cherry and balsamic touches; great depth of ripe black cherry fruit on palate supported by fine thyme and marjoram themes; quite chunky tannins and moderate acidity. Definitely a wine that needs food for that big Italianate structure. Fair length. Distinctive Syrah in an Italian style, £29

Cooler new world: New Zealand, Chile, Australia

5. Le Sol, Craggy Range, Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, 2011, 13%
100% destem; combination of open top fermenters and stainless steel tanks; selected yeasts; aged for 18 months in French oak barriques, 35% new

Deep purple-tinted colour (see the near black wine pictured from above at the beginning of this post) and weighty legs presage a wine of real weight and concentration; nose dominated by herbal and spice notes and concentrated surprisingly black rather than red fruit; powerful textured palate with evident new French oak; fruit not quite escaping from its earthy, oaky covering at the moment; bright acidity and pretty fine chalky tannins have plenty of structure to allow this to emerge with another 5 years in the bottle. Great potential, £33

6. Tabalí, Reserva Especial Syrah, Limarí Valley, Chile, 2012, 14%
limestone soils unusual for Chile; destemmed; cold maceration of 8 days at 8º C; controlled temperature fermentation; aged 12 months in French oak barrels, 70% new

Bright ruby colour, initially this lacks some precision on the nose but then tobacco and liquorice notes emerge over raspberry and blackberry fruit. Ripe, attractive if simple fruit, soft tannic structure. Drink now, hold for a year or two. Highly drinkable, very good value at £12.50.

7. Yarra Glen Syrah, Jamsheed, Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia, 2012, 13%
high proportion whole bunch; aged in neutral French barriques

Pale ruby colour; refined, exotic, lifted raspberry and cinnamon bouquet carries through to the elegant palate. Ripe and graceful. Beautifully judged in the winery with a filigree texture but with a full fine tannic structure and fruit-covered acidity that will give this legs. Drink now and for 10-15 years at least. Excellent quality for its £22.50.

South Africa

8. The Foundry Syrah, Stellenbosch, S. Africa, 2009, 14.5%
16 months in French oak barrels

Fairly deep colour. Some concentration and warmth on nose, blackberry and dried herbs, a touch earthy. Powerful palate which is more expressive than the nose. Slightly clunky tannins, good length; a wine of real character with some complexity at just £12.95.

9. Fable Mountain Vineyards Syrah, Tulbagh, S. Africa, 2011, 14.5%
Fruit grown at 400-650m, high day/night temperature variation; open top fermentation barrels; wild yeasts; max. 30º C; 30% whole cluster; wine stays on skins for 4-6 weeks; aged in 500 litre barrels, some lees stirring; ‘100% hand made with love and care’!

Medium ruby with purple tint still showing after 5 years. Weighty on the nose, fresh earth after rain, red berried fruit; very beautiful palate which effortlessly stitches together its fine blackberry-to-ripe-plum fruit, a rich satiny texture, followed by real length and slightly grippy tannins. Not sure how the tannins will develop further after 5 years but certainly has the fruit to develop. Drink now and for next few years. It would be good to try again in another 5 years.

South Australia

10. Peter Lehmann, VSV 1885 Shiraz, Barossa, 2009, 14.5%
‘VSV’ of course stands for Very Special Vineyard, being 4 acres planted in 1885; wine on skins for 10 days, aged 12 months in French hogsheads

Garnet tinge developing in a mid ruby wine. Very attractive entrance with ripe blackberry to blueberry fruit, black chocolate and a touch of balsamic concentration all pointing to very old vine character. Mouth-filling fullness, no hint of heat from 14.5% abv because of the richness, well held in check by refreshing finish. It would be good to know how much new oak was used as there is a definite vanilla note. Very fine ripe tannic structure and a (just) dry, stony finish with good length. Powerful, balanced, complex. Definitely drinking now, could well develop olive and further balsamic notes with 5-10 years more in bottle. Truly remarkable value £24. 

11. Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz, Adelaide, 2012, 14.5%
Single vineyard fruit from the ‘spiritual home of Penfolds’ founded by Dr Penfold in 1844, now in Adelaide suburbs. Hand-picked, fermented in original wax-lined wooden fermenters, basket press, aged for 15 months in French (70%) and American (30%) oak, 90% new.

Youthful purple still to the fore in a pretty deeply coloured wine. Tight, concentrated raspberry to blackberry nose with the concentration currently offset by a delicate violet touch. Bold and precise fruit on first entry with layers of that red-to-black fruit character, vanilla and coconut from oak, with further herbal and spicy complexity. An absolute baby after just 3 years in the bottle but already broachable because of the ripe fruit core and the yielding but present tannic structure. Definitely has the fruit concentration and slightly tart acidity to develop for 10-15 years and probably much more. Build for cellaring … and then drinking. Impressive, but should be as close to £100 a bottle … or good value as a baby-Grange at a third of the price of the latter? Either way, definitely an outstanding wine.

Two bonus bottles: Barossa with some bottle age and the iconic Hermitage 1978

Amon-Ra, Ben Glaetzer, Barossa, 2005, 14.5%

Fruit from dry-grown vineyards between 100 and 110 years old; fermentation in open fermenters with hand plunging three times a day; matured in 100% new oak (80% French, 20% American), 70% hogsheads, 30% barriques. The bold blackberry fruit is now accompanied by an intense umami and black olive notes with a beautiful integration of the whole.  This really showed why it is worth ageing top quality Barossa Shiraz. 

And a real rarity to finish with, from the cellar of a very generous member of our group: 

La Chapelle, Hermitage AC, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, 1978

This is a legendary bottling which has regularly been given 100 points or 20/20 according to whatever scale you prefer.  Fruit grown in four named plots on the hill of Hermitage, so steep that the grapes are brought down on sledges.  The 1978 was not only famous for its high quality but also for being the first year that helicopters were used to spray the vineyards. Yields are a miserly 10-18 hl/ha which is between one third and one half of Grand Cru Burgundy.  

Pale garnet hue with a red core. Elegant strawberry fruit with the fruit leading rather than the accompanying leather and mushroom notes.  Delicious, sublime fruit supported by the famously firm, tactile palate – clearly at this age the structural elements of the wine, the acidity and the tannins, have wrapped themselves into a single whole.  A remarkable survivor. 




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Celebrating 1982 Claret


As Claret fans will know 1982 was a legendary vintage in Bordeaux: ripe, bold and, we can say after 32 years, one that has passed the test of time. I got a rare chance to taste two examples from this year with Andover Wine Friends due to the generosity of one of our members who supplied two mini-verticals from his own cellar. These wines have been lovingly looked after for the intervening decades, having mostly been bought en primeur from Lay & Wheeler. The two featured chateaux were Chasse-Spleen, over-achieving Moulis property, and Haut-Médoc 3rd growth La Lagune. In the range of vintages on display, there was only one rival to the 1982s for the wine of the night and we will come to that in a moment.


As befits wines in their fourth decade of ageing, both wines were pale garnet in colour with a broad, pale rim. There was some debate over the more youthful looking wine but for me the La Lagune had a touch more red about it. The Chasse-Spleen was in very good condition with fine aromas of cedar wood, smoke and red fruit. The palate is just under medium in weight but subtle with good intensity. The wine still has a lively, refreshing structure with a lingering finish and long tannins which carry the flavour forward. If we were talking about an expensive first growth here, that would not be anything exceptional. But this 32 year old is an old Cru Bourgeois which really showed its staying power and class.

The La Lagune is though a real step up in class. Just on the nose there is more fruit, more fragrance, greater complexity. Correspondingly, the palate is broader and fans out with an alluring breadth. As with all great years the wine manages to combine its proper aged notes with freshness and precision. It was very fine indeed.

DSC02155And the rival for the wine of the night? Just for sheer youthfulness, we have to consider the La Lagune 1970, now 44 years young.  All these wines were double decanted on the night of the tasting. I tasted the wine on the evening, then left the last drop in the bottle uncorked overnight and tasted it again 24 hours later and it was still drinkable.  It has moved on into a fully tertiary phase, a symphony of clove, leather and cigar box.  The fruit had faded overnight … but that is reasonable enough!  Another really impressive performer.  

Other wines tasted

L’Oratoire de Chasse-Spleen 2000 (ie the second wine of the estate) 

Chasse-Spleen 1985, 1976

La Lagune 1981, 1978, 1975 


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Quality hierarchy: Claret 2004 revisited

The 1855 classification of the Médoc has proved remarkably robust. There have been a few revisions, you have to take into account that in Bordeaux the name on the bottle refers to the commercial entity, the ‘château’, which can buy or sell land (thus obscuring the pure terroir argument) and, of course, the quality of vine growing and vinification rises and falls with the ownership and work force. But all in all the classification has proved a remarkably reliable guide for a century and a half. Last night’s tasting of the 2004 vintage, from a Wine Society offer, demonstrated this again.


The wines fell neatly into four quality groups:

Inexpensive but competent: the Wine Society is to be congratulated on having a ten year old wine in stock at just £14. Ch. d’Aurihac, Médoc AC, from the Haut-Médoc, is roughly 50/50 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a dash of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. A smoky, cigar box nose was followed by some rounded black fruit on nose and palate, medium length only, dry rather firm tannins. Perfectly decent companion to meat and cheese dishes.

DSC01606All of the single commune wines had higher amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, probably around 60-75%. The estates typically say what the vineyard proportions are but of course they are free to change the balance of the blend from year to year if they choose to do so.

Touch of class: Ch. Batailley, Pauillac AC, 5ème Cru Classé, was our only 5th Growth but more than held its own. At just under £30 it was significantly cheaper than the 2nd Growths in the next group but still showed some refined restraint, black fruit and cedar on nose and palate with a light and elegant body. The tannins were much less evident that the generic Médoc. A great choice of Christmas Day when you want to drink something decent but won’t have too much time to concentrate on it – and might have to share it with others!

Obvious quality: our three Second Growths oozed quality. Ch. Léoville Barton, St Julien AC, had beautifully integrated fruit and velvety, luxurious palate with fine fruit and super fine, polished tannins. Ch. Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Pauillac AC was lifted with more tertiary notes of mushroom and leather, followed by very subtle fruit and a silky palate, very fine. Ch. Rauzan-Ségla, Margaux AC had chunkier black fruit, an oak-induced custard powder note, very fine tannins but was a bit drying on the finish. (In a blind tasting you might have been tempted to put the Comtesse in Margaux and the Ségla in Pauillac!) But in general there was clearly finesse, power and length in these wines. Very fine drinking for Claret buffs; a bit of a puzzle for others because of the restrained fruit.

Ch. Margaux

Sheer class: Ch. Margaux. A deeper ruby in colour than the above presaged a more powerful wine with very fine, dense packed fruit knit together with smoke and spice notes and the first hint of something tertiary, such as leather. The fruit intensity is held together with a fine, powerful tannic structure which will allow the wine to develop over the coming decades. But what is particularly impressive at the moment is the complexity of the palate, combing weight and the array of flavour. Excellent length too. Even our professed Claret sceptic pronounced this to be ‘quite good’ and ‘drinkable’! Premier Grand Cru Classé lived up to its billing. Would impress anybody who has some understanding about wine. Definitely a wine for a very special occasion and deep pockets.

We also tasted a range of wines from older vintages which did not fall so neatly into the 1855 groupings. Ch. Meyney, St-Éstephe, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur 2000 shone way above its station, Léoville Barton 1989 lived up to expectation while Third Growth Ch. Calon-Ségur, St-Éstephe 1998 was not particularly refined. But the 2004s showed that 1855 classification lives on.

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Merlot fest

Our local bMerlot nightlind tasting group, at my request, focused last night on Merlot. Why? Because I find it more difficult to detect than the Cabernets or even Syrah, which I also find a bit of a puzzle.  We had a good line up – seven wines, six of which I would be happy to drink or share in any company. Two Pomerols – one classic and showing some restraint (Clos Rene 2001) and one in the modern, über-style but excellent nonetheless (Clos de Clocher 2009); two Italians, both very attractive (Girolamo from Castello di Bossi and newcomer, Merlot 2008 from La Cura, near the Tuscan coast; three from the rest of the world – classic Napa from Shafer, a South African (bell pepper and tomato skin suggested Chile!) and one from Washington State (over-extracted and 15%).  And what can we say in general about this variety in its upmarket versions?  Deep colour, great intensity of mainly black fruit (blackberry, plum) with various levels of oak/tertiary interest: leather, smoke, dried fruits, some spice.  Mouthfeel is really the key – medium to medium plus in fullness, smooth to voluptuous; luxurious fruit over quite firm if medium tannins and medium acidity.  Posh Merlot may not be fashionable but it can be very good drinking indeed.  

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Modern Cahors

CahorsCh. de Mercuès is a proper if very elegant castle.  Its website shows the towers of chateau emerge form the mists of South West France.  On the same website the wine plays second fiddle to the luxury hotel but nonetheless they are clearly proud of it.

In the glass the wine comes over as a powerful modern example of Cahors. Made from the Malbec grape variety, it is impressively deep in colour with a lively purple edge.  After a few moments in the glass, the new oak aromas begin to emerge over plum fruit and just a hint of violet.  The palate is full and rounded, with some evident warming alcohol.  14.5% testifies to the ripeness of this harvest (2011) but that alcohol is a bit overdone for me. Old style Cahors used to be tough and inky; it needed decades to come around.  But we are now all in a hurry and so  the winemaker seeks very ripe fruit with surprisingly soft tannins, no doubt helped by the use of a proportion of new oak to age the the wine which also adds layer of vanilla and cinnamon.  The milk chocolate notes also recalls Malbec in its modern Argentinian guise. There is some length  on the palate.  Clearly the wine has capacity to age old vintages are available from a French online website which specialises in Malbec.  The wine is also available in UK for £15 or so.   Good, powerful drinking in a contemporary style. 

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How does white Burgundy age?

Wine writers and drinkers have been exercised by what is referred to as premature oxidation in white Burgundy since the 1996 vintage. This is a slightly vague condition in which high quality wines from top village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru sites fail to live up to their promise, being either obviously oxidised or just failing to shine, lacking zip and energy.  Saturday’s tasting was called ‘does white Burgundy age?’ but frankly after the tasting the answer was so obviously ‘yes’ that I have changed the title to ‘how’ it ages.  Thus, of our eight wines, only one showed signs of premature oxidation and even then that did not spoil it completely. As we will see, even this wine still outperformed expectation.  

The tasting was made up of a short vertical of four basic Bourgogne Blanc from Coche-Bizouard, a grower in Meursault, and then a selection of premier and grand crus.  The vintages were pretty much all good years.  What did we find?  

Even simple Bourgogne Blanc from a good grower can age attractively for up to a decade.  The Coche-Bizouard wines really shone and at £10-£11 a bottle showed that you can still get classy wines for a decent price.  The 2011 showed pleasant oak over melon and peach fruit with excellent acidity, the key to ageability in these wines.  The 2009 was at the perfect point of development for those who like a balance between fresh fruit and tertiary notes with a mineral seam beginning to show.  The 2007 from a slightly less good vintage that its companions was into full-on butterscotch-and-baked apple-mode with a slightly sharp, even metallic finish.  Even the 2005, at nine years old, was a mixture of obvious oxidation over a lovely mushroom and truffle nose and mellow fruit on the palate.  Even if it was the only oxidised wine of the evening, it showed a remarkably class for a basic Burgundian white.  

Class will out! 

  • as a neat pair with the last Coche-Bizouard, we had another wine from the same vintage:  Puligny-Montrachet, PC Les Folatières, Moret-Nominé 2005, more than three times the price of the above but, unlike the basic 2005, fresh and still in its relative infancy.  Beautiful, fresh nose, well integrated ripe fruit and honey notes with a hint of undergrowth, this had rich, textured almost mango fruit on the palate and a long, complex finish.  This wine clearly had the potential to age for another decade or so.  
  • from the middle of ‘premox’ years, Puligny-Montrachet, PC Clos de Mouchere 1999 was in splendid form, with more than a hint of farmyard, entirely to be expected from a 15 year old, but with marked honey aromas, an excellent depth of palate, fine, rich and long.  Of course the really annoying thing about so called premature oxidation has been its intermittent, irregular nature – some bottles affected, some not. Clive Coates also comments that some bottles recover from this phase rather like wines that go through a dumb phase. (Presumably he means that some bottles from a case that showed premox at one stage are not affected, though it would be difficult to claim more than that some bottles are affected and some not.) 
  • Pre-premox wines can be in great fettle:  Meursault, PC Sous Blagny, Sélection, Nicholas Potel, 1992 was showing oxidation appropriate to its age, lovely mid gold colour, butterscotch and tarte tatin, nuttiness and a good concentration of orange and orange rind fruit.  

The great survivor

1962The debate about premox concerns whether white Burgundy can age and get more complex over 15-20 years.  It is asking a lot for white wines to remain fresh and interesting in further decades beyond that though some with really high acidity or skin contact may.  But what then about a Chablis that is more than half a century old?  Chablis GC Les Preuses, Lupé-Cholet, 1962 triumphantly showed that white Burgundy can shine in its fifty-second year.  There was a good level in the bottle, the cork came out nearly in one piece, and the bottle had probably had one careful owner though he can’t remember when he bought it!  In the glass the wine was a light amber in colour with a nose that was reminiscent of walnuts, smoked bacon and a touch of cooked citrus.  It was sublimely light and elegant on the palate.  Overall it was an incredible survivor.    While this wine was made half a century before we began to worry about premature oxidation, it – and the others in this small tasting – showed that white Burgundy can age beautifully. And that it follows the usual path from fresh fruit and oak-relationd aromas to ethereal, tertiary notes.  


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Ch. Cantin, St-Emilion

What can one expect of a bottle of Saint-Emilion Grand Cru?   Due to the rules of the appellation,  expectations should be limited as 50% of the wine is deemed to be Grand Cru.  (If you want the really classy stuff the label needs to read Premier Grand Cru Classé – or of course you need to know the individual chateau.)  Then the wine should be made predominantly from Merlot though it can be a blend with the two Cabernets, Sauvignon and Franc.  As a result the fruit should be rich and plummy and the structure should be present but with a soft, even pliable backbone, unlike the straighter lines of Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wines of the Médoc.  And finally, if you want something that is a bit special, you should expect to pay for it.  The appellation is not huge (5,400 hectares, 6% of the vast Bordeaux vineyard) and there is a demand for the earlier drinking, luscious charms of Merlot, as long as you don’t call it that. 

Ch. Cantin

Ch. Cantin 2009

Château Cantin is a part of Les Grand Chais de France group.  Its staple is the J.P. Chenet range which is apparently the largest selling French brand in the world so they must be doing something right.  This bottle, provided as a sample, is an illustration of the way they are trying to up their game and get a foothold in the premium wine market at an affordable price.  Ch. Cantin 2009 is available at Waitrose Wine Cellar at just under £25.  

I tasted the wine blind and thought I was much further south than Bordeaux.  I couldn’t really place it – thats not its problem but mine! – but certainly noticed the layers of smoke and spice from oak, the ripe, even super ripe fruit, and the evident alcohol.  I guessed a spot-on 14.5% alcohol by volume, a rare occurrence indeed.  My second guess was that it was a Merlot-dominated claret from Bordeaux. Having had that confirmed, I said that the consultant must be Michel Rolland which admittedly covers a lot of chateaux, but turned out to be correct. Apparently M. Rolland’s first year as consultant was indeed the 2009. 

This is a good value example of the currently fashionable, highly extracted Merlot from a great and early drinking vintage, the warm 2009.  In the glass it is clear from the deep colour and the intensity of the palate that very ripe fruit has been picked and that the berries have been kept in contact with the juice for a good long time, both Rolland hallmarks. There is 10% of Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% of Cabernet Franc to fill out the Merlot and the wine has spent a year in oak barrels.  

This would make a good step up for those  are intrigued by wine and wish to trade up to something. What they will experience is a wine of some real intensity and complexity but one that remains drinkable and approachable. Even the high alcohol is reminiscent of warmer New World wines which most wine-drinkers now start with and is pretty well matched by the fruit.  It is not mean, slightly green Bordeaux as we used to know it and probably the better for that.  

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Valbuena 1985 twice: what’s the chance?

Two red wines showing some age are served side by side in a blind tasting.  As wine ages it become increasingly difficult to age it accurately. If it is genuinely old, say more than 20 years, you feel quite good if you get the right decade, unless you know your vintages extremely well.  The first of these two wines showed marked coffee and walnut notes on the nose, with a palate of leather over dark berried fruit, and so definitely falls into the fully mature wine category. The second wine seemed both more intense and older, with fine, developed fruit and layer of tar and smoke over the dried fruit and classic old wine notes.  Both wines shared a good fruit-acidity balance and still powerful tannic structure. The general consensus was that the second was older, perhaps by half a decade.  

So what are the wines and what is the relationship between them – we have been told there is one.  The wider scenario is that eleven seasoned tasters have brought one wine each to a blind tasting, all under the theme of ‘Spain’, a very large country indeed.  Given this is a pretty serious tasting group you can rule out them  bringing a basic, supermarket wine.  But what are the chances of them bringing bottles of exactly the same wine?  Well the odds are shortened considerably (from the astronomical) when the people in the group have known each other for a decade, have bought wine together and have developed group love for Vega Sicilia, the historic premier winery of Ribera del Deuro. 

So there is a real chance that two people will bring a wine from the same, top estate.  The odds shorten as four of this group have bought wine together at auction – but the they lengthen if by ‘the same wine’ we mean the same label from the same vintage. After all, they have, let’s say, up to half a century of vintages to chose from.  We need a statistician to begin to work out the odds.  In later discussion we ruled out the possibility that the two bottles were were bought at the same time.  On the contrary, one was bought at auction 2-3 years ago, while the other came from a big London merchant 4-5 years ago. Where the bottles have been for the preceding quarter of a century is anybody’s guess.   Wouldn’t it be great to know!

Double delight

Here are the wines: Tinto Valbuena 5º, Vega Sicilia, Ribera del Deuro,1985. After we begin to taste and discuss them, someone notices that the bottles are individually numbered.  Here are the back labels where you can see the numbers. We assume that the noticeable difference between the wines is due to how they have been stored over their three decades. 

Valbuena back labels

Our two bottles were numbers 150,043 and 150,054. So they are just 11 bottles apart. Given there are 300 bottles of wine in a standard barrel, it is much more likely than not that our two bottles came from the same barrel.  Our tame statistician will now be going into overdrive: what are the chances that two bottles of wine from the same barrel from virtually 30 years ago will end up side by side in the same blind tasting having been brought to the tasting by different people who in turn bought the wine from different sources?  

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