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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