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.
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 are enough to detect Prosecco – very pale, lively bubbles, pear aromatics, no toasty autolysis. You still have to construct a watertight (sic) argument why this wine is Prosecco and can’t be anything else but it is a huge help to know if a couple 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.
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 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.
- wines must be similar in every respect for important 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 me 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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