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January 2016

Life

a day in the life of an MW student

Masters of Wine Seminar

When I graduated from university, I remember thinking to myself thank god…I’m out! I am NEVER going to school again. No more last minute, desperate attempts to finish essays or cram a ton of facts into my wee brain before a big exam. No more week-ends feeling guilty about all the study I wasn’t doing. And then, after a mere year out in the “real world” I realized that I had absolutely no interest in my field and found my job utterly tedious. Doh! So…back to the classroom. This time in Burgundy, with far more scientific content than I bargained for, in a language I spoke very poorly. When I finished that incredible, exhausing experience, my first thought was, now I REALLY am done.

Fast forward 10 years, to the seminar I attended in Napa & San Francisco this past week. An intense flurry of blind tasting sessions and theory preparation for the notoriously hard Masters of Wine exams. In less than 6 months’s time, I will put myself through this 5-day feat of endurance with a pass rate of less than 10%! So, of course, the obvious question keeps running through my mind. Why on EARTH am I putting myself through this again? And, more importantly, why am I TELLING everyone about it, considering the spectacularly unfavourable odds of passing? I try to reassure myself by saying that it is the journey, the knowledge that I am obtaining, that is important; the simple fact of pushing myself to excel at something. Then again, maybe this is all some elaborate scheme to make my wine drinking habit seem classy and professional. Yeah, probably a little more the latter…

So what does a Masters of Wine student do at a seminar? Well, while it is far from the challenges faced by a rocket scientist, it is nonetheless intense. Imagine yourself, bleary eyed, staring into your coffee cup at 7:30am. While you were doing that, I was pouring 12 mystery wines into 12 glasses. At 7:45am each day, a deathly silence would fall, broken only by sounds of sipping, slurping, spitting and furious pen scratchings. I had 10 minutes per wine to write detailed arguments, using “evidence from my glass”, identifying the grape(s), origin, quality level, style, winemaking techniques, vintage, residual sugar level, commercial appeal and so on. My “move” was to start each tasting by wasting a couple of those precious minute looking around the room in a blind panic watching everyone tasting and nodding their heads smugly, while my mind emptied of all useful information. Then I proceeded to calm down, taste, make notes and then take more-or-less wild stabs at determining the wines and writing logical, vaguely intelligent sentences. Once the buzzer sounded the end of these daily torture tasting session, the feedback began. Here is why you are absolutely and totally wrong…and so on.  Some days, I did fairly well and started feeling a little cocky. Other days I wanted to borrow Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.

The afternoon sessions were a mix between lectures and field trips. The Masters of Wine program is as much, if not more, a theoretical degree. Tasting well is just the tip of the iceberg. You also need to acquire in-depth knowledge of all major aspects of viticulture, winemaking, quality control, business, marketing and latest industry issues and trends. It is this holistic approach that drew me to the MW, over a sommelier program. That, and the fact that I am far too clumsy for fine wine service in a posh restaurant. The idea behind the theory session is to prepare us for the dreaded exams, where we will be expected to write 3 ~1000 word essays in 3 hours on highly technical subjects, with a wealth of real world examples, in a confident, authoritative manner. Again, my attempts at these time essays generally began with a couple minutes trying to tap into the old memory bank while only useless bits of fluff trivia or lame song lyrics floated to the surface.

The idea is that, come June, the hours of dilligent studying will pay off, I will discover a newfound serenity, and pass on the first try! Cheers to that…

 

Reviews Wines

The fickle finesse of Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir Tasting Line Up

While Pinot Noir is often cited as one of the most popular grape varieties in North America, it only accounts for a measly 2% of marketshare (according to a 2014 study by the University of Adelaide).  It is no match for the heavy hitters Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with over 3 times as many plantings world-wide. Why is this? Well, Pinot Noir is a notoriously hard grape to grow. Just like Goldilocks and her porridge, Pinot Noir does not like it too hot or too cold. It is suceptible to frost, prone to rot and a host of other diseases and viruses, and often suffers problems at flowering leading to crop loss and uneven ripening. It is also a fairly low yielding grape. So why, you may be asking yourself, do so many top class wine producers bother to grow it?

At its best, Pinot Noir is the most ethereal of wines, possessing an elegance and finesse that no other red variety even comes close to matching. It is a thin skinned grape, leading to wines of fairly pale colour, vibrant acidity, light to medium body and low tannins.  Aromas range from earthy notes, red berries, game and floral tones in cooler climates to black cherry, cola and baking spices in hotter vineyards. Though the origin of the grape is unknown, Pinot Noir’s adopted home is, undisputedly, the famed region of Burgundy. Nowadays, Pinot Noir is grown around the world; through out France, Italy, Germany, Australia, New Zeland, USA, Chile, South Africa and many other countries.

At its best, Pinot Noir is the most ethereal of wines, possessing an elegance and finesse that no other red variety even comes close to matching.

If you have read my tasting style page, you will know that I am a wholehearted Burgundy lover. It is an incredible place. Evidence of grape growing dates back to the 2nd century AD. The vineyards are a patchwork of small, individual plots lining a gentle, eastern facing limestone slope. Basic red Pinot Noir from across the region is labelled Bourgogne, whereas superior wines carry the names of the single village or vineyard sitings where they are grown, like Chambolle Musigny or Corton. Burgundy is a cool place, with a heavy fog that seems to descend in November and lift at the end of March. Summers are hit and miss, and in poor vintages, many wines can be acidic, thin and reedy. Yet, in the years when the vines get enough sunshine, Burgundy produces the most incrediblely complex, elegant, nuanced and long lasting Pinot Noirs on earth.

New Zealand is a relatively new player in the Pinot game. Growers started focussing on the grape in earnest in the late 1970s. Today, it is the most planted red grape variety in the country. The majority of plantings can be found on the South Island, in Marlborough and the Central Otago region. Marlborough Pinot Noir from the right producers (Mt. Riley and Vavasour come to mind) is gulpably good, with aromas of dark cherry, plums and spice, medium body and fine, rounded tannins. The Central Otago is developing a reputation as the best New Zealand terroir for serious Pinot Noir. The cool, mountaneous terrain yields wines of great intensity and finesse.  High toned, fragrant reds are made here with bright red and black berry fruit, a firm structure yet silky texture. Alcohol levels are surprisingly high, but generally well integrated lending weight and roundness.

You may assume that Australia is too hot of a country for balanced Pinot Noir, but the state of Victoria and island of Tasmania offer several interesting cooler climate vineyard sites. In Victoria, the best known region for Pinot Noir is the Yarra Valley. Rolling hills and valleys from 50m to 400m in altitude make for a huge range of temperatures and soil compositions, hence a wide diversity of wine styles. The best Yarra Pinot Noirs display pretty red fruits, spice, wood smoke and sometimes a meaty undertone.

In California, the sunny climate shines through on Pinot Noir. It is much sweeter and sappier, with bright, almost candied fruit, cola notes and often a healthy dollop of vanilla from oak ageing. Cooler climates do exist in areas through out Sonoma, the Central Coast and Carneros, thanks to the maritime influence. However, the wines still display more overt fruitiness and softer acidity for the most part, than any other major Pinot Noir producing country.

Though this title is hotly disputed among New World vineyards, Oregon is often cited as having the most Burgundian of Pinot Noir styles. The Oregon Wine Board’s website has a great tagline…”if you were a wine grape, you’d want to be planted in Oregon”. They boast a long, sunny growing season with crisp, cool nights giving wines with excellent balance of fresh acidity and ripe, juicy fruit. While many regions can (and do) make the same claim, the best Pinot Noirs from Oregon are living proof of the promised brightness and vibrancy. AVAs like the Willamette Valley and Yamhill-Carlton are home to some stunning examples.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose examples from the following producers: (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).

La Pousse d’Or Volnay 1er Cru “En Caillerets” 2010 – 93pts LW

A testament to the expression that “patience is a virtue”. At first glance, a restrained, tightly woven offering with a firm structure and seemingly simple earthy, red berry aromas. Upon aeration, the development in glass was superb. The nose showed great elegance, with cassis bud, floral notes and vibrant strawberry aromas. The racy acidity was solidly balanced by a velvetty texture and firm, yet finely grained tannins. The oak is very well integrated, adding lovely textural elements without overpowering the moderate length finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (the 2010 is sold out, but the 2011 & 2012 – albeit lesser vintages – are available for 94$ and 114$ respectively)

Sylvie Esmonin Gevrey Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2012 – 91pts LW

Headed up by a fantastic female winemaker, this organic estate makes bold, stylish Gevrey Chambertin. The 2012 old vines cuvée displays enticing mixed black fruits, mocha and forest floor notes. Crisp and juicy on the palate, with lots of body and and good depth through the mid-palate. Big, velvetty tannins frame the finish nicely.

Where to Buy: Not currently sold in Ontario or Quebec

Cloudline Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2013 – 90pts. PW

This highly drinkable red offers great value for the price. A pretty, pale ruby colour, offering vibrant red cherry, cranberry and strawberry fruit, with underlying early grey notes. The tart acidity is backed by a fresh, linear structure, subtle rounded tannins and moderate, 13% alcohol.

Where to Buy: SAQ (25.55$)

Coldstream Hills Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2012 – 87pts. PW

A bigger, bolder wine with a deeper ruby colour, full body and big, chewy tannins. Intense aromas of macerated red fruits, herbal notes and a certain meatiness. Fresh acidity frames the broad, fleshy structure. The oak is just a touch too prominent for my liking, adding toasty, spiced, mocha notes to the finish. The alcohol, though a reasonable 13.5%, feels a little hot.

Where to Buy: SAQ (30.25$)

Wooing Tree “Beetle Juice” Pinot Noir Central Otago 2012 – 89pts. PW

If one can get passed the unattractive label, this Central Otago Pinot has a lot to offer. Deep ruby in colour, with pretty, ripe black berry, black cherry, floral and spiced aromas. The high toned acidity leads into a lifted, juicy core and a toasty oaked finish. The tannins are firm and grippy; potentially needing a couple of years to unwind. The alcohol is a slightly overpowering 14.5%.

Where to Buy: LCBO (39.95$), SAQ (31.50$)

La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013 – 86pts. PW

Though I am sure this easy drinking, intensely fruit style would have many admirers, it is not the style of Pinot Noir I personally enjoy. Medium ruby in colour, with overt stewed strawberry, cola and spiced notes. Moderate acidity, with a firm yet velvetty structure, jammy fruit on the palate and vanilla and custard cream oak flavours on the fairly short finish.

Where to Buy: LCBO (31.95$), SAQ (34.00$)