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BURGUNDY REVISITED: WINE TASTING IN BURGUNDY

wine tasting in burgundy

On a cool and blustery day late December, I was speeding along the route nationale 74 in a rented, mint green Fiat 500. My destination? Gevrey-Chambertin to kick off a few days of wine tasting in Burgundy. I smiled as I passed the blink-and-you-miss-it village of Prémeaux-Prissey and a flood of memories assailed me.

I arrived in Burgundy in 2004 to study International Wine Commerce at the CFPPA de Beaune. I didn’t drive stick, my French was lousy, and my only acquaintance was an elderly widow. To make matters worse it was November – the month where a thick, grey fog descends over Burgundy and rarely lifts before the following March.

To say that my first couple of months were challenging is a vast understatement.

I had found accommodations at Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron in the sleepy town of Prémeaux-Prissey. Slowly but surely my French improved. I made friendships that I cherish to this day. And I drank some incredible wine. If someone had told me back then how lucky I was to be drinking top Burgundy on a regular basis, perhaps I would have sipped it more slowly and thoughtfully.

It has been 12 years since I called Burgundy home. After my formation and a two-year stint sourcing small lots of high-end Burgundy for North American private clients and importers, I moved on, to South Africa, then Avignon, and eventually home, to Montréal. I make the pilgrimage to Beaune most every year though. The siren song of Chambolle always lure me back. And there is nothing quite like popping a warm gougères in your mouth, washed down with a taut, tangy Puligny.

On this particular visit mid December, I was on a fact-finding mission. I have been drinking Burgundy in a fairly nonchalant way these past 10 years. But with the Master of Wine tasting exam looming (and not my first stab at it….sigh), it is time to get serious.

I had tastings lined up at excellent estates from Marsannay all the way down to Givry. The goal was to re-visit Burgundian wine styles and winemaking practices.

Much has changed in Burgundy since the early 2000s. Wine producers are far more ecologically conscience, wines are handled less reductively pre-fermentation, and the percentage of new oak – even at the Grand Cru level – has decreased significantly.

The resultant wines are, for the most part, silkier, lighter, and more ethereal than I remember. The difference between appellations is also less clear cut. Individual winemaking styles and the unique expression of each climat (vineyard plot) distinguishes the wines far more distinctly today.

The following series of articles covers my visits, tastings, and impressions from a few days’ intensive wine tasting in Burgundy.

 

 

Life

The Humbling Act of MW Blind Tasting

MW Mock Tasting Exam

Distance learning is a tricky thing. You can easily be lulled into a false sense of confidence working from the comfort of your living room. Nothing brings the reality of your progress (or lack thereof) crashing down around you like a course day. Last Thursday and Friday, I kissed my baby goodbye and headed to New York for a two-day Masters of Wine training session.

I get a lot of sidelong glances when I tell people what I am doing. They kind of smirk a little and say “so basically you sit around and drink wine all day? Gee, that sounds like hard work!” . Well, all I can say is…it is!  It is not necessarily the most vital profession out there, but it is challenging. Here is what a day of MW training looks like:

You start the day with 12 wine glasses in front of you and absolutely no earthly idea what is in each glass. Generally, with blindtasting, you have a few cues that help you cheat a little… the shape of the bottle, screw cap vs. cork, and how well you know the person who poured the wine. I have a dear friend from South Africa who, 9 times out of 10, will serve French or South African wine everytime he presents a mystery bottle. This narrows down the options nicely! Unfortunately, in an MW blind tasting exam, the wines are really BLIND. They can come from a wide range of countries, a huge number of grape varieties and are poured into identical bottles before the tasting. When the examiner says go, you have exactly 2 hours 15 minutes to taste, analyze, make an educated guess and then respond to numerous questions on each wine. This equates to just over 11 minutes per wine. And the questions are not multiple choice. They require paragraph style persuasive argumentation on the grape variety, origin, vintage, winemaking techniques, overall quality and so forth – all based on the “evidence from your glass”. For example, simply stating that the wine is a 2013 Pinot Noir from Sonoma will get you about 3 points out of 20 or more. You need to give all of the reasons why you came to this conclusion, in a clear, detailed yet concise way. All the while watching the minutes slip away, and fighting the panicked feeling that you have guessed wrong or that, even if you are right, you’ll never finish in time.

As it turns out, it is not nearly enough to simply taste a particular wine over and over again until you can pick it out blind. Success in this game is based as much on theory as on actual tasting. You need to memorize the fact that Pinot Noir is thin skinned so the wine is generally paler in colour, and more translucent that a lot of other red grapes. You also need to know where it grows and the style of the wine in different regions to help you narrow down the origin. Common winemaking techniques also need to be learnt. In fact, the book learning may even outweigh actual tasting. I once correctly guessed a Rutherglen Muscat dessert wine from Australia that I had never had before, purely because it matched the description I had read.

I’ll be honest and say that the two days of tasting in New York were not my most successful. I had a few too many deer-in-the-headlights moments, stuck in front of a wine I just could not identify. And while after the first day, I was sorely tempted to hide under the covers and forget the whole ridiculous idea of this degree, the next day I had gained fresh perspective. Making mistakes at this point is almost better than getting everything right. I know what I need to work on and how to go about it. So it’s back to the drinking table for me, with a glass in one hand and a wine atlas in the other!