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mastersofwine

Life

The Master of Wine Tasting Exams – One Student’s Story

Masters of Wine Exam Story
Photo credit: Claude Rigoulet

The month of May began gray and dreary, with a near constant patter of rain. I told myself that this was for the best, as I hunched over my daily flight of mystery wines. Nothing to distract me from my studies. A feeling of dread was slowly growing in the pit of my stomach. Each week I did the math. Only 3 weeks left, only 2 weeks left, only 10 days left…

What had me in such a state? The Master of Wine tasting exams.

This was to be my second attempt at the notoriously hard three-day session of 12-wine blind tastings.

A feeling of dread was slowly growing in the pit of my stomach.

After successfully navigating the introductory year of studies in 2015, I moved on to stage 2. Studying became a way of life. I rocked my newborn son with one foot while blind tasting Cabernet Sauvignon. I read him bedtime stories about the importance of monitoring pH through out the winemaking process.

I came out of the 2016 exams with passing marks across all five theory papers and one of three tasting papers. Unfortunately, if even one tasting exam is failed, all three need to be re-sat. Approximately 10% of candidates pass the tasting portion of the exams each year. With that sobering statistic in mind, I decided to simply redouble my efforts in 2017.

And then life intervened.

A second pregnancy with a due date mere weeks after the 2017 exams meant that no airline would fly me to the exam centres in San Francisco or London. So, I had to bench myself. As frustrating as it was to take a year off, when June rolled around I was mighty glad that I hadn’t subjected myself to three days of intensely stressful exams in my exhausted state.

I rocked my newborn son with one foot while blind tasting Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pregnancy takes a toll on your palate and your memory. Despite trying to keep my studies up, I was feeling decidedly rusty when I embarked on the 2018 course year. A week in England in February for the annual MW study seminar brought me home in a blind panic.

Each day of the seminar began with a mock version of the tasting exam. Each day I failed miserably. I couldn’t finish any of the papers. I was way off in identifying wines that I had previously had no trouble blind tasting. I got loads of advice from the MW educators that contradicted previous instruction. I felt paralysed.

In the months that followed I forced myself to keep chugging along, leaning on my study partners for support. Every week my amazing husband would organize blind tastings for me, and every week the results were the same. I felt like I was turning in circles, never able to finish my practice exams, misidentifying the same set of wines over and over again.

And then, something just clicked into place. And not a second too soon, for the countdown was on…just a couple of months to go.

And then, something just clicked into place. And not a second too soon, for the countdown was on…just a couple of months to go. I finally started to do well and feel confident. Meanwhile, between my husband and two tiny boys, my house was a non-stop germ fest. Roseola, laryngitis, strep throat, gastro… they had it all. Every twinge in my throat made me nervous. I wanted to isolate myself inside a sterile bubble.

I left for the exam in San Francisco with my stomach in knots. I worried that I was getting sick, I worried that the tendonitis in my elbow would slow down my writing too much, I worried that I would forget all that I had studied and tasted, I worried that I was worrying too much…

The morning of the first exam, to my great surprise, I woke up feeling rested and ready. I won’t lie and say that a transcendent calm descended upon me. I was still a bundle of nerves, but had managed to convince myself that my countless hours of study would pay off.

The morning of the first exam, to my great surprise, I woke up feeling rested and ready.

Over the three days I developed a morning ritual…healthy breakfast, exam anxiety mini meditation, a couple bites of a banana to rinse my palate of all traces of toothpaste, and a swig of Muscadet to calibrate my perception of wine acidity. I made a playlist of catchy pop music and blared it through my headphones on my walk to the exam centre.

Each candidate must bring their own glasses for the exams and pour their own wines from identical green Burgundy bottles labelled only with the number of the wine. Every morning I steeled myself to maintain a steady hand, nervous that a broken glass or spilled wine would throw off my fragile equilibrium. I also made damn sure that I was pouring wine number 1 into glass number 1.

The feeling of relief that washed over me when time was called on the last exam was indescribable. Sustained nervousness over such a long period is a rare experience in my adult life, and not one that I soon wish to repeat.

The feeling of relief that washed over me when time was called on the last exam was indescribable.

And now…the long wait. Exam results are given in early September. Until then I can only hope for the best and distract myself with the simple pleasure of a chilled glass of bubbly on a warm summer’s day.

 

 

 

Reviews

VERTICAL TASTING AT CHATEAU PICHON BARON

Pichon Baron Wine Tasting
Photo credit: Daphne Feng

Three weeks ago, I was still bundling my kids up in snow suits. Today, they are sweating in shorts and tee-shirts. There is just no accounting for weather these days. And, according to climate change experts, the frequency of extreme weather events, and erratic weather patterns, is only going to increase in the coming years.

One of the (many) things that makes fine wine so fascinating, is its variability from one growing season to the next. While, “everyday wines” generally list a vintage on the label, they aim to offer a consistent taste profile year after year. Not so with fine wines. The goal here is to show the best of what that year’s vintage had to offer. In cooler years, the winemaker may strive to showcase the lively acidity, elegance, and restrained, tangy fruit. In warm years, producers might focus on the rich texture, ample body, ripe tannins and so forth.

The idea is not to make a wine so wildly different from one year to the next that it is unrecognisable; but simply to respect the fact that wine is a natural product, made from the grape harvest of one season, in one place. Regardless of the weather, the unique attributes given to a wine by a great terroir will always shine through if the vineyards are managed with care.

…wine is a natural product, made from the grape harvest of one season, in one place…

Weather is a constant preoccupation for Bordeaux grape growers. The climate, notably on the left bank of the Gironde Estuary, is maritime. Winter is mild, and summers are generally dry and hot. It is in spring and fall that problems often arise. Inclement weather often plagues both seasons. Chilly April temperatures can bring frost, damaging new buds. Wet weather in May/ June can affect flowering, lowering the crop quantity and quality. In the fall, cool, rainy weather can delay ripening which is particularly problematic for the late maturing Cabernet Sauvignon grape. Under-ripe Cabernet Sauvignon can have pungent bell pepper aromas, overly firm acidity, and astingent tannins.

Just as poor weather can spoil a vintage; a run of fine weather can save it. Never ask a wine producer how they think the current growing season’s wines will be. Until the day the grapes are harvested, conditions can (and often do) change dramatically. Grapes that are struggling to ripen mid-summer can be perfectly mature by harvest if the end-of-summer weather is sunny and warm.

Just as poor weather can spoil a vintage; a run of fine weather can save it.

Our tour of the Château Pichon Baron estate began with a walk in the vineyards, under cloudless blue skies, on a 25°c day just two weeks ago. A far cry from the frosty weather of 2017! After a fascinating tour of the various Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot parcels, it was on to the winery to see the state-of-the-art facilities.

Our visit came on the tail of the busy “en primeur” week. In Bordeaux, the majority of wine estates pre-sell their while still in barrel. Top Bordeaux wines are often aged for 18 months to 2 years before release. However, just 6 months into their barrel ageing, an initial blend is created and poured for prospective buyers and journalists.

We were lucky enough to sample the new blend to kick off our tasting. Château Pichon Baron is often referred to as a “super second”, standing out amongst the Second Growths (Deuxième Grands Cru Classé). This acclaimed status came in the wake of AXA Millésimes purchase of the estate back in 1987. The new team made the bold decision to cut back on the quantities of Grand Vin produced, including only the finest Cabernet Sauvignon parcels from the plateau of deep gravelly soil shared with neighbouring Châteaux Latour and Léoville Las Cases.

The mark of a truly exceptional estate is that, even in poor vintages, their wines are impressive.

Château Pichon Baron wines are renowned for their firm Pauillac style, regularly referred to as powerful or masculine. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, making up as much as 80% of the blend in many vintages. Merlot plays a minor role here, rounding out Cabernet’s bold structure. The wines are aged for 18 months, in 70 to 80% new French oak from a range of top coopers.

The mark of a truly exceptional estate is that, even in poor vintages, their wines are impressive. A vertical tasting back through the past eight vintages of Pichon Baron showed just that. Here are my impressions from a tasting that will live long in my memory.

Many thanks to the Pichon Baron team for your gracious hospitality.

Château Pichon Baron 2017

Vibrant dark fruits (black currant, plum, blackberry) feature on the nose, with hints of graphite, sweet tobacco, and floral notes developing upon aeration. Full-bodied, yet very fresh, silky, moderately concentrated, and quite approachable despite its youth. The tannins are very firm and grippy, and the cedar, spice scented oak is already quite integrated.

Growing season: “2017 was a year of contrasts” reads the Château’s vintage report. Dangerous frosts in late spring, and very wet conditions in June challenged the harvest. Luckily the hot, dry weather that followed allowed for decent ripening.

Château Pichon Baron 2016

Exquisite balance defines this vintage. Complex aromas of ripe dark plum, cassis, gamey notes, earthy nuances, and cedar fairly leap from the glass. The palate is dense, firmly structured, yet velvety in texture. Brisk acidity lifts the highly concentrated core of black fruit, licorice, and graphite notes perfectly. The finish is incredibly persistent, wonderfully fresh and framed by elegant, fine-grained tannins.

Growing season: “A long, splendid Indian summer helped the grapes reach excellent ripeness levels”. Sugar and phenolic ripeness was optimal through-out the region, leading to elegant, firmly structured, ripe wines for long-term ageing.

Château Pichon Baron 2015

Very fruit driven aromas and flavours. Overt notes of crushed black cherry, plum, and cassis dominate on the nose. Upon aeration, licorice, cedar, and graphite notes emerge. The palate is weighty, opulent, and fleshy, with impressive depth and intensity. Cedar, spice flavours from the oak are still quite prominent, though well-balanced, adding nuance to the heady fruit. Big, grippy tannins punctuate the finish.

Growing season: “Summer started with warm and sometimes scorching hot, dry weather”. The heat led to some water stress, causing the grape skins to thickens. Stormy periods in August and September boosted ripening. The resultant wines are powerful, tannic and ultra-ripe.

Château Pichon Baron 2014

Quite restrained on the nose, with earthy, gamey, graphite, bell pepper notes in the foreground. Just ripe cassis and dark cherry notes develop with aeration. Brisk acidity is matched by a tightly knit structure, and tangy black fruit flavours. Muscular tannins need time to soften. The finish is very fresh, with attractive cassis and herbal notes.

Growing season: Difficult early summer requiring careful green harvesting and leaf stripping to help the grapes ripen. Hot and sunny late summer weather spurred on ripening. Wines were leaner and fresher than in 2015 or 2016.

Château Pichon Baron 2013

Very attractive on the nose, with inviting mint and dark fruit notes, underscored by hints of mushroom and gamey nuances. Tightly knit and somewhat angular on the palate, with crisp acidity and a very firm tannic structure.

Growing season: “They key word for the 2013 harvest could be ‘responsiveness’ as we constantly had to adapt operations to the unstable weather conditions.” The cool, damp conditions of 2013 led to leaner, more marginally ripe wine styles.

Château Pichon Baron 2012

Understated, yet elegant nose featuring leafy, minty notes providing an attractive backdrop for bright cassis, plum, and licorice notes. Graphite and cedar notes emerge with aeration. Very youthful and firm on the palate, yet also quite plush in texture. Fine-grained tannins, and well-integrated oak bring additional finesse.

Growing season: A late blossoming, wet vintage, where particular care was needed with green harvesting, plot selection, and grape sorting. A good, yet not highly concentrated vintage.

Château Pichon Baron 2011

Alluring nose with subtle notes of black cherry, plum, exotic spice, and leafy, floral hints. Lively, moderately firm, and silky on the palate, with fresh, almost peppery tannins. This is a lighter, yet very well balanced vintage, with seamless oak integration, and a long, lifted finish.

Growing season: “2011 was an early vintage…by September, we were recording astonishingly high phenolic potential in our Cabernet Sauvignon”. Though not as highly regarded as the stellar 2009 and 2010 duo, 2011 is an attractive, fresh-fruited vintage.

Château Pichon Baron 2010

Fragrant, highly complex nose brimming over with ripe black and blue fruits, exotic spice, graphite, tobacco, earthy notes, and hints of game. Very powerful, firmly structured, and muscular on the palate, with a vibrancy to the acidity that brings great focus and precision. Incredible concentration of sweet dark fruit, tobacco, and cedar flavours lingers long on the finish, promising exceptional ageing potential.

Growing season: “Dry conditions, low temperatures, and exceptional sunshine were the three major climate factors in this vintage”. An outstanding, very balanced vintage with for long term cellaring.

Château Pichon Baron 2009

Intense aromas of macerated red fruits, black cherry, cassis, and plum, are underscored by heady floral scents, licorice, sweet tobacco, and cedar. A lovely freshness underscores the weighty, layered sweet fruit flavours ably. Broad, and velvety smooth, with polished tannins and attractive, integrated oak.

Growing season: “Rich levels of sugar and anthocyans turned out to be well above those estimated in pre-harvest analyses”. A long, hot, and dry summer producing very ripe, voluptous wines. A top vintage.

 

Life

A PREGNANT PAUSE

Wine tasting, pregnancy, wine

I remember the feeling of nervous anticipation as I navigated my way through the Vienna airport in the winter of 2015. I was on my way to meet my fellow Masters of Wine students for our first year seminar in Rust, the heart of the Burgenland wine region of Austria.

There were a host of reasons for my sweaty palms and racing heart. Would my new colleaugues prove to be far more knowledgeable and experienced than me? Would our MW teachers be pretentious and aloof? And, above all…how would the group react to my rather prominent mid-section?

On retrospect, I suppose that preparing for the worst (judgemental comments and disapproving stares), made the reality a pleasant surprise. The organizer singled me out in a loud, yet jolly voice as ‘the pregnant one’, and reactions were a mix of disinterest or polite congratulations. No one seemed to find it odd that I was embarking on intensive wine tasting studies in my ‘delicate condition’. 

No one seemed to find it odd that I was embarking on intensive wine tasting studies in my ‘delicate condition’. 

In fact, I was regularly regaled, through out the week, with the story of Jancis Robinson sitting (and passing) her Masters of Wine exams while 8 months pregnant. To the MW set, this was irrefutable proof that one can prevail in the face of changing tastebuds, heartburn and general exhaustion.

Now, two years on, I find myself back in the same position; waddling into industry tastings to ply my trade. This time around I am in North America rather than Europe, and while I have not noticed any outright disapproval, I have met with much more curiousity about the logistics of wine tasting while pregnant.

Pregnancy takes your body on a bit of a wild journey. Your hormones are all over the place and most definitely affect your sense of smell and taste. Each woman has their own experience, and I can only speak of my two rides on this crazy carousel.

Pregnancy takes your body on a bit of a wild journey…Attraction to and repulsion by certain smells is so strong that I lose all notion of objectivity.

The first three months are tricky. Attraction to and repulsion by certain smells is so strong that I lose all notion of objectivity. It is almost impossible to neutrally judge a wine’s merits in these conditions. The tasting portion is even worse, with the separate structural elements of acid, tannin, oak, alcohol, residual sugar all standing out in jarring opposition. I suppose that this is nature’s way of keeping me off the sauce in that first critical phase while the embryo implants.

Around month four or five, a renewed sense of pleasure returns and with it, the bitter reality of having to wait out a long, dreary ‘dry season’. On the plus side, sensory perception appear to be functioning on high alert, with separate, clearly defined aromatics near bursting from the glass. Wines seem more harmonious on the palate (depending on quality level) and infinitely more desirable. 

The only foe that plagues me until the end is acidity. Dry wines with high acid levels remain unpalatable through out. Beloved wines like Chablis, Sancerre and Champagne lose much of their appeal.

Sensory perception appear to be functioning on high alert, with separate, clearly defined aromatics near bursting from the glass.

The most fascinating aspect of the whole process is the aftermath. While my sense of smell didn’t remain quite as sensitive after giving birth, I definitely feel that I retained more accute olfactory capacities than was previously the case. A specific wine tasted pregnant, that had revealed so much more nuance to me than before, still did so afterwards. Come July, I am hoping for a similar result.

And oh the sheer bliss of drinking wine again after such a long spell of carefully sniffing, swirling and spitting! In my case, absence definitely does make the heart grow fonder. Favourite wines are rediscovered like long lost friends, grown infinitely more special after such a long spell apart.

All in all, I think that pregnancy has and is enhancing my tasting ability and enjoyment. There are undeniable setbacks as our tastebuds adjust, and as we settle into a new, slower work pace during the waiting months and the sleepless nights with crying newborns. However, in my opinion, the rewards vastly outweigh the sacrifices.

Life

A Partial Pass! The Long Road to MW

Jacky Blisson

As many of you know, I have been toiling away for the past two years, working towards a Masters of Wine (MW). For those unfamiliar with this qualification, the MW is among the highest levels of scholastic achievement in the field of wine.

The path to MW is a long and difficult road for most candidates. Just being accepted onto the program is cause for celebration. At the end of the first year, many students are asked to repeat first year or even take a few years out. The second year (or stage as it is now called) of the program culminates with the notoriously difficult final exams. These consist of: 5 theory papers in viticulture, oenology, wine handling (bottling, storage, shipping, etc.), business and contemporary issues, and 3 practical (ie. blind tasting) exams in white still wines, red still wines and a mixed bag tasting of any possible wine style (dry, sweet, fortified, sparkling, rosé, and so on).

It is a grueling week. I can honestly say that I have never worked so hard in my entire life. I was mentally, physically and emotionally drained at the end of the 5 days. However, when time is called on the last paper and the ordeal ends, a magical thing happens. Bottles of Bollinger Champagne are produced and the stress of the week is washed away on a tide of delicate, little bubbles.

And then, the wait…

The 2016 exams ended on June 10th and the results came back on September 5th. For three months, I dreamt about all the various possible outcomes. The wait became almost a way of life. So when the big day finally rolled around, it suddenly seemed too soon. The email came through when I was navigating the Lyon airport with my lovely husband and rowdy toddler in tow. We were rushing to catch a plane, but still decided to take five minutes to sit, (attempt to) calmly sip espresso and read the blessed or dreaded words.

Nervously scanning the text, I came across these wonderful six words “I am delighted to report that…”. I had passed the theory portion of the exam.

Fireworks went off in my brain. A huge sense of relief flooded over me. 5 hours of daily study was over!

I was also proud to see that I had passed the red wine practical exam. Five years ago, I never would have believed I could achieve this level of tasting ability so I was literally overjoyed. Unfortunately, I was not so successful on the white wines (C+…a “near pass”) or the mixed bag tasting (D….total fail!).

Sadly, any failed practical exams mean that all three exams must be re-sat. So, this is my mission for 2016/2017. I will taste, and taste, and taste. White, red, rosé, sparkling, fortified, botrytised, straw wine, natural wine, orange wine…any and all kinds. It is a hard job, but someone’s got to do it, right?

 

Life

a day in the life of an MW student

masters of wine student

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…