Those three words have been running through my head for months now. This is how the form letter that signals Master of Wine Exam success begins. A pass brings, “delighted”, and defeat is announced by, “unfortunately”.
There is a three month period between sitting the notoriously challenging Master of Wine (MW) exams and receiving results. Three months of wondering and worrying. The list of wines used for the blind tastings is published a week after the exams, leaving 12 weeks to fret over all missed wines, misjudged quality levels, erroneous vintages, etc.
For those that haven’t been following my progress, I started my MW studies back in 2015 pregnant with my now four year old pre-kindergartner. I successfully navigated stage one and managed to pass the theory aspect of the stage two exams on my first attempt in 2016 (read article). With baby number two due right around exam time, I decided to take 2017 off. In 2018, I took a second stab at passing the stage two practical (tasting) exams.
“Unfortunately, you haven’t succeeded this time”.
This crushing sentence followed a neat little table detailing my failing marks. Oh, how my heart sank. Oh, how I wallowed in self pity. It took me a good month to dust myself off and get back in the game. The fear of failing again, of disappointing my family and friends, was overwhelming. The financial burden was also considerable.
I also had to get over my ego. Friends and acquaintances not in the wine industry would often say to me, “Oh, are you still studying for that wine course?”. Which led me to offer long, rambling over-justifications about the difficulty of achieving Master of Wine exam success. It took me more than a few glazed over looks to realize that no one was judging me, other than myself.
In preparation for my third attempt at the Master of Wine practical exams, I decided to throw everything I had at it. I would train not only my palate, but also my mind and body. I went to see a hypnotherapist to improve my confidence levels. I saw a physiotherapist weekly to remedy a nerve issue which was slowing down my writing speed. I meditated regularly. And I blind tasted. Every day.
When June rolled around I felt ready. Walking into the exam centre each morning I felt just the right mix of nervous energy to propel me through the 12-wine blind tastings without any of those terrible dear-in-the-headlights moments I had felt in previous years. I came home in a state of cautious optimism which I tried my damnedest to maintain throughout the long summer.
And I am DELIGHTED to announce that this was my year! I can’t claim to have nailed every single wine but I did write detailed and, I suppose, sufficiently convincing arguments to have achieved an overall pass.
Words cannot describe the immense joy and huge sense of relief I felt waking up to those precious 9 letters on Monday morning. The outpouring of kind words and messages from family and friends was overwhelming. The celebration was epic.
So what’s next? I now have the pleasure of writing a 10 000 word research paper on a wine-related topic of my choosing. Only then will I have the ultimate thrill of being able to append the coveted letters “MW” to my name.
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.
It’s an age-old scenario…we overindulge in December and then spend all of January repenting. Whether it be to atone for our excessive behaviour or simply to detox the body, Dry January has become a highly popular New Year’s Resolution in recent years.
But should we be lumping wine drinking in with all forms of alcohol consumption? Does demonizing wine for an entire month really make sense? In my humble opinion, no.
For those of you heaving a sigh of relief, you’re welcome. For others, staring agape at my reckless attitude, here are 5 great reasons to skip dry January:
***Side note: I have also made this blog post into a short YouTube video. To watch, just scroll down to the bottom & click play.
1. Overly Restrictive Diets often Lead to Binging
Many doctors, psychologists and nutritionists agree that excessive restrictions in your diet can lead to binging once the determined period of abstinence is over. People feel the need to reward themselves for their good behaviour. Even just a few glasses of wine too many once February 1st rolls around can erase the healthful benefits of a month off drinking.
2. Your Liver Doesn’t Need a Full Month Off
I will preface by saying that if you are a heavy drinker, taking an extended period of alcohol consumption is an excellent idea which can potentially lead to some positive, long term changes.
For those who generally drink moderately, but just had a couple too many Prosecco cocktails at holiday parties, the situation does not necessarily call for drastic measures like a month-long detox. In a healthy adult, the liver generally processes an ounce of alcohol every hour. This works out roughly to 5 hours for a large glass of wine. Even if your New Year’s Eve was particularly epic, your liver should have recovered within three or four days.
3. Wine is Good for You!
Again, I cannot stress moderation strongly enough here. This means 1 to 2 (approximately 150mL size) glasses of wine per day.
As I mentioned in my post on the role of alcohol in wine (see here), multiple studies show a strong correlation between modest red wine consumption and a decreased incidence of heart disease, an increase in good cholesterol, and even a slowed down pace of age-related brain decline.
4. Baby, It’s Cold Outside…
For those of us in the barren north, January is an icy cold, dark month that doesn’t need any help in being depressing. Christmas is over. Work picks up with a vengeance. Why would you want to deny yourself the pleasure of a pleasantly warming glass of wine to help you unwind after a hard day battling the elements?
5. New Year’s Resolutions Should be Sustainable
Maybe it’s just me, but I always saw New Year’s resolutions as a way we mortals try to make sustainable changes in our lives to be happier and healthier beings. Long-term success seems far more likely when we counter excess with moderation, rather than total abstinence.
So, instead of swearing off Sauvignon Blanc…why not skip Dry January and make some more enjoyable, positive resolutions instead, like:
Drinking less, but drinking better!
Instead of zero wine for a month, try not drinking for a couple of nights each week. Most health professionals agree that this will give your liver the break that it needs if you exceed the 1 to 2 glass amounts on certain nights. Also, stick to just a couple of glasses on your wine drinking days. With the money you save by drinking less, you could spend a little bit more per bottle of wine, have some fun testing out new grapes and regions, and (hopefully) enjoy your wine so much more.
And finally…you can resolve to:
Boost your wine knowledge!
Learning new things is good for your brain. It’s true! And don’t you find that you enjoy things far better when you understand a little more about them? Naturally, I am happy to help with your wine education.
So, check out my weekly wine series on YouTube: www.youtube.com/jackyblisson and if you like what you see, consider subscribing so you don’t miss an episode. Feel free to send me your comments. I’d love to hear from you.
Alcohol in wine…you may think that its only redeeming quality is the mellowing effect it has on us after a hard day’s work. While this is important (in moderation, of course), alcohol actually plays a far more important role in shaping the way a wine tastes and feels on our palate.
***Side note: I have also made this blog post into a short YouTube video. To watch, just scroll down to the bottom & click play. If you enjoy the video, consider subscribing to my YouTube channel so you never miss an episode of my weekly wine education series.
Let’s start with the basics. Wine is simply fermented grape juice. What happens during the fermentation process? Sugar from the pulp of the grapes gets converted into ethanol (aka ethyl alcohol) and carbon dioxide by yeast. Wine by its very nature could not exist without alcohol.
The alcohol in wine gives a subtle impression of sweetness on the palate. To demonstrate this fact, Michael Schuster proposes an excellent, try-this-at-home experiment in his “Essential Wine Tasting” book. Pour a glass of still water, then in another glass, mix 25% vodka/ 75% water. Taste the plain water, and then taste the vodka mixture. You will immediately see that, even though there is no sugar in the alcoholic beverage, it tastes sweet in comparison with the plain water.
You can also do a similar taste test with wine. If you take two comparable wines with the same level of residual sugar, the lower alcohol wine will appear drier, while the higher alcohol one will seem sweeter.
Alcohol in wine also brings a hint of bitterness similar to that found in tonic water. This bitterness is more or less perceptible depending on how powerful the wine is, and, is also subject to how sensitive the taster is to bitter flavours.
The taste buds on our tongue contain taste receptor cells that allow us to perceive sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami flavours. Humans have 25 specific taste receptors for bitterness, as compared to only 2 receptors for salty tastes. However, despite this abundance, many people fail to perceive bitterness. Depending on our genes, our bitter receptors are more or less acute.
Alcohol in wine also has an enormous impact on wine’s texture. We tend to think that wine is something that we smell and taste, but there is also an important tactile component to wine tasting. Some call this “mouthfeel”, how the wine is perceived on the palate (smooth or chalky, thin or thick).
In the case of higher alcohol wines, there is a definite viscosity – an almost syrupy impression that gives weight and roundness to the wine. If you go back to the glass of water vs. vodka mixture and taste them again side by side you will see that the water feels much lighter and leaner on the palate. Wine’s body is, in part, connected to alcohol levels. Dry, lower alcohol wines will feel lighter on the palate than equivalent, higher alcohol versions.
The viscosity of higher alcohol wines also gives a mouth-coating effect that diffuses aromas around the tongue and makes them seem more intense, with greater persistent. They can also feel quite warm on the finish, with very high alcohol wines appearing unpleasantly hot or spirity.
The majority of dry wines are between 12% to 14.5% alcohol. There is no “perfect” amount though. A balanced level of alcohol in wine will depend on many factors, notably the density and structure of a wine. The famous Amarone wines of the Valpolicella area regularly reach 16% alcohol, and generally feel harmonious due to their bold, weighty structure and high levels of dry extract. Conversely, many simple, linear red wines at 13.5% alcohol can feel hot and unbalanced. How we perceive alcohol content also depends on personal taste, tannin levels, acidity, dryness or sweetness, and various other elements of a wine’s make-up.
Consumed in moderation, alcohol in wine has been found to clear fat from the arteries and reduce the blood’s tendency to clot thereby limiting the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and many types of strokes. Most major health organizations, deem 1 to 2 drinks per day (depending on sex, weight, height, etc.) to be moderate. A serving size is measured as 120 to 150mL (4 to 5 ounces) depending on which country’s guidelines you follow
As a parting note, keep in mind that the alcohol level quoted on the label is not necessarily 100% accurate. Eu wineries are allowed a 0.5% leeway up or down in wine alcohol labeling, while the USA permits a full 1% difference. I am always a little suspicious when I see a 14.9% bottle of US wine…Keeping it just shy of 15% seems much lighter, while in reality, the wine could actually be almost 16% alcohol!
So next time you are imbibing, try to think beyond the chill-out factor of alcohol in wine. Taste the sweetness, the bitterness, the viscosity, and the warming sensation on the finish, and you will see how vital alcohol is to shaping wine’s taste and texture.
Studying for the Master of Wine and writing about wine involves lots of…you guessed it…wine tasting! Though you may picture me sipping wine while chatting and nibbling from cheese boards, there is a little more to it. Professional tastings regularly include dozens of wines, which each need to be carefully tasted, analyzed, and noted in the space of 1 – 2 minutes per wine.
This past month, I participated in a professional jury tasting, attended multiple large wine fairs, sat down to a number of intimate, individual winemaker tastings and completed a series of blind tastings.
One of the major factors I consider when analyzing a specific wine is whether – in comparison to wines of similar style, origin, and price – it offers good value for money.
One of the major factors I consider when analyzing a specific wine is whether – in comparison to wines of similar style, origin, and price – it offers good value for money. This is a tricky proposition for various reasons. Firstly, as the criteria for measuring value at a 10$ price vs. 100$ is vastly different.
For entry-level to mid-tier wines (under 20$ CAD), I consider wines good value when they are clean, harmonious, and easy drinking. For premium wines (20 – 50$ CAD), I am looking for a little more personality; at least moderate aromatic complexity, some depth of flavour, and decent balance. Once, we venture into the territory of upper-premium to luxury wines (50$ CAD +), I expect wines to truly shine; ably representing their terroir and vintage, displaying excellent balance, length, intensity, complexity and concentration.
The criteria for measuring value at a 10$ price vs. 100$ is vastly different.
The notion of value is also deeply personal – depending on each person’s tastes and means. I struggle to identify the Burgundy wines that I love so much as being “good value” these days. A recent tasting of De Montille’s 2014 Corton Charlemagne will remain a highlight of my year, but am I willing to shell out 250$ to drink another bottle? Sadly, no…though I highly recommend it for those with spare cash lying around.
The notion of value is also deeply personal – depending on each person’s tastes and means.
The following is a list of my top 10 value wine recommendations that really stood out over the past month of tasting. Drop me a line and tell me what you think! I’d also love to hear about your go-to value wines.
MID-TIER (20$ or less)
Anselmi San Vincenzo 2017, IGT Veneto – 88pts. VW
This is a great white wine to sip while cooking dinner. Roberto Anselmi’s vineyards lie in and around the Soave appellation of northeastern Italy. This easy-drinking, unoaked white is composed of the same major grape – Garganega – as Soave, and vinified in the same way. Attractive citrus, stone fruit and almond notes feature on the nose. Fresh, light-bodied and rounded on the palate, with attractive herbal hints on the dry finish.
Avondale Trust Jonty’s Duck 2016, Paarl, South Africa – 89pts. VW
Organic wine from the Western Cape. Estate proprietor, Johnathan Grieve, is known as ‘Jonty’ around the farm. This wine is named after Jonty’s ducks, who patrol the vineyards destroying snails, which eat the vines. Chenin Blanc dominant blend, with a touch of Roussanne, Viognier, and Semillon. Zesty acidity, earthy nuances, bright citrus and hints of tropical fruit. The palate is medium in body, quite textural, with modest depth, and a clean, lifted finish.
Gabriel Meffre Plan de Dieu « St Mapalis » 2017, Côtes du Rhône Villages, France – 90pts. VW
This Southern Rhône valley vineyard is a flat, sun-drenched plateau featuring the same stony soil as found in Châteauneuf-du-pâpe. This charming red is medium-bodied, with ripe black cherry, plum and raspberry flavours. Velvety in texture with smooth tannins and sufficiently fresh acidity for good balance.
This vibrant, lightly oaked Chardonnay hails from a newly discovered, cool coastal vineyard area of the Rapel Valley in Chile. This new wine range sees quality Chilean producer Viña Echeverría partner with Canadians: Thomas Bachelder (Niagara winemaker) and Steven Campbell of Lifford Wines. Ripe lemon, yellow apple, and subtle pineapple notes feature on the nose and palate. Medium in weight, with lively acidity and delicately creamy texture.
This red is absolute proof that Niagara can make delicious wine at (reasonably) affordable prices. The Twenty Mile Bench consists of sheltered north-facing slopes with excellent air circulation from the lake. This brings moderate temperatures year-round and results in consistent, even ripening. Bright crushed strawberry on the nose. Light in body, with juicy acidity, smooth texture, rounded tannins and lingering red berry fruit on the mellow finish.
Raul Perez Saint Jacques Ultreia Bierzo Mencia 2016 – 92pts. PW
The red wines of Bierzo in northwestern Spain were traditionally light, crisp, and fragrant. There is a current of quality producers who have moved into the area however, with Raul Perez as an undoubted star, that have revolutionized Mencia. This is a great example for a fantastic price. Inviting aromas of black cherry, pepper, and violets are underscored by earthy, savoury notes. Moderately firm on the palate with ripe, chewy tannins that need a little time to unwind. Juicy dark fruit flavours linger on the finish. Harmonious hints of vanilla and spice suggest well-executed, subtle oak ageing.
Château de Maligny Chablis « Vigne de la Reine » 2016 – 89pts. PW
This classically styled Chablis regularly punches above its weight. Restrained orchard fruit notes, mingle with earthy mushroom hints, wet stone and lemon aromas on the nose. The palate offers racy acidity, a light body, taut structure, delicate leesy texture, and bone-dry finish.
Auxey-Duresses is a lesser-known Côte de Beaune village that can be quite lean and tart in cooler vintages. This 2015 from fantastic producer Agnès Paquet is anything but! Elegant cranberry, red cherry, and earthy notes feature on the nose. The palate is crisp, light-bodied and silken in texture with fine-grained tannins and a long, delicately oaked finish. For my palate, this beauty beat out Burgundies at twice the price in a recent tasting.
From vines planted in the higher altitude Rioja Alavesa sub-region, this firmly structured, full-bodied Rioja has really vibrant acidity. Intense and moderately complex, with intriguing orange zest, dark plum, cassis, licorice and crushed raspberry on the nose and palate. Surprisingly youthful, with its deep ruby colour, bright fruit and pronounced tannins. Decant several hours before serving.
Where to buy:LCBO (39.95$). Québec: private import, inquire with agent: Trialto.
LUXURY (50$ +)
Champagne Jeeper Grande Réserve Blanc de Blancs
A surprising, yet memorably named Champagne house that got its moniker from the jeep gifted to the estate’s proprietor by American soldiers following world war two in recognition of his service. This is a rich, opulent style of Champagne, fermented in oak and aged on its lees for 5 years. Toasty, brioche, grilled hazelnut aromas feature on the nose, underscored by hints of ripe lemon and orchard fruit. Zesty acidity and fine bubbles are nicely matched by a concentrated core, creamy texture and brut dosage.
What do experts mean when they praise acidity in wine? Critics regularly enthuse about the racy acid of a German Riesling or the lively, crisp nature of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Why is acidity so important in wine appreciation?
According to tasting expert Michael Schuster in his excellent, Essential Winetasting book: “Acidity shapes and puts into relief the flavours in wine”. Consider a well-made Beaujolais or Burgundian Pinot Noir. The red berry and cherry notes seem to pop on the palate. This is due to the acidity in wine lifting and highlighting the fruit; giving it a juicy, tangy quality.
***Side note: I have also made this blog post into a three minute YouTube video. To watch, just scroll down to the bottom & click play. If you enjoy the video, consider subscribing to my YouTube channel so you never miss an episode of my weekly wine education series.
“Acidity shapes and puts into relief the flavours in wine”.
Acidity is a crucial factor in wine balance. Low acid wines – think cheap Viognier from a hot region – can feel flat and heavy. Sweeter wine styles lacking sufficient acidity are cloying. High alcohol wines, without freshness, appear almost thick on the palate and warming on the finish.
Balance is the ultimate gauge of wine quality. When all components that make up a wine’s character – its flavours, body, acidity, alcohol, dryness/sweetness, tannin, etc. – are in harmony, you may barely even perceive them individually. Rather, they coalesce to form a cohesive whole.
Acidity is a crucial factor in wine balance…though what constitutes balance is entirely personal…
What constitutes balance, when it comes to acidity in wine, is entirely personal however. High acid white wines like Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc can appear pleasant to some, and aggressive to others. The combination of high acidity and a very dry palate (˂2 grams/litre of residual sugar) can appear particularly austere to many tasters. Residual sugar (occurring when fermentation is stopped before transforming all grape sugars into alcohol) can be a good thing for highly acidic wines, softening their sharp edges. It may surprise you how many notoriously high acid, seemingly dry wines are actually slightly sweet. Champagne, Riesling from multiple origins, and many New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc are just a few examples.
The capacity of a wine to age well is also greatly impacted by its acidity; notably when it comes to white wine. Acidity in wine acts like a preservative, significantly slowing down oxidation and playing a role in bacterial stability.
The capacity of a wine to age well is also greatly impacted by its acidity; notably when it comes to white wine.
It might be a little more apparent now why wine writers use so many terms to describe acidity in wine. In case you are wondering how to situate all of these weird and wonderful words on the scale of low to high acidity, I tend to use the following lexicon:
Low acidity: soft, lush, flabby, thick, heavy
Medium acidity: moderate, round
Medium + acidity: fresh, bright, lively, vibrant, brisk
Man Vintners Chenin Blanc Free-run Steen 2017, Western Cape, South Africa – 88pts VW
Attractive notes of yellow fruit are underscored by steely, mineral hints on the nose. Zesty acidity is matched by a taut structure and vibrant, ripe lemon flavours on this light bodied, unoaked Chenin Blanc. Clean and citrussy on the finish. For more on the Chenin Blanc grape, click here.
Not as exuberantly fruit forward as certain Albariños, but very pleasant all the same. Bright floral aromas mingle with candied white fruits (apple, pear, peach). Light in body, this crisp, yet rounded easy-drinking white features tangy orchard fruit flavours and saline hints on the finish. For more on the Spanish grape: Albariño click here and scroll down to the 4th paragraph (on Galicia).
Domaine des Fines Caillottes Pouilly Fumé 2017, Loire Valley, France – 91pts. PW
I liked this so much in a recent blind tasting that I immediately went out to buy another bottle. Drinking very well now despite its youthful vigour, this aromatic Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc is brimming with gooseberry, tropical fruit, and grapefruit notes. Upon aeration herbaceous nuances and hints of oyster shell develop. Bracing acidity is ably balanced by the medium body and expansive palate structure. Bone-dry and unoaked, with a long, lively finish.
Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Turkheim 2016, Alsace, France – 93pts. PW
Fantastic value for the price. Intensely fragrant and complex, with spicy aromas (cinnamon, clove, and star anise) overlaying yellow fruits, white flowers, and wet stone nuances. The medium bodied, earthy palate is lifted by pure, racy acidity and a steely structure. Mineral hints and bright yellow fruis linger on the finish.
This wine is made from the Furmint grape in the Tokaj region of Hungary, better known for their sweet, botrytised Tokaji wines. An incredibly stylish wine with intriguing hints of fennel, anise, and lemon on the nose. Crisp and highly textural on the palate, with medium body and a concentrated core of lemon, quince and orchard fruit. An attractive touch of phenolic bitterness frames the long finish nicely.
I have yet to be disappointed by a wine from this producer. This lovely Mâcon is no exception. Lovely honeysuckle, yellow peach, and stony mineral notes feature on the nose. The palate is brisk, full-bodied and richly textured with good depth of flavour (yellow apple, peach, mango hints). The fruit is tangy and bright on the long, mineral-laced finish.
Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly Cuvée Les Sept Vignes 2016, Beaujolais, France – 91pts PW
I tasted this first at the domaine earlier this summer, and subsequently bought a bottle upon returning home. Firstly, because it was so good. Secondly, because it was the same price at the cellar door and here! This wonderfully lively red features brisk acidity, and juicy red berry, cherry, violet, and spiced flavours. It is medium bodied, with earthy hints from ageing in oak oak foudres, and lovely, velvety tannins. Serve slightly chilled.
I tasted a series of Chianti from this producer recently, including an exquisite 2013 ‘Vignetto Il Poggio” that was pretty darn near perfection in my humble opinion. Sadly, the 99$ price of this wine is a little out of my reach…sigh. For less than half that price, this Chianti Classico Riserva is really fantastic. Enticing aromas of sweet, stewed tomatoes, red cherry, dried herbs, and potpourri feature on the nose. Very fresh on the palate, with a lovely chalky texture, medium body, and spicy, cedar hints. The tannins are still a little firm. Cellar for 2 – 3 years, or serve with red meat to soften the tannins.
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.
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.
In my previous life as a winery sales manager I used to do lots of in-store tastings. They required a lot of standing around, and serving wine in terrible conditions…too warm, in awful little plastic cups, in overly hot or cold stores…not ideal. You do learn a lot about how different cultures around the world relate to wine however.
In the UK, people will taste any time of day. A free sample is a free sample. They won’t necessarily hang around to hear your shtick about the wine and they probably won’t buy a bottle, but they will happily take the proffered glass. Whenever.
French people will take the glass, sniff and swirl, and then proceed to tell you about their cousin so and so who has a vineyard in the Beaujolais, or their buddy in Paris who is a caviste (wine merchant). They want to make sure that you know that they are “connected”, and that you can’t pull the wool over their eyes.
In North America, it all depends on when you are offering. Before 3pm the majority of people will turn down your wine sample with a shocked “I’m driving” or “I’m in the middle of my work day”…as though a thimble full of wine will suddenly turn them into deranged, drunken lunatics. However, come mid-afternoon, the driving stress somehow goes out the window and everyone takes a glass.
…as though a thimble full of wine will suddenly turn them into deranged, drunken lunatics
Business lunches are more of the same. In France, if you go out for a meal, you drink wine. Period. This side of the Atlantic, if people do accept to have a glass of wine before 5pm, they generally feel the need to justify their extraordinary behaviour, along the lines of: “It’s almost Friday” or “It must be six o’clock somewhere”, followed by a nervous chuckle.
This is not to say that North Americans are repressed, or that Europeans are more liberated. It is simply a reflection of wine’s role in different societies. My husband is French. He grew up with wine on the table at every meal. Aside from special occasions, wine was consumed in moderation to slake thirst and punctuate conversation.
Guillaume’s take on wine is one that I wish more people shared. He sees wine as a condiment; something to be used to flavour your food. A seasoning agent, if you will, to be consumed in much the same way as mustard in a sandwich.
He sees wine as a condiment; something to be used to flavour your food.
Wine is increasingly being taken out of context; evalutated on its own and consumed separately from food. The intoxicating effects of wine are overly glorified or demonized, so that many see this as its principal attribute.
But wine is so much more…
One of the many things that sets it apart is its interaction with food. Tannin binds with and softens proteins in meat, intensifying their rich savoury flavours and reducing the astringency of the wine. Acidic sensations from lemon or tomato based dishes can be tempered by pairing with an equally acidic wine. Certain aromas or flavours can be underscored by matching with similarly scented wines.
Olive oil tastes rich and delicious on its own, but sprinkle a pinch of sea salt on it and the flavour comes alive. This is what wine and food can and should be to each other. Just think of the briny tang of oysters washed down with fine Champagne bubbles…
Olive oil tastes rich and delicious on its own, but sprinkle a pinch of sea salt on it and the flavour comes alive. This is what wine and food can and should be to each other.
A number of years ago, my husband and I were in Piedmont for the annual Fiera del Tartufo (truffle festival). The white truffle is one of my all time culinary favourites. There are few flavours out there that can rival this pungently earthy, yet delicately refined taste. The mamma at our guest house overheard our rhapsodising and sent us off truffle hunting with her winemaker neighbour Luigi and his truffle dog. Bilbi proved a valiant beast, quickly unearthing several nuggets of white gold.
What came next was an evening I won’t soon forget.
Luigi took us to his cellar to taste his latest vintage of pleasant yet fairly rustic Grignolino and Barbera wines. Then on to dinner. Luigi’s charming wife had prepared a simple, creamy white risotto. After passing around the plates, she proceeded to shave great mounds of white truffle on each bowl. Luigi brought out his Barbera d’Asti Superiore. What had seemed a fairly ordinary wine in the winery was suddenly transformed. It seemed richer and rounder, with more earthy nuances and brighter fruit. Each bite of risotto called for another sip, and each sip, another bite.
I could recount a hundred tales like this but I’d sooner let you discover this pleasure for yourself. On the menu tonight, caramelized onion and gruyère quiche. I am thinking that a rich, smoky Alsatian Pinot Gris might just do the trick.
I went to a very interesting tasting last Sunday, hosted by the gracious and talented Ontario-based wine writer Natalie Maclean. There were wines from all over the map to taste, over 70 in all. While there were some real stand out bottles on offer, what really struck me were the tasters.
All sorts of ages, styles and backgrounds were represented; lots of sommeliers, writers, product consultants and the like. The idea was to amass a common pool of reviews for the wines, all fed onto Natalie’s website. Idle curiosity got the better of me, as it usually does, and I found myself looking at the scores and comments of my peers after posting my reviews. They could not have been more different. Where one taster found intense, black berry aromas, another found the same wine closed and earthy. One wine deemed fairly light, was called full bodied by another reviewer. A wine slammed with a lowly 80pts was worth 90pts for someone else. Here we were, a pool of experts, with vastly different views. And herein lies the beauty of wine. It’s all very personal and depends on a large number of extenuating circumstances.
And herein lies the beauty of wine. It’s all very personal…
The label – if you have heard good reports on a wine from friends, colleagues, respected reviewers, etc. you will likely approach it in a more favourable light. And vice versa. It is human nature. If you watch a movie that a friend raved about, or that just won a slew of Oscars, you are primed to love it. And this feeling is very hard to overcome. Even if you thought is was painfully bad, you would still try and praise the cinematography or something. Whereas, if the same film was panned, you would have no trouble dismissing it as trite rubbish.
What you just ate or drank – ever tried drinking a glass of wine shortly after a cup of coffee? I bet you didn’t love it. The bitter coffee tannins likely exaggerated the sensation of astringency in the wine. What about a tart, light-bodied Pinot Noir after a big, bold Napa Cab? The second wine likely seemed thin and reedy. The obvious course of action is to ensure your palate is as neutral as possible before starting, and then tasting from lightest to fullest. But when are things ever ideal?
External stimuli & mood– is there an argument going on in the background? Does the lady next to you smell like she bathed in patchouli? Are you in a hurry to beat traffic? All of the craziness going on around you can throw off your focus and lead to snap judgements. Just like your mood. Picture it, Sicily 1922 (I digress…), seriously though, picture your last vacation. The scenery is stunning, you are relaxed and happy, and just loving the sweet, frothy, peachy bubbles served before dinner each evening. So you buy a couple of bottles to take home. And when you try it again in your kitchen, it tastes …sickly sweet, the bubbles fall flat instantly, and the finish is cloying. The holiday romance is over.
Your personal, sensory library – when I was a kid, we used to pick black berries every August at the seaside in England. The smell of fresh, and baked blackberries is highly evocative for me. If I find that singular smell in a wine, I am happy. But someone else’s version of blackberries could be a cheap brand of jam their mother used to buy, and the associated smell would be quite different. All over the world, people’s lexicons of smells are vastly different. Many aromas we identify are unknown to African or Asian drinkers who have not been exposed to the same fruits or spices and so on. And the exotic fruits that they find so easily will not be detected by many of us westerners.
We take an airplane trolley’s worth of baggage with us into each wine tasting without even realizing it.
The list goes on and on. We take an airplane trolley’s worth of baggage with us into each wine tasting without even realizing it. So what’s a novice wine lover looking for a little guidance in the bewildering aisles of the liquor store to do? First of all, trust yourself! If you like it, that’s good enough. Wine is meant to fun. It doesn’t matter if the Wine Spectator didn’t like it. If you poke around the internet long enough you will find another reviewer who does. Second of all, know that we all have personal bias. Even critics that only taste wines blind have styles they prefer. While better tasters can objectively praise a wine they don’t like but recognize is well-made; they will never rave about it in the same way they would a wine they adore. Try as I might, I will rarely score a hugely extracted, teeth staining, overtly fruity red as well as a lighter, more elegant and restrained style. So go forth and sample widely from a range of wine folk and you will end up finding someone that has a similar palate to yours. It’s a bit like finding a favourite author. You know that when you curl up with their latest book, you’ll probably like it. Now try settling in with the book AND the glass of wine…heaven!