Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tasting for Style and Quality

Identifying wine aromatics are important for tasting, as is honing in on its structure. Tasting for the MW, however, I’ve noticed I’ve had to add ‘tasting for style’ to my repertoire. The quality assessment is a key component of the Practical exams, usually worth even more points than absolute identification of the wine, so I pulled three styles of dry wine this morning in order to reflect on styles and quality of wine.

Frascati and Muscadet
Frascati is made in central Italy from Malvasia and Trebbiano, two of the most neutral grapes I know. Malvasia generally has higher ripeness and a fuller body, so blending with the higher acid Trebbiano makes for a pleasant wine. I thought this Frascati had an awful lot of aromatics (I probably shouldn’t have picked a Frascati ‘Superiore’, which I am guessing is a Frascati higher in alcohol, so will have higher aromatics). Starting with the Frascati, like I said there were more aromatics than I thought there would be. It was nearly tropical, indicating a warmer climate. The acid seemed to be high until I tasted the Muscadet. While still writing down components to a traditional tasting note, I concluded that the Frascati was a soft and refreshing wine and its relative neutrality on the palate would make it an excellent aperitif.

Muscadet always smells musty – nearly corked - to me. I believe that to be the lees talking. Aromatically, this wine was even more neutral, though I did get that pure lemon aroma and flavor. There was a bit of CO2 prickle on the tongue and really mouthwatering acid. My personal preference says this is not a very pleasant drink, but I could imagine it being a lovely mignonette for oysters.

Here was the step up in style and quality (by design). A darker color suggesting more ripeness and/or extract, and textbook Gewürztraminer aromatics easily jumping from the glass: perfume, perfume, perfume, plus a little tropical note. The palate was softer and much fuller in body, which allowed for a longer finished compared to the two above. It also seemed slightly off-dry, a little more red apple (so again, ripe), and even had a little spiciness/bitterness on the finish.

Going from the Gewürztraminer back to the Frascati and Muscadet not only highlighted the more ‘noble’ nature of the Gewürztraminer grape, but also the higher quality: Gewürztraminer had a longer length that was layers and layers of tropical fruits and spices. It probably helped somewhat that, by design, the Francasti and Muscadet retail for around $13 and the Gewürztraminer was $22.

Maybe Too Easy
The tasting was designed to focus on different style and quality levels and that was definitely achieved. It was helpful to go about this tasting with the intention of quieting my analytical mind and focusing on the quality and the setting that such a wine of this style would be served. Next up will be a look at terroir and quality.

The wines:

* Borgo del Cedro Frascati Superiore 2010 $13.50, 13.5% abv

* Hautes Noelles (Serge Batard) Muscadet Sur Lie 2010 $13, 12% abv

* Paul Blanck Gewurztraminer 'Classique' 2010 $22.50 (for 750ml), 14% abv

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Wine Basic Tastes and Structure

I’m terrified by the Practical in the Master of Wine exams, which is another way of saying I suck at blind tasting. I did about average (for me) in my tasting group this week, but I was disappointed and how little structural components I could get out of each glass. So I've prepared several mixtures to look at some of the basic structures that make up wines: sugar, acid, and alcohol.

I had three empty and cleaned wine bottles. For sugar I dissolved 3T in water then diluted it up to a 750ml. I used the juice of two lemons for acid and diluted it up to 750ml. And alcohol was represented by a half of a small bottle of vodka diluted to 750ml (so about an 11-12% abv solution).


Sweetness: I was surprised to learn that sweetness, something I always looked for on the tip of my tongue as that’s what everyone says, wasn’t found there for me. Turns out I register sweetness on the back of my palate by my molars, though really the sensation washes over everything.

Acid: This is a very localized sensation on the sides of the tongue extending into the cheeks. And there’s also that unmistakable mouthwatering sensation that hits with acid. I heart acid.

Alcohol: This one is complicated. I definitely taste a bitterness (like almond skins?) towards the back of my palate, but I don’t get the ‘sweetness’ that many folks talk about with alcohol. I added another splash of vodka directly to my glass and that just made me gag. Texture-wise, alcohol certainly has ‘weight’, especially if you swish with water first to immediately compare. And it spreads around, i.e., it is not super-concentrated on any part of the tongue. But at the moment, I think I need to look for that bitterness to indicate higher alcohol levels.

Balance of Components

Acid/Alcohol (50/50): I suppose this showcased that elusive sweetness in alcohol. The mouthwatering nature of the acid was blunted by the alcohol mix, though possibly also by sheer dilution.

Sugar/Alcohol (50/50): Ok, unlike the last blend, this one showed no dilution of sugar, therefore the alcohol base does exhibit sweetness. Just not overtly. To me. The blend allowed the sweetness to wash over my palate (courtesy of alcohol) and when I immediately compared it to the sugar base, I was back to localized sweetness. Interesting.

Sugar/Acid (50/50): This is why good wine is so cool. Both the sugar and the acid were present and you could shift your attention back and forth between them. Balance defined.

Sugar/Acid/Alcohol (one third each): A crude version of wine. The acid made my mouth water and was tempered by the sugar, which was spread around by the alcohol. Otherwise, the flavor was disgusting.

More Practice is Needed

My solutions were pretty primitive for this exercise. I’ve dusted off my old copy of Baldy’s The University Wine Course, and in addition to my regular tastings, will try to get through the tastings presented in Schuster’s Essential Winetasting (which has been the inspiration of today’s exercise). At a minimum, I'm ready to pay a lot more attention to structures.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Master of Wine MYC Course Day


I have a lot of work to do.

I’m grateful to have the opportunity to attend the NYC course day as it re-motivated me in my studies. While collaboration with other students and mentors are essential to getting through the program, the Master of Wine journey is largely a solo effort. And a chance for feedback while I’m still in the beginning stages of my journey has been really eye-opening.

The morning was spent tasting and really understanding how to make sure every observation you make about a wine actually concludes something that adds to your argument. Benjamin Lewin and Christy Canterbury totally made sense as the words came out, but my immediate execution was terrible.

We did a mock exam of nine wines. I added “hang myself” to my growing to do list. In fact, my tasting skills are so poor that instead of the dreaded running out of time, I finished early since I had nothing else to say. My book wine knowledge (especially when you leave France) is really weak (for example…ok, this Pinot Noir is probably from New Zealand...but not ripe enough for Central Otago…so…shoot, remind me where else they make Pinot down there?) Seriously.

The good news is I largely already have this information from my Diploma Unit 3 days. I just have to actually...ya know...learn it.

And practice. Writing for any length of time over three minutes hurts. And the tasting portion is writing for over two hours. And focus. Feeding the jukebox at Coyote Ugly until 2am the night before is probably not something I would do on exam day. That didn't help my focus.

Anyway, we then spent the afternoon on theory, and I felt better about that. We individually made outlines on a few questions and then discussed. Benjamin and Christy also pulled out a few past exam questions to illustrate how many questions appear again and again, and asked us to think about how we might change our outline in each scenario. Brilliant.

Overall, amazingly helpful, and I’m glad I can focus my studies with a little more precision and a lot more motivation before attending the residency in Napa. And harakiri thoughts aside, I really am excited to be in the program.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Playing for keeps

So it's official. While they haven't run my credit card for the full $3,550 in first year fees (and yes, I'm checking my Visa balance several times a day), I received an email that says I have been accepted as a first year candidate for the Master of Wine program (programme, if you’re British).

As promised, you can read my application essay below. I hope these will get easier in the future.

I have been trying to 'study' a little since I sent in my application in August, though without a mentor (should be assigned this week) or any other solid direction, I have just been taking terms from the syllabus, defining them, and writing down some relevant points including positives, negatives, and any controversies. Since you could be revising a topic like "oxygen" for months, at this point I have limited my sources to:

* The Oxford Companion to Wine edited by Jancis Robinson
* Understanding Wine Technology by David Bird
* Viticulture - An Introduction to Commercial Grape Growing for Wine Production by Stephen Skelton
* My old WSET Diploma study guides (great summary tables!)

So I have a solid start to papers 1 and 2 (viti/vini). I still don't have many real-world examples to support arguments or whatnot, but now that a skeleton is in place, I will be talking and researching to fill in those examples while I really understand the wine world and actually start revising old exam essays.

In order to dig into the controversies a little more, I'm reading Malcolm Gluck's "The Great Wine Swindle" and Michael Veseth's "Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, The Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists" and incorporating those into notes as they fit. I've got a few other books to reference for general myth-busting or just to generally make sure I understand all the issues going on in the wine business that I just may take for granted as 'that's just the way it is'.

The good news is that there is a Fall Course Day in New York next Monday, so I should have a better sense of how to spend my study time after that.

Yes, I have gotten lazy/broke and have not been doing much in the way of focused tastings as of late. I expect to get more guidance on this front at the Course Day as well.

In the meantime, I'm going to break into some vintage bubbly and you can ready what I had to say about "Examine the principal factors within the direct control of the vineyard manager which affect the quality of the grapes". Enjoy!


Quality grapes are the starting point for quality wine, and the cliché that wine is made in the vineyard is true. There are several factors that a vineyard manager can control directly to impact the quality of the grapes produced -- including soil preparations, treatments to the vine and canopy throughout the growing season, and, most importantly, measures relating to the harvest. To achieve quality fruit, the vineyard manager will be looking to make decisions (in a given existing vineyard) that will produce grapes that will reach their full phenolic maturity (for the style of wine they wish to make) and are free from rot and disease.

:: Soils ::
Starting at the ground level, the proper amount of moisture in the soil is an essential input photosynthesis and helping the grapes reach maturity. In areas where it is legal to do so, a drip irrigation system will help when Mother Nature is not. Once an irrigation system is established, several programs to give the grapes the minimal amount of moisture to survive should be employed, including reduced deficit irrigation (where water is only applied when needed, as measured by the moisture content in the leaves of the vine), and partial rootzone drying (where only one side of the vine (and thus roots)) are watered. Etude winery in California employs the former irrigation strategy, which they believe contributes significantly to the quality of grapes that they produce.

Management of weeds is important to grape quality, particularly in younger vines whose more shallow root systems would have to compete with the weeds. While helpful to protect against erosion, younger vines might benefit from not having to compete with weeds for water and nutrients while producing grapes.

:: Vine ::
The manipulations to a vine are key to producing quality grapes. Pruning not only helps to maintain the size and shape of a vine, but pruning back unnecessary vegetative growth will have a positive impact on energy that the plant puts into growing the grapes. Related to pruning, the management of the overall canopy is also key to allow proper air circulation and sunshine (or not) to reach the grapes during the growing season. For example, the vines at Chateau Beausejour in Montagne-St-Emilion are regularly trimmed throughout the season to keep vine vigour in check, and once verasion is taking place in the vineyard, they employ ‘leaf pulling’, where leaves are pulled away from the shading the fruit zone, allowing as much sunshine as possible to reach the grapes and help them reach maturity. Having a trained and available workforce to carry out these individual tasks throughout the growing season is a consideration that will have an impact on your budget for the type of wine you are making.

Along with pruning and canopy management, the training of the vine that is appropriate for the varietal is important. Many training systems (particular those that are spur-trained) include permanent wood that would not be easy for a vineyard manager to change season-to-season, but whatever the existing shape of permanent wood, training the vine to open up the canopy (i.e., maximize the air circulation and sunshine or shade) will help to allow work to be done more easily in the vineyard and reduce rot in more humid areas.

Winter pruning will also directly impact the yield of the vine during the following growing seasons and should be employed with care. Winter pruning entails not only cutting away the prior year’s growth, but also selecting how many buds will remain for the following years’ growth. This has a direct impact on yield and thus, a direct impact on quality.

Finally, in relation to the vine, it bears to mention where time and finances allow, grafting an appropriate clone for the given climate (and macro-climate) in a vineyard would also enhance the quality of the grapes.

:: Harvesting Options ::
The most important decision a vineyard manager (and winemaker) makes all year is when to harvest the grapes and is everything to achieving the quality level in grapes that is needed. Finding the right moment when sugars, acid, and tannins are in balance is important, as well as how the fruit is harvested. Where it is practical, machine harvesting would increase quality to the extent that a large vineyard area can be picked in a relative short period of time. This would be especially important where coming rains threaten the crop. Note, however, that the vineyard needs to be specially spaced and on a relative flat land in order to use machine harvesting. On the other hand, hand-harvesting would be ideal for helping to separate the best fruit from damaged or less ripe fruit. This is clearly a more expensive option for harvesting, but if the budget will allow for it, you can train workers to help bring in the fruit as unblemished as possible. Sometimes, as in the steep terraces of the Mosel that Weingut Leitz works, hand-harvesting is the only option.

Employing a sorting table at the winery would also help to choose the best grapes to increase quality of your wine, though the vineyard manager would be more responsible for harvesting the fruit out of the vineyard.

:: Conclusion ::
There are many decisions a vineyard manager must make in order to grow grapes at a specified level of quality. From the soils, to vine and canopy management, and especially harvesting timing and options, a vineyard manager has to think through and choose each method according to the budget and style (and quality) of the wine that they are going to make.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The waiting begins...

I hope I’m not jinxing myself, but I send the application and Fedex said it was delivered in time last week. My essay was: "Examine the principal factors within the direct control of the vineyard manager which affect the quality of the grapes produced." In classic MW style, the question seems quite simple, but it really taxed my knowledge-retrieval and imagination to put something logical on paper. And at that, a week later I’m still remembering relevant things I could have included. Frustrating.

I’ll post my essay after I find out whether they will let me in or not (judging from prior years, I should know by early October. They implemented a rolling-application essay topic schedule, but I don’t know if that will impact when decisions go out).

In the meantime, back to revisions. Wish me luck!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Varietal(-ish) focus: Châteauneuf-du-Pape blends

Question: can a group of $30-ish Châteauneuf-du-Pape-inspired blends from around the world distinguish themselves?

Massena ‘Moonlight Run’ 2006 (Barossa Valley) $27, 14.5% abv

Composed of 54% Grenache, 24% Shiraz, 16% Mataro (Mourvèdre), and 6% Cinsault all from vineyards that range in age from 85-150 years old. Each parcel is fermented and aged separately before final blend is made, then it is aged for 18 months in seasoned French oak (old hogsheads).

Deep ruby with a bit of an alcohol white rim. The whiff of sweet perfume is what stood out on the nose. At first I guessed sweet oak, but as they age in old French hogshead, I’m now guessing the perfume of Mourvèdre was showing itself. Very curious. Alcohol was more apparent on the palate, and it clashed with the acid right away before the acid disappeared and I could get to the fruit bits (which were ripe dark fruits). Tannins were well-integrated in the mix and velvety. The finish was on the long side and was a thick, lovely layer of juicy dark fruits. And I swear vanilla!

Bonny Doon Vineyards ‘Le Cigare Volant’ 2006 (California) $33, 13.3% abv

Always amusing to read the ingredient labels of Bonny Doon wines. This is made from 43.6% Syrah, 43.5% Grenache, 11.7% Cinsault, 1.1% Mourvèdre, and 0.1% Carnignane. Also used in the winemaking process was untoasted oak chips and French oak barrels.

This was the most saturated in color, nearly to the rim. The Bonny Doon exhibited the same dark fruit aromas, but this one had a slight more ‘funk’ to it and a touch of floral. I’m guessing that’s because this wine had the highest concentration of syrah, a rather unstable fellow, and one that shows off something like Brett more readily. It added to the complexity of the nose. There was a faint trace of vanilla oak.

Body, acid and alcohol were all balanced together at about a medium intensity. The tannins were medium+ and suede-like. The dark fruit on the palate was softer (less sour). The finish was medium and made of tannins and a bit of fruit.

Domaine St. Gayan 2006 (Gigondas) $28, 14.5% abv

I chose the Gigondas as my French ‘Châteauneuf-du-Pape’ so the price point would be in line with the others. I guess I should have kept looking since this is more of a traditional Côtes du Rhône blend, but whatever. It’s made from 75% Grenache, 15% Syrah, and 5% Mourvèdre from vines with an average age of 55 years (some of the Grenache vines are over 100 years old). It goes through a typical long fermentation in neutral tanks and then spends a year in old foudres.

Lightest in color of this group (medium- ruby with alcohol rim). Also the most subdued in aromas and much more earthiness (dry dirt) and dark fruits (plums and black cherries). It was dark. I could also smell alcohol. The palate had medium+ acid and medium+ alcohol which eventually gave way to sour dark fruits. The last observation points me directly to the old world. Tannins were fine-grained (but ‘square’…rocky soils?) and medium+ intensity. Finish was all sour dark fruits lifted along with the tannins.

PS – I visited this estate in early July. The picture on the label is what it actually looks like there. No kidding. Well, except when you’re actually there it’s in color.


The old world version stood out immediate with its sour dark fruit profile. In a blind situation, I would have probably questioned the alcohol as a marker, but we’re talking about the Southern Rhône here. It was also the least extracted of the bunch.

Then again, going back to my first point above, perhaps if I actually found a Châteauneuf-du-Pape instead of the Gigondas, would my results have been different? Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be pretty ripe too.

The riper fruit profiles of the last two clearly landed me in the new world. I’m not entirely sure that the luxuriously velvet tannins of the Massena would have helped me to get to Australia (note to self: time to do a Grenache varietal focus). Nor did the lower alcohol in the Bonny Doon tell me that it was from California. The Bonny Doon spoke mostly about its cepage (being higher in Syrah…and I believe that Grenache is generally higher in alcohol than Syrah, so being higher in Syrah helped to lead to lower alcohol).

Another damn tasting where I’m not sure I gained much. It might be the design. And it might be the end user. Hhhmmm…

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Winery Profile: Channing Daughters

Ta da!

Channing Daughters is probably my favorite winery on the east end of Long Island and not just because winemaker Christopher Tracy is an MW candidate. The range of styles the winery offers is exciting and delicious. The east end of Long Island has producing wine for over 35 years now, and while some styles of wine are starting to establish themselves (I love the local Sauvignon Blancs and Cabernet Francs), I appreciate that the team at Channing Daughters is really pushing the envelope. They’ve planted a number of atypical varietals and make wines ranging from the typical fruit-driven & refreshing to single-varietal rosés (including one from Refosco), skin-fermented whites, ripasso reds, orange wines, and even a Madeira-style Merlot dessert wine!

I was captivated while interviewing winemaker Christopher Tracy and soil scientist Larry Perrine, and I highly recommend a visit to Channing Daughters if you ever find yourself in the Hamptons.

This article was published in the January 2011 issue of Sommelier Journal. Better late than never.