Category Archives: Tasting Wine

The Life of a Wine Educator

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WSET tastingThis shows just a small selection of the wines I tasted one day earlier this week, as part of a class I was running for a group of students – a couple of enthusiastic amateurs but mainly people already working in the wine industry (in hotels, restaurants or wine shops) – who wanted to further their careers by studying for professional qualifications via the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).

They had reached  Level 3 of their study (Level 4 – the Wine Diploma – is the highest WSET course only topped by Master of Wine, of whom there are just a few hundred in the world).  The Level 3 stage is when the class focuses on the question ‘what makes this wine taste as it does?’  That sounds quite simple but, at this fairly advanced point of their journey, it is anything but – for me, also, at times, as their enthusiastic questioning often challenges my knowledge!

As we consider the question, we look at the vineyard – its soil, its slope, the climate, how good is its exposure to the sun – and the decisions taken by the grower – whether to go for quality or quantity and, perhaps most important of all: when to harvest the crop for optimum ripeness.

Then, there’s what happens in the winery: are you going to ferment with whole bunches, grapes only or carbonic maceration – explaining that one is always challenging (I’ll leave it for another day, but you can Google it if you’re interested!).  Also, are oak barrels used to hold the wine or stainless steel?  And how long is the wine kept before it is bottled and shipped out?

And all this while tasting (and spitting out, of course!) more than 20 wines.  Just another day in the life of a wine educator – or student!

Happily, not all the classes I teach are this detailed or aimed at would-be professionals.  For those who enjoy a glass of wine but simply want to learn a little more, I also run regular 1 day events at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre.  The next one, “Anything but Chardonnay, Anything but Cabernet” is on Saturday 17 November.  Places are still available, but it is booking up fast.  Go to www.bristolcourses.com for more details and to book. 

I hope to meet some of you there.

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No Bad Wines?

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SL Supermkt 1“You never say anything bad about a wine on your blog” commented a friend recently.  “Does that mean you never open a bottle that was truly awful?”

It’s a good question but, thinking about it, I can’t recall the last really poor wine I tasted.  I have, of course, opened faulty bottles, which isn’t the same thing at all: bottles can be corked or oxidised or display some other characteristic that means that the wine doesn’t taste how the winemaker intended it to taste.  Faulty bottles can occur in any number of ways – bad batches of corks or poor storage, for example – but that doesn’t mean it’s a poor wine; another bottle of the same bought at a different time might be delicious and so it would be unfair to blog about the bad one.

But, back to the question about truly awful wines.  This is a bit more subjective but, taking the standard as one that was so badly made or unpleasant tasting as to be almost undrinkable, I really can’t remember the last time I met a wine like that.  Admittedly, I’ve opened some that had very little character (and so didn’t blog about them as there wasn’t anything interesting to say!), but even those, in the main, were correctly made and not unpleasant to drink, simply rather bland.  Incidentally, some that fall into this category are among the best-selling brands on the UK supermarkets’ shelves!

Things weren’t always as good as this; turn the clock back to when I first started appreciating the wine I was drinking and I often found bottles that were only fit for pouring down the sink.  Maybe such wines are still made but the fact that they almost never reach our shelves is down to the skill of the professional wine buyers who visit growers on behalf of the major supermarkets, high street wine chains or wholesalers.  They are the people who weed out the rubbish and ensure that, although there may be the odd faulty bottle or wine that isn’t to our taste, we rarely open one that is truly awful.

 

 

 

What Kind of Chardonnay?

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ChardonnayAsk many wine lovers to name their favourite white wine grape and they will reply unhesitatingly ‘Chardonnay’.  Yet, you’ll also find plenty who take precisely the opposite view; so much so that I have been persuaded to run an ‘Anything but Chardonnay’ course at Stoke Lodge Centre next spring.  So, why the extreme difference of views?

The answer is simple: Chardonnay is so versatile in where it grows and so amenable to different treatments in the winery that you can fairly say that no two examples are the same. 

Taste Chardonnay from a cool climate, like Chablis for example, and you get crisp, citrus or green apple flavours.  A little warmer, perhaps around Pouilly Fuissé, and that turns into ripe pear or peach.  Further south in France or in parts of Australia and California that are warmer still will give quite tropical flavours – pineapple or melon. 

And all that variety before the winemaker gets to work.  Chardonnay is quite a favourite with winemakers as they often see it as a blank canvas, ready to be manipulated into just the sort of wine that they, or their customers, want.  For example, they can put it through malolactic fermentation (a process that softens the harsher acids and creates a creamy, buttery texture) or they can leave the wine on the lees for a while to add richness or, then again, they can use oak barrels – new or older – to add woody, spicy flavours.  And, of course, they can put it through a 2nd fermentation and make Champagne or sparkling wine.

Or, they can do none of these; ferment and mature in stainless steel tanks and simply let the delicious, ripe fruit shine through. 

Vire ClessePierre Ponnelle’s Viré Clessé from southern Burgundy (Majestic, £13.99) is a perfect example of this ‘less is more’ approach.  Delightfully fresh and clean with attractive citrus and peach flavours; no oak, just very pure fruit and excellent length. 

I’d recommend it to Chardonnay lovers and haters alike – but, as you’ve seen, it’s just one of many possible styles of wine from this most versatile of all grapes.  If this one isn’t to your taste, don’t give up on the variety, just keep looking.