Category Archives: wine appreciation

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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Acidity: Good or Bad?

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Tahbilk Viognier Alsace Gewurz Faustino 1

‘Lemony’, ‘citrussy’, ‘refreshing’, ‘clean’: you often see these words in descriptions of wine.  What they’re really saying is that the wine has plenty of acidity, but in a good way.  And, so long as the acidity doesn’t dominate and is in balance with the rest of the flavours, I’d generally agree that some acidity in a wine is a positive.  It can make the wine more refreshing and attractive on the palate and it can also help make it more food-friendly by cutting through any richness or greasiness in a dish.  But a few people – including a very good friend of ours – are particularly sensitive to acidity and my ‘lemony-freshness’ becomes their ‘tart and shudderingly unpleasant’.  As a result, they need to choose their wine very carefully.

Wines made from certain grapes tend to be naturally more acidic than others: famous varieties Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon all fall into this category.  So, despite their attractions for the rest of us, acidity-haters should concentrate their attention elsewhere.  But it’s not just the grape variety that’s important: as grapes ripen, the level of sugar in them increases but the level of acidity decreases, so wines from warmer regions of the world, where the grapes are likely to be riper, will, in general, be less acidic than those from cooler climates.  Those are two useful factors to bear in mind but, as with much in the wine world, things are not as simple as that:  some producers actually add acidity during the winemaking process – it’s quite legal and they would argue that they’re just compensating for what would otherwise be an unbalanced wine.

So, where should those who dislike acidity look?  The pictures above suggest a few good places to start: for white wines, Gewurztraminer, Viognier and Semillon are all varieties that are naturally quite low in acidity while, for reds, Tempranillo – the main Rioja grape – or Grenache – a key player in many Côtes du Rhônes, are the same.  And, watch out for wines made by less interventionist winemakers, as they are less likely to have acidity added.

But, most of all, taste widely and, if you find wines that suit your palate, stick with them.

 

Drinking by Numbers?

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Before my wife commented on it being an ‘adult’ wine (see previous Bristol Wine Blog), I was already thinking about a blog based on the same Argentinian Malbec but from a completely different point of view.  I was looking at the big figure ‘90’ on the capsule with the words ‘Robert Parker Wine Advocate’ underneath. 

Parker 90 ptsThe significance, as many reading this will already know, is that, for more than 30 years, Parker and his publication, The Wine Advocate, have been just about the most influential wine critics on the planet.  A favourable review and, in particular a score of 90 or more (out of 100) almost always guarantees a wine’s commercial success.  No wonder that a number of major producers across the world have said that they have deliberately changed the style of their wines to attract a high score and so more customers.

Sadly, high scores often mean high prices, too, but that’s not the only reason you might think twice about buying one of Parker’s recommendations.  How often has a friend or a newspaper critic recommended a movie or a restaurant that they’ve loved but, for you, proved a disappointment?  Well, it’s just the same with wine.  Although most of the recent reviews have been carried out by a group of tasters rather than by the man himself, (which should minimise the effect of an individual’s preferences), there is still no guarantee that you will like the same style of wine as the reviewer.  And, when was the review written?  Several weeks (or even months) may have passed during which the wine itself will have changed – either improving or, perhaps, going past its best. 

Finding a wine you will like is more than simply following numbers.  As Parker himself has often said, the scores should only be used to enhance and complement his detailed tasting notes – but how many read those?  And how many just look at a big figure and follow it?

 

 

Love Chablis, Hate Chardonnay!

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Chablis“Love Chablis; hate Chardonnay”. How many times have I heard that said – or, indeed, the reverse? It’s a comment that needs to be answered carefully because, as many Bristol Wine Blog readers will know, all wines from the Burgundy district of Chablis and claiming that designation must be made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. But it’s clear from the statement that many people buying wine don’t know that.

And, in a way, their comment is understandable. Chablis is a very particular expression of Chardonnay, a grape which makes wines that vary enormously in flavour depending on where it’s grown and what happens to it in the winery.

So, in a coolish climate, Chardonnay produces wines such as the Domaine Louis Moreau Chablis which we enjoyed with a friend recently – clean, fresh and minerally with attractive green apple flavours – whereas in the hottest parts of California or Australia, the much riper grapes give much fuller, richer, more alcoholic wines tasting of tropical fruits, pineapple and the like.

And winemakers love working with Chardonnay as it is a good base on which they can impose their individual style and preferences, especially when it comes to using – or not using – oak. Fermenting or maturing wine in oak barrels, particularly if the barrels are new, adds a completely different dimension to the wine with spicy, nutty flavours either overlaying or replacing the natural flavours of the fruit.

As a result, someone liking the delightfully refreshing 12% alcohol Chablis mentioned above might not appreciate a wine like the rich, creamy Saintsbury Chardonnay from Carneros in California (Majestic, £13.99 if you buy 2 bottles) with its subtle toasty oak character and the full flavour and weight that comes from a warmer climate and 13.5% alcohol. For me, both are good, yet, there is nothing that obviously says that they both come from the same grape variety.

Given that, I can understand why some people can say they love Chablis, but hate Chardonnay – but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with as a Wine Educator when faced with the comment!

Wine Glass Almost Empty!

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Glass almost emptyAn almost empty wine glass – not the way I usually head my Bristol Wine Blog! – but that was my first thought when I read recent newspaper reports that a global wine shortage is in prospect.

Research carried out by Morgan Stanley suggests that wine lovers worldwide will soon be drinking more wine each year than is produced, resulting in shortages. They blame increased wine consumption, particularly in China and the United States, coupled with some poor harvests in several of the major wine producing countries in 2012 and 2013.

Just 10 years ago, things were very different. Over 7000 million bottles of wine a year were remaining unsold. Not surprisingly, producers cut back in an attempt to shift their surplus stock and some growers would have decided that their vineyards just weren’t economic any longer. As a result, output fell by almost 10% – and that was before the poor weather that has reduced crops in many parts of Europe this year and last.

At the same time, demand for wine in China has risen at a remarkable rate, quadrupling in just the last 5 years (albeit from quite a low starting point) – a trend that is almost certain to continue. And in the United States, too, wine drinking is becoming much more widespread.

But, read on! Things are not as bad as the headline would lead you to believe – are they ever?

There may be a few short-term problems as the historic surpluses disappear and we depend more on wines from the 2012 and 2013 vintages; prices are almost certain to rise a little. But those two poor years are very much the exception. If the weather in 2014 is better and normal levels of production resume across Europe and countries like South Africa and Chile continue to plant new vineyards, we’ll very soon forget any talk of a shortage.

And I’ve only mentioned China in terms of the population consuming rapidly increasing amounts of wine. The country is also becoming a very significant producer. Indeed from almost nothing 20 years ago, China is now thought to be No5 in the world. Not much is seen outside China yet, but, within the next few years, I expect that to change.

So, yes, we may find some of our favourite wines missing from the shelves for a little while; personally, I’d take that as an opportunity to try something different. But longer term, I see a rosier picture: my wine glass being half full – at least!

Nasty, smelly wine!

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Ians mugshotYou open a bottle of wine and instead of the lovely, fresh appealing aromas you were hoping for, a nasty smell hits your nose. Something is obviously wrong, but what? – and what, if anything, can you do about it?

It depends on the smell. Perhaps the most likely is a musty, mouldy smell. This suggests a ‘corked’ wine. Corked wine is nothing to do with bits of cork floating about in the glass, which are harmless (take them out with a spoon or your finger and be more careful opening the bottle next time) – but is the result of a problem in the cork production process which has tainted the cork, which, in turn, has spoiled the wine. Nothing you can do except take the bottle back for a replacement or refund.

Another possibility is the wine might smell a bit like sherry or vinegar and a white wine might also be an unduly dark colour. This wine is oxidised – oxygen will, somehow, have got into the bottle and ruined the wine. This happens at times with plastic bottle stoppers that don’t fit properly or with poor corks or poor storage and, again, there’s no remedy – just take it back for a refund.

The opposite of oxidation – where too little oxygen is present can also be a fault. It is usually called ‘reduction’ (and that’s a useful shorthand, although I know that some scientists think the term is misleading). Reduction is most often – but not exclusively – found in screw-capped bottles and shows in a number of ways: smells of sewage, manure or rotten eggs are common. Happily, this problem is not always terminal; introducing some oxygen to the wine by, for example, decanting or simply leaving it in the glass for a few minutes, can revive the wine but, if it doesn’t, your remedy is as before.

There are other faults that are less common, but sometimes even wines in good condition can have unusual and unpleasant smells; one winemaker used to say that “good Burgundy smells like s**t!” So, how can you tell if there’s a problem? Perhaps, only by experience, and, in fact, even experts often argue whether certain smells represent a fault or are a characteristic of the style of wine.

I should say that none of the faults I have mentioned would actually harm you if you drank the wine. But you wouldn’t enjoy it, so my advice is, if you’re unhappy with how a wine smells, then reject it. Most wine waiters, wine merchants and supermarkets are keen to please their customers and will usually exchange or refund quite willingly. But you do need to ask – and sometimes be persistent!

Sotanum – a Roman wine reborn

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Look at most maps of France’s vineyards and they will show a vine-free area between the southernmost tip of Beaujolais and the first of the Northern Rhône Appellations, the Côte Rôtie. Part of that gap is taken up by the town (and gastronomic paradise) of Lyon, but, still, the complete absence of vines is difficult to explain.

It wasn’t always like that. Indeed, in Roman times, contemporary writings note that the vineyards of this area, on the hills overlooking the small town of Vienne, were highly regarded. Black grapes, known as Vitis allobrogica (the ancestor of Syrah, or Pinot Noir, perhaps?) were grown here and 3 wines, Sotanum, Taburnum and Heluicum were made, each from particular vineyards.

And, although these names died out, vines continued to grow here and wine was made from them until the middle of the 19th century when disaster, in the form of a tiny vine-root eating aphid, phylloxera, wiped out these and many other vineyards across Europe and beyond.

Many vineyards were replanted in the early part of the 20th century, but these weren’t and remained abandoned and ignored – until 1996, when a group of 3 growers from a few miles further south, got together to revive winemaking in this area. About 25 acres of Syrah vines were planted. Les Vins de Vienne were born. And, to celebrate the revival, one of the ancient names, Sotanum, was used for the modern wine.

I recently had the opportunity to taste a bottle from the year 2000. This was only the second vintage made after the replanting and the vines were still very young – only 4 years old. Often vines won’t produce their best fruit until they’ve been established for 10 – 15 years, at least. But, in this case, the vines had produced a wine that was delicious and full of flavour. It had matured magnificently in the 11 years since harvest – smooth and rich, but not heavy and a perfect accompaniment to some pan-fried venison steaks.

A lovely wine and a piece of history. I look forward to tasting a more recent vintage which should show even more complexity as the vines establish themselves. Now, all we need is for the wine maps to be corrected.