Category Archives: wine tasting

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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Have Some Madeira

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“How many wines do you drink in a year?” a friend asked me recently.  I had to confess that I had no idea.  But, thinking about wines that I taste – at events or courses I run or at tastings organised by others – as well as those we drink at home or when we go out to friends or restaurants, I’m sure the number runs into hundreds.  But that’s still only a guess.  So, I’ve decided to try and count them this year!  Watch this space!

The figure is starting to tick up rapidly.  With just 8 days of the year behind us, my wine count already stood at 16, although half of that number was due to a fascinating tasting of ports and Madeiras organised by the Bristol Tasting Circle last week.

The ports were lovely, particularly a 20 year old Fonseca Tawny, but it was the rare chance to taste high quality examples of Madeira’s 4 noble grape varieties together that was the highlight of the evening.

MadeiraFirst was the Sercial, the driest style.  Henriques and Henriques 15 year old, with its attractive almond aromas and tangy, clean palate, would make a perfect aperitif as, indeed, would the next wine tasted, the Verdelho.  More medium dry than dry and a little richer than the Sercial, this still has Madeira’s characteristic acidity but with an attractive smoky edge.

Richer still and decidedly sweet was the Boal (sometimes spelt ‘Bual’) – flavours of raisins, nuts and caramel dominated and a finish that could be measured in minutes rather than seconds – perhaps my own personal favourite.  And then finally there was the wonderfully rich and luscious Malvasia (sometimes labelled ‘Malmsey’) with its palate of figs, prunes, walnuts and caramel; a dessert wine capable of matching the most intense of puddings – or why not just drink it on its own instead?

A word of caution: you’ll sometimes see bottles of Madeira labelled simply with generic terms such as ‘dry’, ‘medium sweet’ or ‘full rich’.  While these are often very drinkable and certainly very reasonably priced, to share the real treat I experienced, you need to look for the grape names I’ve mentioned on the label. 

If all the wines in my count are as good as these, it will, indeed, be a very Happy New Year!

 

David and Goliath

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As a Wine Educator, this is one of the busiest – and most interesting -times of my working year but I’ve just run my last tasting of 2017 and so I can relax for a few weeks.  This year, that final event featured one of my most popular themes: a contest between wines from Europe against the Rest of the World with the audience voting for their favourites.  It’s one that almost always makes for an enjoyable evening.

With the sales figures showing that UK customers prefer wines from the Rest of the World to those originating in Europe, it’s often a surprise to many when I tell them that the tasting is a David and Goliath battle – with Europe, not the Rest of the World, as Goliath.  In fact, most years Europe produces around twice as much wine as the Rest of the World and either France or Italy alone turns out more than USA, Argentina and Australia (the 3 largest non-European producers) together.  2017 was a different story but that’s a blog for another day.

The contest this time featured 8 different wines in 4 matched pairs, all tasted blind so that no-one (except me!) knew the identity of any wine.  When the votes were added up, the Rest of the World was the narrow winner overall, but Europe put up a fair fight winning one of the 4 rounds and tying in another.

2017-12-07 10.01.23The European success was the delightful, herby, fragrant Stella Alpina Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige in northern Italy (£10.99 – all the wines for this tasting were bought from Majestic), while the ‘Rest’ winners were from California and Chile.  The latter, Montes’ Single Vineyard Chardonnay from the 2017-12-07 10.18.18cool Casablanca Valley (£8.99) showed a lovely buttery richness and just a hint of vanilla and spice from brief oak ageing.

California’s winner, Majestic’s Parcel Series Old Vine Zinfandel 2012, was the cheapest wine of the evening 2017-12-07 10.18.11and a real bargain at £7.49.  5 years old and with all the soft, harmonious flavours that age produces – this is remarkable for the price.

And, indeed, with none of the wines above £11, this tasting showed that, by shopping around you really don’t have to spend a fortune to find winning wines.

A Sparkling Evening

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“Can you run a tasting of sparkling wines for us?”  It’s not a request I get often – sparkling wines can be quite expensive and, perhaps, more for a celebration than for talking about.  But there’s plenty to say (for me, at least!) and a vast choice.  It’s not just Champagne and Prosecco, virtually every cool climate area of the wine world produces some fizz.

Why the emphasis on a cool climate?  Both the most common ways of making sparkling wine (the ‘traditional’ method – the one that used to be known as the Champagne method until the Champenois objected – and the ‘tank’ method) involve a second fermentation – adding more grape sugar and yeast to an already made still wine to produce the carbon dioxide that forms the bubbles.  But this process also raises the alcohol level in the wine by 1 – 1.5%.  If you try this with a wine that is already 13% or more, as is typical in warm climates, you lose the aromatics and the wine becomes heavy and unappetising.  Hence the importance of a cool climate and a lower alcohol level to start with.

What of the evening itself?  We sampled 6 wines ranging through France, Italy, Spain, England (of course!), South Africa and New Zealand and at prices from £10 to £25. 

And the reaction of the tasters?  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Champagne (Charles Lecouvey’s Brut Reserve) was the clear winner with everyone present scoring it in their top 2.  ChampagneAlthough not expensive for a Champagne (£23.99 from Waitrose), the blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir gave it a lightness and freshness that appealed to all. 

The same grape varieties were used (although with Pinot Noir dominating rather than Chardonnay) for the group’s 2nd favourite: Lindauer’s Special Reserve Brut Rosé from New Zealand (widely available from supermarkets and wine shops at between £11 and £14).  Lindauer FizzDelicate crushed strawberry flavours and aromas and a really attractive pink colour made this a delight.  Certainly one to consider if you’re looking for an easy-drinking fizz at an attractive price for the festive season.

Carmenère – the Clear Winner!

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2017-11-13 18.25.40In the minds of many who enjoy a glass of wine, Chile is the place to look for something fresh, fruity, easy-drinking and not too expensive – the sort of wines the Australians used to call ‘sunshine in a glass’.  But that’s only part of the story: Chile is full of ambitious young winemakers eager to break away from the ‘cheap and cheerful’  tag and experiment with something more interesting that will appeal to those prepared to pay a little more. 

Typical of this trend is the Errazuriz Max Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon I blogged about earlier this year but, for a much wider selection, I joined  a tasting organised by the Bristol Tasting Circle recently and supported by ‘Wines of Chile’.  Committee member and wine educator, Tim Johnson’s choice included wines from all the main international grape varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Pinot Noir.  A particularly nice example of the latter (Falernia’s Reserva from the Elqui Valley, £14.95 from Great Western Wine) got my top mark of the evening.  

Among the less well-known was Huaso de Sauzal’s País (also Great Western Wine, £22.95).  País was brought to South America by the Spanish in the 16th century and, after decades, even centuries, of neglect, has recently attracted the attention of a number of winemakers who are coaxing lovely red and black fruit flavours out of this formerly unloved variety.

These days, no tasting of Chilean wines could be complete with examples of Chile’s ‘own’ grape, Carmenère.  Once thought to be Merlot, it has been embraced enthusiastically since the error was discovered in the closing years of last century and, appropriately, provided the overall joint winners of the evening from Santa Ema (Tanners, £12.80) and Los Vascos’ Grande Reserve (Slurp, £13.95).

So, sunshine in a glass?  Yes!  But a whole lot more, too!

If you would like to join the Bristol Tasting Circle and enjoy tastings like this, please leave your details in the comment box below and I will pass them onto the membership secretary.

 

Reaching out across the World

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As a major trading port, Bristol has been reaching out across the world for centuries – and a wine tasting I went to this week really brought that home to me.

It was organised by the Bristol-Hannover and Bristol-Bordeaux Twinning Associations who are celebrating their 70th anniversaries this year, having started just after the 2nd World War in an effort to reach out and support other devastated European cities.

The tasting itself was on board a replica of John Cabot’s ship, The Matthew, that, in 1497, sailed from Bristol and across the Atlantic to become the first Europeans known to have landed on the North American mainland (although Norse sagas suggest that their sailors may have done so several centuries earlier).  The original ship was lost but the replica was built here in the city in the 1990s and repeated the original voyage to commemorate the 500th anniversary.  These days, the ‘new’ Matthew is used for educational purposes, appears in films and television programmes and is a major tourist attraction in Bristol Docks.  And, of course, it can be hired for events – including the wine tasting I mentioned earlier.

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And the fact that the tasting was hosted by Mimi Avery, on behalf of the historic Bristol company that bears her name (it was founded in 1793), also fitted the ‘reaching out’ theme.  Mimi’s grandfather, Ronald, was one of very few British wine merchants to actually visit foreign vineyards and meet the growers while her father, John, travelled widely and introduced many New World wines into the UK that have subsequently become iconic.

But, let’s not forget the wines: 

DSCN1503of course Mimi found some interesting bottles from Bordeaux to show us.  And, although Hannover is not a wine producing area of Germany, we tasted some attractive examples from elsewhere in that country.   But, perhaps Mimi’s most innovative thinking went into our aperitif: a Prosecco which reflected John Cabot’s Italian heritage (he was previously known as Zuan Chabboto, although his name has long been anglicized).

So, all in all, a fascinating and most enjoyable evening and a perfect example of how generations of Bristolians (and adopted citizens, such as Cabot) have reached out across the world.

The Judgement of Paris Revisited

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judgement-dinnerBack in May, Bristol Wine Blog remembered a famous event in the wine world that had occurred 40 years earlier, in 1976: the tasting that has come to be known as the ‘Judgement of Paris’.   A young Englishman, Steven Spurrier, living and working in Paris, invited a group of renowned French judges – restauranteurs, producers and wine writers – to compare (blind) a selection of top Californian wines – Chardonnays and Cabernets – with leading Burgundies and Bordeaux. The expectation was that the French wines would win easily.  Only it didn’t work out like that!

So, what would happen if a similar tasting took place today?  Great Western Wines in conjunction with Bath’s Allium Restaurant decided to find out.  They organised an anniversary dinner including recent vintages of the 2 winning wines, the most prestigious of the losers and, to make things interesting, a couple of other ‘mystery’ wines.  With the chance to taste such potential delights, my wife and I were quick to book tickets.

The dinner, good though it was, was always going to play second fiddle to the tastings which, mimicking the original event, comprised a group of  Chardonnays and another of Cabernet Sauvignons (or Cabernet dominated blends), all, of course, tasted blind.  Everyone present was invited to vote for their 1st, 2nd and 3rd in each category and the results were added up.   

Among the Chardonnays, the Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru ‘Les Pucelles’ (£210) gained revenge on the Chateau Montelena Napa Chardonnay (£43.50) this time, but both were beaten by the 3rd wine, Koo Yong’s Faultline Chardonnay from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula (£29.50).

The story was the same with the Cabernet Sauvignons.   Stag’s Leap SLV (£98) from California failed to repeat its earlier success.  Indeed, it, too, finished 3rd in its group behind the winning Château Mouton-Rothschild (£400) and the Cyril Henschke from Eden Valley in South Australia (£62).

A wonderful evening and a rare opportunity to taste some great wines – several at prices that I wouldn’t normally think of spending on a single bottle.  But, perhaps, more importantly, the chance to be part of an event commemorating a tasting that changed the face of the wine world for ever.

(The prices shown are those quoted by Great Western Wine.  For more information, email them at wine@greatwesternwine.co.uk).