How to become a “master” taster

The challenge of becoming a “Master” taster
This year’s Master of Wine exams have just taken place as usual in the first week of June, a time of year which for me brings back stressful memories!
In 3 days of tasting exams, prospective new Masters of Wine need to prove that they are highly accomplished wine tasters by tasting a total of 36 wines “blind”, and achieving an overall score over 70%. These exams are the culmination of many months of intense training of one’s nose and palate, just as a top athlete must train his body to achieve perfect performance in an Olympic games, or a trainee lawyer or accountant must hone his mental powers on the build up to his professional exams. Always at the back of one’s mind is the knowledge that only a very small percentage of students actually pass the tasting exams each year.
Contrary to what people may think, the MW student does not need to identify precisely each wine tasted. For wines from the world’s classic regions (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja, Tuscany etc) they need to assess correctly the wine’s region of origin (eg Pauillac, Bordeaux), vintage and level of quality within that region (eg a 2ème Cru Classé retailing at around CHF120/bt.) But they are not expected to recognise that the wine is Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, for example. For wines from all other wine producing regions, the key is to describe correctly each wine’s attributes, style, quality and ageing potential and then reach a logical and accurate conclusion as to its origin, grape varieties and approximate price.
So what are the benefits of learning to be a “Master taster”?
Most wine drinkers imagine it is to be able to identify any wine blind, so you can wow your friends/guests/customers forever more with your amazing tasting powers! But in reality, nobody can do this infallibly, however gifted they may be, and anyway, on its own this is not a skill which really adds that much value to the role of a wine merchant or wine sommelier when dealing with their customers.
The real benefit of the MW wine tasting training is that it gives you a rock-solid understanding of how to assess and judge a wine’s quality and value. In the end, it is the search for really good quality – at varying price points – which is the overriding goal of most wine lovers. The following are the key attributes one should consider when judging a wine’s quality:
1) The length of the finish or aftertaste once the wine is no longer in your mouth – the longer the better!
2) Its complexity – the number of different flavours and sensations a wine gives you is directly related to its complexity, and again, the more the better. For example a Grand Cru Burgundy should have significantly more complexity than a simple Bourgogne Rouge from the same producer.
3) The balance between the key components of the wine – its fruit and oak flavours, acidity, tannin and alcohol levels. No one component should stand out too obtrusively, and the more you have of each, the longer the potential life of that wine.
4) Its intensity and concentration of flavour – generally the higher the better.
5) Its sense of place and “minerality” – important in assessing the classic wines of the world, in particular Burgundy and the Mosel. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling are the grapes which are capable of expressing their unique terroirs more vividly than any others.
Why not try the following 3 wines for yourself, which come from this year’s MW white wine tasting exam, and see if the above guidance helps you assess their quality!

WINE TIPS
Trimbach Muscat Réserve, Alsace, France 2014 CHF 17.50/75cl from www.cavedereve.ch
Pazo de Villarei Albarino, Rias Baixas, Spain 2014 CHF 18.00/75cl from www.vogelsangerweine.ch
Georges Vernay Condrieu, Coteau de Vernon, Rhône, France 2014 CHF 95.00/75cl from www.de.millesima.ch

Great rivers and their great wines

Have you ever wondered why so many of Europe’s best known wine regions are situated next to major rivers?
The great chateaux of the Médoc along the River Gironde in Bordeaux; the famous hills of Hermitage and Cote Rotie on the Rhone south of Lyon; Sancerre, Vouvray, Muscadet et al along the Loire; the best producers of Rioja on the Ebro; Ribera del Duero and Portugal’s Douro Valley wine region along the Douro; Germany’s Rheingau and Mosel regions; Wachau and Kremstal on the Danube in Austria; the list goes on and on…
Of course, historically, rivers were an essential means of transport between wine producers’ cellars and their end customer markets. Overland transport of wine by container truck was not an option in the 19th and early 20th centuries – neither the vehicles nor the roads to carry them existed! The wine logistics process relied almost entirely on shipment by river and sea, hence the necessity for wine producers of being near a big river, and the importance of wine-shipping ports such as Bordeaux and Porto.
But rivers also have a significant impact on the quality and style of the grapes which are grown along them.
The microclimate near a river is special. Rivers moderate temperature, making very hot regions such as Portugal’s Douro Valley slightly cooler, or cooler regions such as the Mosel Valley in Northern Germany slightly warmer. They help protect against extremes of temperature, which can be life-saving for the grapes in times of intense cold or heat. In years when frost affects the vines late in the Spring, once the grape’s buds have formed on the vines, such as 1991in Bordeaux or more recently 2017 across much of Northern Europe, vineyards situated near a river can be up to 2C warmer than those which are not; this can make the difference between life and death for these young buds.
Rivers reflect sunlight onto the vineyards along their banks, which is again beneficial in a “marginal “ climate or cooler vintage, where grapes need the maximum possible sunlight and warmth in order to ripen fully. The vineyards along the Rhein in Kanton Schaffhausen or further north in Germany’s Rheingau for example benefit from this. The steepness of the hill-slopes one often finds along river banks also helps optimise the vines’ exposure to the sun’s rays .
Last but not least, rivers develop over many thousands of years and thus have their own unique geology and soils. Rivers generally have stony beds and the soils along their banks are equally so. Stony soils are important because they provide good drainage to vines; very few grapes benefit from having their roots immersed constantly in water. And different stones do seem to give slightly different styles of “minerality” to the vines; the slatey soils along the banks of the Mosel give a uniquely fine and intense acidity to Riesling grapes, the granitic soils of Northern Rhone give an iron fist and masculinity to the Syrah grapes of Hermitage and so on.
So it is in fact no coincidence that Europe’s greatest rivers are peppered with wonderful vineyards up and down their banks!

 

Published on 15.07.2017 – Schweiz am Sonntag

Grenache – the under-appreciated over-achiever

Ask most red wine drinkers for their favourite red wine grape variety and they are likely to mention Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir or Syrah. Very few would think of Grenache, but this grape, aka Garnacha in Spain and Cannonau in Sardinia, produces some of the most outstanding red wines in the world.
The reason it remains so little known is that it is usually blended with other grapes. With its enticing, soft strawberry fruit flavours, fleshy mid palate and alcoholic richness it is the warm “heart” of many of our favourite wine styles. In France’s Southern Rhone and south west it provides the perfect foil to Carignan and Mourvedre’s more gamey flavours and rustic tannins, and Syrah’s peppery fruit and acidity and firm, long-lived tannins.
Grenache is a late-ripening grape but as long as it receives enough sun and warmth it is capable of producing high yields of fruity, powerful red wine at very reasonable prices; it is for example the main grape behind almost all of the excellent value reds from the Cotes du Rhone and Languedoc. If yields are restricted however – either by planting on very dry, stony soils, or through allowing the vines to continue producing into their old age – then Grenache can produce some of the most sexy and hedonistic wines on the planet, with wonderfully concentrated fruit flavours, spicy acidity and firm, silky tannins. Chateau Rayas, Henri Bonneau and Les Bosquets des Papes in Chateauneuf Du Pape; Domaine des Bosquets in Gigondas, and Domaine Gauby in the Cotes du Roussillon are just a few of the great producers making world class reds from ancient Grenache vines.
Garnacha is widely planted in Northern Spain. In Rioja it almost always plays a supporting role to Tempranillo, but in Priorat it shows its true potential, either on its own or blended with Carignano. On the rugged, steep, slatey slopes of the Priorat hillsides southwest of Barcelona, old Garnacha vines produce scintillatingly profound, rich, mineral reds with high alcohols over 15% and velvet-smooth tannins. Just across the Mediterranean in Sardinia, Grenache is known as Cannonau and produces deep, rich, full bodied red wines. Cantine Argiolas and Sella e Mosca make excellent value examples.
The true test of a world class grape variety is how well it can adapt to different wine regions across the world. Grenache was planted in the hot, dry Barossa and McLaren Vale regions of South Australia as early as the mid 19th century and there are still many fabulous old vine examples being produced in these areas. The Australians increasingly refer to Grenache as their “Pinot Noir of the south”, due to its complex array of red fruit aromatics, silky smooth tannins and sweet, hedonistic opulence. Yalumba, Torbreck, Kalleske and D’Arenberg produce some of the finest single varietal expressions but you will more often find it blended with Mourvedre and Shiraz to produce “GMS” – great value, warm and hearty Cotes du Rhone style reds.
In California too, Grenache makes some deliciously powerful blockbuster reds, particularly in the hands of top Rhone-style specialists such as John Alban of Alban Estate or Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non.
And of course, Grenache also makes most of Southern France’s best Rosés, but that’s for another time…!

Published on 26.03.2017 – Schweiz am Sonntag

 

WINE TIPS – 3 great old vine Grenaches!
Domaine des Bosquets, Gigondas 2015 at CHF 30.00/75cl
D’Arenberg Derelict Vineyard, Old Vine Grenache 2102 at CHF 25.00/75cl
Bosquet Des Papes A La Gloire de Mon Grand Pere, Chateauneuf Du Pape 2012 at CHF 75.00/75cl

Bordeaux En Primeur 2016

Between now and the end of June, all the new releases from Bordeaux’s 2016 vintage will be released en primeur by the chateaux.
If you would like to receive our Bordeaux 2016 en primeur offers please simply send me an email with your contact details, and we will send you offers of our favourite wines once the prices are released.
Having tasted over 200 different Bordeaux 2016 wines out of barrel in early April, most on 2 or 3 occasions, I have no doubt that this is an excellent vintage offering delicious wines at all price points. You can read my full assessment of the vintage below, and see my favourite wines by price category at the end of my report.


The flags go up at Chateau Latour as we arrive to taste their wines!

 

Bordeaux 2016 – Another “vintage of the century?

Since the beginning of this century, Bordeaux has produced a remarkable number of excellent vintages (2000, 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2015), each one in turn described by various members of the Bordeaux Trade and press as the best vintage of the century!

Is 2016 really another “great” vintage, which you must buy en primeur at all costs? And how is it that we have apparently had so many top quality vintages in the last 16 years when we had only 6 or 7 truly great vintages between 1945-1999 (1945, 1959, 1961, 1982, 1989, 1990 and 1996)?!

 

The weather in 2016 and its effects on grape quality

Wine journalists and professionals love to talk at length about the weather during each vintage! I know this can be a little boring, but it is precisely these varying weather conditions which makes Bordeaux’s wines so different from one vintage to the next, and ultimately so interesting to wine drinkers and collectors.

The weather in 2016 quite simply turned out to be near-perfect for the quality of Bordeaux’s red wines and for the final quantities produced, which were considerably higher than in any vintage since 2006.

The first half of the year until mid June was extremely wet, except for a few days in early June when the rain conveniently stopped, allowing a healthy flowering to occur. July and August were very warm, dry and sunny, providing perfect ripening conditions for the grapes.

Some light rain in early September provided relief to the region’s vines at the perfect moment, just when many were starting to suffer from thirst. This gave them the sustenance they needed to continue ripening gradually and perfectly until harvest during the sunny and mild early Autumn days between mid September and the end of October. The longer into October the grapes are able to ripen on the vine, the cooler the nights become and the more freshness, elegance and purity of flavour the resulting wines develop. This freshness, combined with rich yet perfectly ripe fruit and tannins, are the hallmarks of Bordeaux’s 2016 red wines. According to Louis Mitjaville of Tertre Roteboeuf, “since 2000 we now have a new style of vintage, where the grapes ripen during a warm Summer (July and August), then are picked in a late, sunny Autumn”. It is precisely these conditions which are responsible for the high quality of the 2016 harvest. It would appear that – so far this century – global warming is having a genuinely positive effect on Bordeaux’s wine quality!

 

Quality assessment by wine region

2016 is without doubt a very good and often “great” year for Bordeaux’s red wines. The best performing regions were quite clearly in the Northern Medoc – St Estephe, Pauillac and St Julien – where the clay subsoils preserved enough water from the early season rain to provide sufficient sustenance to the vines during the hot, dry Summer months. The wines here are fresh and have moderate alcohol levels between 13-13.5% – around 1% alcohol lower than in 2015. The tannins are very firm – promising a long life ahead – but perfectly balanced by ripe, juicy and powerful fruit flavours. Chateaux at all price and quality levels have produced excellent wines. 2016 is specifically a very good vintage to buy second wines from well known chateaux – which generally offer excellent value in comparison with their “grand vins” – and Crus Bourgeois and Petits Chateaux from the Northern Medoc.

The Margaux appellation also produced some excellent reds, with finesse, purity and elegance, although quality in this large appellation was a little more variable on the whole, and rarely reached the peaks achieved in 2015. Chateau Palmer just pipped Chateau Margaux for me as the star of the appellation this year, with very fine wines also produced in Chateaux Malescot St Exupery, Rauzan Segla and Brane Cantenac.

On the right bank, where Merlot dominates the blend, the best wines came from vineyards with a high clay content in their soils, and specifically with a high percentage of later-ripening Cabernet Franc vines on those clay soils. Chateau Canon was a perfect example of this, with its high proportion (30%) of Cabernet Franc giving wonderful elegance and freshness. 2016 was most definitely “a clay year” according to most winemakers. Those producers who took the most care to pick only perfectly ripe grapes, and who vinified their grapes very gently, with minimum extraction of tannins from the skins, produced exceptional wines; Vieux Chateau Certan and La Conseillante are prime examples. But these will come at a high price. On the whole, quality was more variable than in the Medoc; alcohol levels were around 1% higher than on the Left Bank and tannin levels seemed excessively high on several occasions.

This was a good white wine vintage, with very appealing tropical fruit flavours and a full, waxy mouthfeel, but acidities are generally a little low and some of the wines lack freshness and vitality. Similarly in Sauternes, the sweet wines have the most deliciously exotic fruit flavours, but there is not enough acidity to give them long ageing potential – wines which will give great pleasure in their youth. It is a “good Sauternes vintage, but not great” according to Sandrine Garbay, Maître de Chai at Chateau d’Yquem.

 

The 2016 vintage in comparison with previous vintages

It is always an interesting exercise trying to compare Bordeaux’s newest vintage with previous vintages – and always a difficult one! For me, there are distinct similarities between 2016 and 2010, both being vintages which expressed Bordeaux’s different terroirs very clearly. In 2016 you can taste very clearly the “iron fist” of Chateau Latour; the cigar box and cedary complexity of Lafite; the plush, velvety richness of Mouton Rothschild. The perfumed, violet-scented elegance, so typical in fine Margaux wines, contrasts quite distinctly with the restrained tannic power and ripe, dark fruit of most Pauillacs, and the finesse and precision of the best wines of St Estephe. But the tannins in 2016 are in general less obtrusive than those in 2010,possibly more similar to 2005, making it a vintage which should be approachable a little younger, yet nevertheless with long ageing potential. On the whole I prefer 2016 to 2015. It has more freshness and less alcoholic power, more finesse and expresses individual chateaux’s personalities more clearly. What is certain is that this is a vintage which deserves to be compared with Bordeaux’s finest.

 

2 noteworthy current trends in Bordeaux

1. A gradual move away from creating wines which appeal to Robert Parker

Robert Parker was the single member of the world’s wine press whose wine ratings were important enough to impact a Bordeaux wine’s selling price and potential saleability. Now he has stepped back from assessing Bordeaux’s wines for his much-respected Wine Advocate, and the British wine writer Neal Martin, who has a more subtle, classical taste, is responsible for assessing the region’s wines. This seems to be causing a gradual shift in style over the past few years. In 2010 wineries were making more extracted, concentrated wines to appeal to Robert Parker. Now they are moving towards making wines with more freshness and less extraction, less obvious oak and more harmony. The focus now is on individual terroir expression; too much fruit and oak mask terroir.

2. The continuing move to organics and biodynamics

Chateau Pontet Canet has been 100% biodynamic since 2005 and was certified biodynamic in 2010. They were the first major Bordeaux chateau to convert to biodynamic viticulture, and it has brought them enormous success – the average release price of their wines has approximately doubled in the mean time! More and more big name chateaux are now following this same route; Palmer is now 100% biodynamic and apparently there is an (unpublicised) drive for every chateau in Margaux AC to do the same by 2023; a significant % of Pichon Lalande’s vineyards are now biodynamic and 100% of Latour’s are organic. The conversion to biodynamic viticulture comes at a cost though. Chateau Palmer for example lost a large amount of their crop to mildew in the wet month of June – with very low yields of only 29hl/ha in their “Grand Vin” as a result.


Horses used to work the vineyards at biodynamic Chateau Pontet Canet

 

Conclusion: should you buy this vintage en primeur?

Based on wine quality alone, then I would definitely recommend you buy several 2016s. This vintage has produced many delicious, personality-packed wines at all price levels which are unique in style and different to any previous Bordeaux vintage. The best have excellent ageing potential but, because of their beautifully-integrated tannins, can be enjoyed from a fairly young age.

However, prices for the Classified Growths of the Medoc and the big names from the Right Bank in 2016 are likely to be at least 10-15% higher than the already-expensive 2015s, possibly significantly more. There are ominous similarities here with what happened to en primeur prices in 2009 and 2010. Be aware that the world’s wine merchants and private wine cellars are still awash with stock of the big-name chateaux from 2010, and many of these wines today are still worth less than the exceptionally greedy release prices buyers were required to pay “en primeur”.

So in conclusion, it is wise as ever to consider each wine’s release price carefully, and buy en primeur only for the following reasons:

  1. If the wine is likely to sell out quickly en primeur and you want to make sure you acquire a few bottles at its release price. The most likely quick-sellers this year are:-
    The Left Bank First Growths , in particular Mouton Rothschild; Montrose; Calon Segur; Pichon Lalande; Canon; Figeac; the top smaller Pomerol estates such as Vieux Chateau Certan; and a handful of worldwide “super-brands” which sell out fast every year, such as Lynch Bages, Talbot, Beychevelle, Pavie and Angelus.
  2. Because you follow certain chateaux each year and want to make sure you secure stock of this vintage at its release price.
  3. If you like to buy Bordeaux from the best vintages, but also look for good value. In 2016 many of the petits chateaux and second wines from the Medoc will offer really good quality and delicious future drinking pleasure at very reasonable prices. Ask your trusted wine merchant for more advice here!
  4. Because you want magnums/half bottles/different formats of your favourite chateau’s wine.

My top tips – the wines which performed best this vintage

First class – wines >CHF100/bt
20162016
Points /20Points /100
1Ausone, St Emilion20.00100
2Mouton, Pauillac19.7599+
3Palmer, Margaux19.5099
4=Haut Brion, Pessac Leognan19.2598
4=Latour, Pauillac19.2598
4=Pichon Lalande, Pauillac19.2598
7=Lafite, Pauillac19.0097
7=Leoville Las Cases, St Julien19.0097
7=Margaux, Margaux19.0097
10=La Mission Haut Brion, Pessac Leognan18.7596
10=Montrose, St Estephe18.7596
10=Vieux Chateau Certan, Pomerol18.7596
Business class – wines between CHF50-100/bt
20162016
Points /20Points /100
1=Calon Segur, St Estephe19.0097
1=Canon, St Emilion19.0097
3=Clerc Milon, Pauillac18.2594
3=Grand Puy Lacoste, Pauillac18.2594
3=Leoville Barton, St Julien18.2594
6=Leoville Poyferre, St Julien18.0093
6=Climens, Sauternes/Barsac18.0093
8=Brane Cantenac, Margaux17.7592
8=Clos Fourtet, St Emilion17.7592
8=Les Carmes Haut Brion, Pessac Leognan17.7592
8=Rauzan Segla, Margaux17.7592
8=Talbot, St Julien17.7592
Economy class – wines <CHF50/bt
20162016
Points /20Points /100
1Capbern, St Estephe (2nd wine Calon Segur)18.0093
2=Les Pagodes des Cos, St Estephe (2nd wine Cos d’Estournel)17.7592
2=Reserve de la Comtesse, Pauillac (2nd wine Pichon Lalande)17.7592
2=Malescot St Exupery, Margaux17.7592
2=Mazeyres Pomerol17.7592
2=Roc de Cambes , Cotes De Bourg17.7592
7=Lacoste Borie, Pauillac17.5091
7=Du Tertre, Margaux17.5091
7=De Fonbel, St Emilion17.5091
7=Bellevue, St Emilion17.5091
7=Tronquoy Lalande, St Estephe17.5091
7=Pedesclaux, Pauillac17.5091

 

Paul Liversedge MW Bordeaux 2016 report, Schweiz an Sonntag 22th April 2017