The MW seminar week is a Big Brother social experiment. Put 50 students from 13 different countries in a Bordeaux chateau for a week to eat, sleep and study together 14 hours a day (not counting the beer drinking and table football time) and it’s no wonder you leave feeling doo-lally.
My brain hurts and body pleads for no more wine and no more food. Luckily I have a week in the Alps snowboarding to recuperate!
Bordeaux is known for its foie gras, lamb, and duck as well as its world-class wines but instead we were served some typical British pub fare including gammon and pineapple on the first evening, which set the scene for the rest of the week. We were also treated to a pimped up version of a 1970’s classic party dish: remember cheese and pineapple on sticks in a tin foil covered orange? Think bigger. Much bigger. A foot high gold paper-wrapped cone with tropical fruit. What a treat! (If anyone has photographic evidence of this, let me know)
We were also lucky enough to taste a blend of red wine and sodium chloride. Mmmm, salty wine. And that was only one of the 24 wines the AWRI’s oenologist, Geoff Cowey, subjected us to. He managed to redeem himself on the bring-a-bottle evening, however.
So, it was an assault on the brain and the palate – and sometimes not for the right reasons.
However, I now have new friends in Washington DC, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Carcassone, Hungary…Whatever happens on this course, these social experiments are worth your participation.
Master of Wine students will be sitting their exams this week. Thank God I’ve decided not to sit this year as I’ve got a stinking cold â€“ I can’t taste or smell a thing. For those who are taking the four-day nightmare that is the MW exam, good luck to you and, I hope you haven’t got the lurgy. Speaking to a few fellow students, I know they just want it all to be over so they can get their lives back.
On twitter there’s now a hashtag for all the MW students called #MWStudyFacts. If you have a geeky fact, it’s the place to post it.
Following the recent Veuve Clicquot tasting I attended, a Study Fact I learned many moons ago has been upended.
My trusty old Wine and Spirit Eductation Trust Advanced book tells me that non-vintage Champagne must spend 15 months maturing on lees (dead yeast cells) after the second fermentation, giving the distinct biscuitty/yeasty note to the wine. Wikipedia (not exactly the most reliable source) also says 15 months on lees is required.
But Veuve Clicquot’s winemaker, Francois Hautekeur, says this is incorrect. â€œThe laws say it is 15 months between bottling and selling, including a minimum of 12 months on lees and three months for the sugar from the dosage to integrate.â€ So, for the past five years, have I been misled? Seems so.
Of course, most Champagne houses worth their weight would leave the wine on lees for longer eg 24 months for non-vintage at Veuve but there are surely others who are less scrupulous.
Winemakers generally dislike Pinot Gris: it’s not that aromatic, normally has low acidity and let’s face it, it doesn’t set anyone’s world on fire in the same way as Riesling or Pinot Noir.
But it sells. And that means it’s a money spinner which keeps the wine business in business. Last week I ended up in a bit of a debate with a Master of Wine and a few other journalists about Pinot Gris. It ain’t my grape of choice but if people like drinking it, who am I to argue?
My friends love it: they’re successful, smart women in their late ‘20s and early ‘30s and Pinot Gris or Grigio is an easy-drinking wine that doesn’t cause any major issues to their palates. It’s great with food, makes some fabulous late harvest wines and I’m happy to drink it. I admit I’m not the biggest fan and this trend may be a passing phase before we move on to the next grape du jour but getting snobby about it makes the wine industry seem very far-removed from reality.
What’s more, in Alsace Pinot Gris is considered one of the four noble varieties. When I was speaking to Paul Pujol, winemaker at Prophet’s Rock (see blog 15 March 2010), and former winemaker at Alsace producer Kuentz Bas, he said: â€œThe big discovery in going to Alsace was tasting older Pinot Gris. I was surprised by how it tastes if it’s grown in the right sites.â€
We may try to sell Riesling and Pinot Noir to wine drinkers but we’re fighting an uphill battle. Let’s educate the consumer, says the wine industry, but most people have more pressing things to do with their time than learn about grape varieties. If people are drinking Pinot Gris then at least they are drinking wine and not beer or bourbon. They can then move on to the delights of other varieties in time.
One drop of rotundone is enough to make an Olympic size swimming pool smell peppery. One gram of this potent stuff could make the entire Australian Shiraz harvest smell peppery too. This compound was identified last year and was one of the more technical topics tackled at Hawkeâ€™s Bayâ€™s Syrah symposium.
While there were a few tedious talks due to the bumbling nature of several speakers, it was an interesting day.
Tastings from around the world proved a point that New Zealand Syrah is pretty distinctive and can be picked from a line up of the rest of the worldâ€™s other Syrah producers. The Northern Rhone has its own unmistakeable style while South Africa can generally be picked for its burnt rubber/Stilton/gamey/call it what you will savoury notes. But New Zealand has its own New World version of the Rhone. Itâ€™s an elegant riper style with black pepper and ripe brambles, dusty firm tannins and a lovely freshness.
British speaker Tim Atkin MW published an article back in 2007 claiming â€˜Syrah could save the day in Hawkes Bayâ€™. He encouraged more planting of the variety three years ago but the call clearly fell on deaf ears as a mere 10 hectares have been planted across New Zealand since then! He stood up yesterday and told them the same story â€“ to take Syrah more seriously.
If Sauvignon Blanc, which makes up more than 80% of New Zealand wine exports falls out of fashion in the same way that Australian Chardonnay did, New Zealand needs a plan B. Yes, it has other varieties planted but theyâ€™re a bit of a sideshow at the moment. New Zealand really has an opportunity to take the world by storm with Syrah. It could be as successful as its Pinot Noir. Letâ€™s hope someoneâ€™s listening this time.
On another note, while I love some Australian Shirazes, thereâ€™s clearly a problem of over-acidifying. In a line-up of the top Shirazes in the country, the line-up was marred by sourness on the finish that I can only explain as overzealous acid additions. Think sucking on a lemon. Paringa Estate, Shaw & Smith and to some extent Clonakilla displayed this and they really need to rethink it.
The wines are clearly top quality with great concentration and texture but this sourness is not acceptable. Many New Zealand winemakers came up and agreed with me after Iâ€™d stuck my neck out at the seminar but I think it got some Australian backs up. Whatâ€™s wrong with honesty?
Well it seems, honesty is a bad thing. I didnâ€™t realize that this was a particularly sensitive issue in Australia at the moment after fellow English wine journo Andrew Jefford made a speech at the National Wine Centre in Adelaide in November about this and other things (click here to see the speech in full) He said â€œMisjudged acid addition is, for me, the defining fault of the Australian wine industry, and I regret the fact that it is rarely if ever viewed as a fault here. Iâ€™ve tasted hundreds of wines since my arrival here which I truly feel are defaced by acidity. Potentially fine wines which would, in other words, have been much, much better with much softer, less assertive levels of acidity. Lower acid levels would lead to flavour profiles of greater delicacy, expressivity and finesse, and a much subtler sensual appeal. One of the most frequent criticisms of Australian wine from both consumers and the international press is of homogeneity, and no single factor tends to reinforce this sense of sameiness more than acid adjustment as itâ€™s currently practiced here.â€
Guess Iâ€™m not alone.
Crikey, who’d have thought it would be so difficult to get a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand?
I am currently searching for a South African, Chilean and Loire Sauvignon for a Master of Wine tasting practice with Lynnette Hudson, winemaker at Pegasus Bay. But it is proving rather difficult. I called respected merchant Vino Fino in Christchurch and they could only help me out with the Sancerre – but it will cost me $52 (Â£23) for the privilege. When you’re such a strong Sauvignon player, the assistant told me, you can’t sell Sauvignons from the rest of the world. I guess it’s the same in most wine-producing countries. New Zealand’s wines are of an enviable standard but it’s a shame people aren’t able to try styles beyond their borders.
I was clearly spoiled for choice in London where the local independent merchant would always have something from Leyda, Stellenbosch and Touraine on the shelves. Unfortunately you don’t realise how lucky you are until you move away.
Now I am horribly aware that trying to do tasting practice for the MW in the UK is a) less hassle and b) cheaper than doing it elsewhere – although living costs and exorbitant travel fares add up (Â£4.10 for a single on the tube is a joke, Boris).
So, if anyone from the UK is coming over to Auckland, could you stick a bottle of Rueda/Argentine Torrontes/anything from South Africa in your luggage for me?
New Zealand Pinot Gris is a “force to be reckoned with”, according to Villa Mariaâ€™s chief winemaker.
Considering there was hardly any Pinot Gris planted in the mid-1990s thatâ€™s a turn up for the books. There are now more than 1300 hectares planted â€“ an increase of more than 800ha in three years. Consequently, most of the vines are pretty young and that means we havenâ€™t seen the best yet.
Alastair Maling MW waxed lyrical about the potential of Pinot Gris at a Villa Maria event last night. â€œNew Zealand Pinot Gris is coming together but it is still evolving. It is a very young variety in terms of planting. With vine age, we will see more concentration of flavour.
â€œAt the moment we have to wait late for physiological ripeness so thatâ€™s why we have such high alcohol. With vine age, we will be able to pick earlier with the same flavour intensity.â€
Germany vs New Zealand
When it comes to Riesling, the Kiwis are learning that they can emulate the Germans. New Zealand has the natural acidity to leave a little bit of residual sugar in their Rieslings and produce wines under 11% – or even 10%.
Maling admitted, â€œWe were not making good Riesling back in the mid 90s. We used to pick the fruit late and were afraid to stop the ferment early but we have grown and we are prepared to experiment.â€
Villa is now stopping its Riesling fermentations early, leaving a little bit of unfermented sugar in the wine and keeping the final alcohol level low.
Maling had the courage to put his Taylorâ€™s Pass 2007 Riesling alongside Donnhoffâ€™s Riesling (Nahe) and it stood up well. While it lacked some of the complexity of its German rival, it was lean, clean and characterful. It has high acidity and a low pH, which makes the wine seem drier than it is (27g/l residual sugar). And with 10% alcohol, it ticks the low alcohol box.
If the Kiwis can introduce the consumer back to low alcohol, off dry Rieslings, there may be hope yet for Germany. And yes, I am an eternal optimist.
Journalism is going on hold for a few days, so I wonâ€™t be regaling you with juicy wine news for a week. .The fact is, I am now furiously studying canopy management, yeast spoilage etc etc in the hope of passing the first-year Master of Wine exams in a week.
Never did I think I would be so interested in planting densities or pH levels. I think I may be turning into a bore.
Why bother? Well, I like wine, I strangely like studying and, people take you more seriously in the trade.
But it all comes at a cost. Financially, itâ€™s a massive drain. Not only do you pay your fees (thanks to my uncle Phil for helping me out on this one), thereâ€™s the trips, tastings plus you have to take into account loss of earnings when youâ€™re taking time out to study. A fellow student has taken a monthâ€™s unpaid leave before the exams. Ouch.
Is it worth it? Hell yeh. Ask me again in about three yearsâ€™ time when Iâ€™m still trying to pass, and the answer might be different. If you are considering it and can motivate yourself to study, then go for it. Youâ€™ll meet so many great people in the wine trade from around the world but, be aware, you will turn into a wine geek. Sad but true,