As featured on Wine Enthusiast
Wine has three levels of flavors and aromas that evolve over the course of its life: primary, secondary and tertiary.
Younger wines display primary fruit flavors and aromas. These include black, red and dried fruit in red wines. For white wines, they can offer scents and flavors of green apples, plus citrus, tropical and stone fruits, and underripe fruits of all kinds. Primary aromas are the most obvious to detect in young wines, and they’re often what sparks interest in wine drinkers. Herbs and spices, like mint, pepper or licorice, are also part of the primary category.
Secondary aromas and flavors derive from winemaking processes like fermentation and aging. These can include the biscuit and yeasty notes that appear from lees stirring and autolysis (the effect when yeast dies off), or the very distinct buttery popcorn aroma that’s a byproduct of malolactic fermentation in many Chardonnays. It also encapsulates the wonderful characteristics that are imparted by oak aging, like vanilla, clove, smoke, coconut or even coffee.
The last of the three levels of aromas and flavors is tertiary. These complex components occur when wine is aged in an ideal environment.
In red wines, fresh ripe fruit starts to transform into stewed or dried fruit, like raisin or fig. Tertiary aromas of tobacco, earth and mushroom will come about, too.
White wines start to develop dried apricot, orange marmalade and sometimes even maderized qualities, or Sherry-like notes of almonds and candied fruit. Other tertiary characteristics include nutty aromas as well as complex spice components like nutmeg, ginger and petrol.
It’s important to note that wines with tertiary aromas and flavors are not “better” than those with primary and secondary ones. Around 90% of wines are meant to be consumed young and fresh, while a small percentage of wines improve with three to 10 years in the bottle. Only a tiny amount of wines (some estimate as low as 1%) are meant to age 10 years or more.
If you are drawn to wines with fresh fruit, powerful tannins and a mouthfilling finish, you might generally prefer primary and secondary flavors and aromas. Be honest about your palate and preferences, and be confident to drink whatever and whenever you like.
Recently, I had the pleasure of sampling a current vintage 100-point super Tuscan with a group of colleagues to celebrate a special occasion. While this iconic wine was extremely complex, focused and intense, it wasn’t really “drinking well.” Granted, it needed time to open up and perhaps a side of beef to pair with, but the consensus was that it wasn’t the earth-shattering experience the group had anticipated.
The following Sunday, I dug deep in my cellar to find a 1989 Clos des Jacobins Saint-Émilion Grand Cru that received a 90-point score in 1999. It had been stored properly for the last two decades, so I figured this was a perfect time to open it up.
I seemed to have caught it in its peak stage when it wasn’t just drinking well, it was drinking perfectly.
It was slightly muted at first, but when it came to life, it displayed intense dried red fruit, fig, raisin, smoked chestnuts, tobacco leaf and forest floor on the nose and palate. The acidity was still kicking, and the tannins were supple and polished. Luckily enough, my pops and I seemed to have caught it in its peak stage when it wasn’t just drinking well, it was drinking perfectly.
As I sipped, I reminisced about that vintage of 1989, my sophomore year in high school. Visions of shredding away on my Gibson Les Paul came to mind, as well as the early stages of my high school golf career, summers working at camp and figuring out how to attract the opposite sex without making a complete fool of myself. My pops and I agreed that spending a quiet afternoon over a perfectly aged bottle of Bordeaux was exactly what we needed.
It wasn’t that the Saint-Émilion Grand Cru was necessarily a better wine than the young super Tuscan. In that moment, however, it was drinking better in its life cycle. But also, with its sophistication and wisdom, it opened a gateway for a little nostalgia and a walk down memory lane as only a perfectly aged bottle of wine can do.
See. Similar to a psychic who gazes into a crystal ball, inspecting wine in the glass can help predict much of what’s to come on the nose and palate. The color, depth and intensity of a wine can offer a glimpse into its age, concentration, body and overall style.
Hint: white wines gain color as they age, while red wines lose color.
Swirl. Swirling is integral to aerate the wine and allow oxygen to “open it up.” This seductive art reveals a wine’s complexities, and it will raise intensity in most young, opulent bottlings as well as those aged beauties. Better yet, when done properly, it will wow and potentially hypnotize those around you.
Sniff/Smell. Don’t be afraid to shove your entire nose right into the glass. Wines with medium to pronounced intensity shouldn’t need such a deep dive, but others may be a little bashful at first. In these cases, revert back to Step No. 2 and swirl some more. Aroma is usually where you hear all those cool, eccentric wine termslike “cat pee,” “wet dog” and “grilled watermelon.”
Sip. It takes a while to actually taste a wine during the examination process, but it’s often well worth the wait. Plus, all the prior steps should impart a pretty good idea of how the wine should come across on the palate.
When pros taste wine, you may notice some pretty off-putting and downright disgusting sounds, but there are reasons for it. The swishing, swooshing and gulping ensures that the wine hits all parts of the tongue and mouth. Thus, the taster can gauge sweetness, acidity, bitterness, tannins and identify the overall mouthfeel. Sucking in air allows for further aeration on the palate, and it helps volatile components be sensed by the olfactory system to tap in to all the characteristics of the wine.
Here, you look for primary characteristics (fruit, floral and spice), secondary characteristics (oak and fermentation-related flavors) and tertiary character (those that result from bottle aging, like mushroom, tobacco and nuttiness), depending on the age of the wine.
Savor. Here’s where the finish comes into play. You want to savor the final essence of a wine. Here, you not only look for length, but balance of fruit, acidity, tannin and texture. When a wine leaves you with an overwhelming desire for another sip, you know you’ve found a winner.
If a young wine has a far superior finish than its taste on the palate, it probably needs a bit of aeration or even a little more time in the cellar.
Malbec has to be one of the most misunderstood grapes out there. Most of the modern wine drinking world associates it with the wines of Argentina… and with good reason. Argentina, and Mendoza in particular, produces the highest quantity of Malbec wine in the world. While there are some extremely well made wines from this region, the majority of Argentinian Malbec is more value driven than anything else. The wines from this end of the earth are usually super dark and inky with plum and black fruit character and can be quite big and bold. However that is not the way all Malbec wines are crafted.
Wines produced in the motherland of Malbec (France) tend to be less fruit forward and the cooler climate imparts higher acidity and polished tannins with more floral notes, however the fruit character remains similar. While it is one of the five grapes allowed in the red wines of Bordeaux, it is Cahors where Malbec flourishes and leads to some of the finest and most ageable red wines in all of France. And no one produces a better lineup of Malbec driven wines than the folks at Chateau Lagrezette.
Of course with the dynamic duo of Alain Dominique Perrin and Michel Rolland, the most accomplished flying wine maker in the world, this should be no surprise to anyone. This year they celebrated 30 years of winemaking together at Chateau Lagrezette with a world tour featuring their wines at some of the finest restaurants throughout the world. I was lucky enough to attend this historic even at Le Bernardin in NYC, and got to chat with Mr. Rolland about a few things while we all tasted through his Chateau Lagrezzete lineup.
The night started with Le Pigeonnier Blanc, which is produced from Viogner sourced from a single vineyard within their Rocamadour vineyard. According to Michel, originally both Vigoner and Chardonnay were both planted here. But as he explains, as time went on the Chardonnay wines were just not up to snuff, while Viogner excelled. So, they let common sense do the work for them and went with all Viogner for this vineyard, as well as this particular wine. This is a stunning white wine exuding intense apricot, peach and nectarine fruit along with pretty floral notes and searing acidity from start to finish.
Next up was the 2015 Mon Vin, a 100% Malbec that was simply stunning. Production is tiny for this elegant and classy red which spends 30 months in 225 liter new French oak barrels. Smoke, leather and rose petals balance beautifully with the well developed black fruit and spice. What’s most tantalizing on just about all of their Malbec wines are the tannins. That cool climate and terroir allow them to be firm and gripping, but without crossing over to the gritty and aggressive side. They stay polished, pleasant and prolong the finish on just about every one of their reds.
While the Paragon 2012 was being served, I was able to sit next to the man himself and discuss some of the wines and what his days are like now. While he has had a hand in helping to produce hundreds to thousands of wines, these days he limits himself to only working with a small amount of his favorites… including Lagrezette of course. His pleasure derives as much from producing as it does mentoring these days, as he truly enjoys watching and teaching the younger generation of vintners in their early stages of wine making. Oh, and the Paragon is STELLAR! This is a big wine with loads of blackberry, black cherry, black pepper, lavender and smokey oak. It’s opulent and plush now, but this is one that could use another decade in the cellar to truly evolve.
As you might expect, they saved the best Malbec for last…. and it was a real treat! Alain and Michel broke out the 1998 Le Pigeonnier Malbec after 20 years of aging. Also receiving 30 months of new oak treatment, this wine has aged gracefully boasting complex aromas of roasted almonds, dried fig and cherry, leather and tobacco. Staying true to the Lagrezette style the acidity is still kicking and the tannins are simply gorgeous. While it could probably go another few years, this wine was truly drinking at its peak.
While it wasn’t served at this event, I always enjoy their entry level Purple Malbec as well. Lots of vibrant berry fruit with baking spice and lavendar, and again that wonderful combo of great acidity and supple tannins make it a wonderful everyday wine. Like all of the Malbecs from Lagrezette, it is a simply a genuine expression of what the wines of Cahors have to offer.
Ever feel like the pros at wine tastings are speaking their own secret language? In a way, they are. Learn the ins and outs of “tasting grids,” which set the standard for how we evaluate wines and the words we use to talk about them.
Ever wonder how the pros tackle a wine tasting?
Whether it’s the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s (WSET) Systematic Approach to Tasting, the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Deductive Tasting Format or any other wine education system, most have a common element: The tasting grid.
The tasting grid provides a guide for an objective description of a wine’s character and quality. While there are differences between various grids, they allow the taster to gauge a wine based on appearance, nose and palate, which leads to an unbiased conclusion of quality, age and development.
So how do wine tasting grids work, and what should you do when you approach a new pour?
The first step is to look at the wine against a white backdrop, like a blank piece of paper. This ensures that wines are not distorted by external colors.
In addition to the color, there are various levels of intensity to gauge. White wines gain color as they age, ranging from lemon and gold to dark caramel. By contrast, reds lose color and intensity with age, as they progress from purple to ruby to deep tawny. So while a typical aged Barolo might be described as pale or medium garnet (a hue between ruby and tawny), a young Australian Shiraz may lean toward deep purple or ruby.
Here’s where it starts to get fun. First, you swirl. Swirling allows for increased oxygenation, which can bring out more complex secondary aromas.
The first assessment is to determine if the wine is clean or faulty. Faults can include excess levels of brettanomyces, cork taint, volatile acidity or oxidization. Once you’ve determined a wine is free of faults, the next step is to gauge intensity.
Intensity is usually measured on a scale of low, medium or high. If you can smell a wine from a few inches away, it’s generally regarded as high intensity. If you must put your nose slightly inside the glass, that would equate to a medium intensity. Medium-minus and medium-plus cover the ranges in-between. If you can detect the wine’s aroma with the glass just below your nose, it might be considered medium-plus.
Aroma characteristics are where much obscure wine-geek jargon originates. Aromas of pencil shavings, cat pee, rubber hose or wet dog? The tasting grid tries to eliminate these subjective and eccentric descriptors with specific, standardized terms for each aroma cluster.
The description of the palate, or what you taste, is by far the most in-depth category. A complete tasting note would include levels of sweetness, acid, tannin, alcohol, body and intensity. Once again, these are all graded at low, medium and high levels, with plus or minus used as modifiers for the medium range. Flavor characteristics and finish are factored in as well.
With flavor, the wine is to be described in terms of primary attributes like fruit, floral, herbal or spice. Secondary characteristics include oak, earth, and flavors that result from production techniques like malolactic fermentation and lees contact. Tertiary factors can be bottle age, oxidation and long-term fruit development. Just as with the aroma descriptions, fruit should be organized in clusters.
For example, a young Napa Cab could boast black fruit flavors (black cherry, blackcurrant), where a Sonoma Coast Pinot would more likely exude red fruit character (red cherry, strawberry and raspberry).
Once you’ve nailed down the flavor profile, determining the length of the finish and the wine’s overall complexity is the final step.
For the Court of Master Sommeliers’ grid, there are two conclusions to be drawn. The initial conclusion is to deem a wine as Old World or New World, examining the type of climate, possible grape varieties and country of origin. This gives way to a final assessment of vintage, grape, country, region and designation.
The WSET conclusion starts with an assessment of quality and readiness to drink. That leads to a similar final assessment of grape variety and origin, but also includes style and method of production.
While some variance exists between programs, the premise remains the same for any tasting grid. Dissecting a wine using a formal system based on sight, smell, taste and feel can be equal parts art and science, but the first time you’re able to guess a vintage or variety at a blind tasting accurately, the payoff is worth it.
You may want to sit down for this: Thanksgiving is a mere week away! How crazy is that?! But ready or not, here it comes. Which means that both your menu and wine lineup need to start rapidly coming together. Even if you are not hosting (which makes life that much easier) you can still have a huge impact on the meal by bringing the right wines for your family and friends to enjoy. I mean, who doesn’t love the guy who rolls in with a few bottles of great juice?! Which then begs the question… what are the right wines to pair with a traditional Thanksgiving meal?
The great thing about a roasted turkey and all the trimmins is that there are a ton of wines that will pair well with the meal. It just depends on what style of wine you crew prefer. The one possible wine component you may want to try and avoid are very high tannins. Turkey doesn’t have the fat content of red meat, which typically will bind with those tannins. Instead, the tannins can take center stage rendering the turkey and stuffing as bland as opposed to full of flavor. So while just about any wine will work, here are some options that may complement your meal better than others.
The classic white wine pairing with turkey is Riesling. The low alcohol and high acid can be a refreshing complement to the inherent richness of the meal. I prefer to stick with the drier style (Kabinett) as opposed to those that have a sweeter profile (Spatlese). The Willim Alsace Riesling is one of my favorite options for around $15 and for a real value the Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling is consistently solid and goes for under $10 at most retailers.
If you like your whites a little bigger and bolder then a buttery, oaky Chardonnay or Burgundy may be the way to go. Although be careful of the super oaked options, as those woody tannins can stifle the richness of the bird. My favorites from CA right now are from Gary Farrell and Stonestreet (both around $30-35), but I’ve been on a real Chablis kick these days. The searing acidity on those wines will certainly complement your properly roasted bird. On the value side try the Joel Gott Chard from CA or the Fox Run from the Finger Lakes. Both are unoaked clean, vibrant and delightfully refreshing options for around $15.
Traditionally the most commonly recommended red wines to pair with turkey are Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Rhone Blends. Pinot is arguably the best option as the higher acid levels, vibrant fruit and peppery spice really bring out the best in just about any poultry dish. The problem in my family is that no one drinks Pinot. Almost everyone at that table prefers their wines big and opulent and tend to reach for a massive Napa Cab over an elegant red Burgundy. But I plan to enjoy my deep fried turkey with a healthy glass or two of the Davis Bynum 2014 RRV Pinot, even if I’m the only one at the table that does.
So the pairing that usually works best for my crew is a hearty Cali Zinfandel or Red Blend. They tend to have loads of big, dark and spicy fruit but a little lighter body and softer tannins than Cab. Seghesio produces high quality Zins across their entire portfolio, and if you want to go for a mouth filling red blend than grab The Prisoner, as that is always a crowd pleaser. This year I’m going with the Method North Coast Proprietary Red. This hearty blend of Syrah, Zin and Petite Sirah is balanced and layered with flavors of red and black cherry, blueberry, vanilla, ground espresso and brown sugar… a perfect partner for your perfectly prepared Thanksgiving bird.
Wines from Southern Rhone typically consist of Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre with Grenache usually taking center stage. Grenache leans on the lighter side in terms of body with good acid, spicy berry fruit and plush tannins. Blend in some meaty Syrah and a dollup of dark Mouvedre and you have an ideal blend for your Thanksgiving table. Cotes du Rhone Villages wines offer a step up in quality (usually) over a standard Cotes du Rhone, and still can be found for less than $20. However they have a hard time standing up to those bigger and more complex Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas wines, which is why those are just about impossible to find for under $40. Some value producers include Barville, Santa Duc, Chapoutier and Louis Bernard. But if you are from the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ mentality then you can’t go wrong with any of the big dogs such as Domaine de Pegau, Vieux Telegraphe, Chateau de Beaucastel or Saint Cosme. Just be sure to give those bigger wines some oxygen before you start digging into them, or they may come off a little tight and inexpressive.
Let’s be honest, it’s pretty easy to go out and spend $40 -$50 on a bottle of wine and feel confident that you are getting something that should be pretty damn tasty. I say ‘should be’ because believe it or not, there are plenty of disappointing wines at that price point. But more often than not, a wine of that price should possess some sort of quality in terms of region, grape selection, production and aging. But what is much harder is to find those $10-15 bottles that taste like something 2-3X the price… but they are out there my friends. Sometimes you have to stomach through a bunch of swill to find those great values, but like anything in life it takes a bit of determination and hard work to discover those hidden gems.
Check out this list of 15 wines, in no particular order, which have a tremendous QPR (Quality Price Ratio) and will run under $15. I am not including vintages as these wines are consistently solid just about every year and possess similar flavor profiles regardless of vintage (for the most part)… Cheers!
Belle Ambiance Pinot Grigio, CA – This is like the house white wine for my block. A PG with some body to match up to the acidity, with pretty floral notes surrounding the citrus fruit center.
Fox Run Dry Riesling, FLX – Keep it local with one of my favorite Finger Lakes value wines. A little like Sprite on the palate (lemon/lime with just a quick hit of pettilance) with fresh grapefruit and searing acidity, a home run pairing for any kind of chilled shellfish.
Louis Jadot Chardonnay Bourgogne Blanc – Classic Burgundy entry level Chardonnay with a concise balance of crisp apple and pear fruit, bright acidity and just a hint of that buttery character.
NV House Wine Rosé Can – Good wine is coming in all shapes and sizes these days, so don’t let the can scare you! This is a great summer sipper, porch pounder…whatever you want to call it. Fresh and bright strawberry fruit with an appealing rose petal note.
Vidal Fleury Cotes du Rhone – One of the biggest and most expressive CDRs at this price point. Concentrated red and black cherry fruit, peppery spice and mineral notes are all in balance as is the bright acidity and firm tannins. Easily could pass as a Gigondas for twice the price.
Cantele Salice Salentino Riserva – Made from 100% Negroamaro, the dominant grape in this area of Puglia, this has a fairly intense nose featuring dried fruit such as raisin, prune and fig. But the candied blackberry and cherry notes come through on the palate and flow through the dry, pleasing finish. Big yet balanced…
Purple Malbec Cahors – Chateau Lagrezette’s entry level red, this is simply a wonderful expression of Malbec from the motherland (France) with bright acidity, vibrant black fruits and just a dollop of black pepper.
Seaglass Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara – This is a perennial ‘best value’ Pinot for me as it stays light and lively on the palate but exudes true Pinot character, which most Pinots at this price point fail to do.
Underwood Pinot Noir, OR (Can) – Am I having this with a roasted duck? No… But for a light everyday wine this has enough fruit and depth to make it fully enjoyable. And do you know what doesn’t break and shatter all over the floor for your kids to step on and get little pieces of glass stuck in their feet?? Cans… that’s what.
Slow Press Cabernet, CA – This has to be the best CA Cab for the Price on the market. All that Paso Robles fruit gives this full bodied wine an opulent core of black cherry, cassis and plum with just a kiss of sweetness. Plush and supple, but with enough depth to enjoy with a grilled steak.
Rosso di Ca’Momi, CA – A fun blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and Petite Sirah. Medium to full bodied with a fairly intense nose of toasted vanilla, blackberry and clove. Super value at around $10.
Chateau Souverain Merlot, CA – Sorry Miles, but I am drinking THIS f&%king Merlot! It has some real umph to it with big dark fruit flavors, toasty oak laced with clove and spice aromas. Probably the best wine of the bunch here…
Columbia Crest Grand Estates, WA – While the Syrah is my favorite in the line, this value brand under Ste. Michelle Estates is continually awarded “Best Buy” accolades from top publications, and for good reason. Tough to find a bad one in the lineup.
Handcraft Wines, CA – The Delicato family produces this line of wines which offer tremendous value and drinkability across the board. Taste the Dark Red Blend and the Petite Sirah and you will understand exactly what I mean.
Bota Box – Boxed wine is not how you may remember it. This is no Franzia or Almaden, so get over the stigma already. Bota is producing really solid juice from all over the world (although mostly CA). And at $20 a 3L box (or $5 a bottle) there is no better value on the market, particular for the whites like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.
It’s hot… It’s like Africa hot… Tarzan couldn’t take this kind of hot. While the Biloxi Blues fans will get that reference, the rest of us can just agree that it is really starting to heat up around here. This is about the time where the shift to white wine from red starts to kick in.. But not just any white wine, as certain ones are far more thirst quenching and refreshing than others. Sure, I’ll still reach for a hearty Syrah or a spicy, juicy Zin when the grill is rocking with all kinds of meat. But for Summer sippin’ I tend to reach for those crisp, aromatic and tongue tickling whites…. like the ones listed below.
Chenin Blanc is one of the most versatile white grape varieties in the world, as it leads to a wide variety of styles of wine. In warmer climates, or if picked later in the season, it can lead to an off dry or even sweeter wine leading to aromas and flavors of honeysuckle, almond and ginger snap. But in cooler climates, and when fermented to the fullest, Chenin wines are crisp, dry and mouthwatering with fresh green, apple, pear and just hints of that honey note. The most expressive examples come from South Africa (where it is also called Steen) and the Loire Valley in France. In fact, in Vouvray (region in the Loire) many producers will craft a sparkling version such as Domaine Pichot which is always one of my favorite ways to commence any Summer grillin’ session. If you’re not into the bubbles, their Domaine Le Peu de la Moriette is quite a stellar still wine.
Albarino is a white grape mostly grown in the Northwest of Spain and Portugal with some experimentation happening in California and other new world wine regions. Most of the Albarino labelled wine you find on the shelves at your favorite wine shop comes from the Riax Baixes DO in Galicia, prime real estate for Albarino. These wines tend to have a bit more depth than other citrus driven whites (like Sauvignon Blanc) with searing acidity, discerning botanical aromas as well as white flower and stone fruit flavors. This not only makes it an ideal white to enjoy on its own, but a wonderful food pairing wine particularly with all kinds of chilled shellfish. Martin Codax is a very popular producer, and makes a widely available and solid Albarino, however I prefer the Bodega Eidosela, Ethereo with its mineral and tangy character for about the same price.
Speaking of Albarino… Vinho Verde is a coastal wine region in Portugal just south of Rias Baixes where Alvarinho (same as the Albarino grape) also flourishes. While the literal translation is ‘green wine’, the more appropriate explanation of the name is ‘young wine’ as these are typically light and fruity with a touch petillance. Reds and roses are produced in the region as well, made mostly from indigenous varieties, but the majority of wine that comes from the area is the Alvarinho based white (with other indigenous grapes like Loureiro and Arinto possibly mixed in). They are typically light straw or yellow in color, fruity and floral on the nose with a clean, lean and mouthwatering feel on the palate. And because these wines are typically quite low in alcohol, feel free to enjoy that second glass virtually guilt free! Vinho Verde options tend to be rather affordable, such as the Casa Do Valle Grande Escolha Vinho Verde which you can find for under $15.
Gruner Veltliner may be one of the most misunderstood and underrated wines in the world, but that seems to be changing as some of the finest examples are receiving well deserved high accolades and ratings. Making up about 1/3 of all Austrian grape plantings, this spicy and aromatic wine comes in a variety of styles. Even though the bottle may look like a Riesling, GV does not have much in common with the popular German variety aside from the high acidity and some similar citrus notes. These wines typically feature more stone fruit than green fruit with white pepper, a lime or lemon note and a cool white pepper (or herbaceous) component. Some of the richer GV wines will age wonderfully where honey, almonds and a creamy texture prevail… which can come with a higher price tag. But for around $15 there is an ample amount of light and zippy Gruners to choose from, including this Domane Wachau Federspiel Terrassen Gruner Veltliner… thankfully it is much easier to drink than it is to pronounce. And keep an eye out for some FLX Gruner out there as the experimentation is starting to come to fruition.
Wine has been a passion of mine for just about as long as I have been allowed to drink it. From the bottles of straw bottomed Chianti and Pere Patriarche Rouge on my grandparent’s dinner table, to a 1986 Premier Cru Gevrey-Chambertin that my pops selected one night at Spark’s Steak house (my ‘epiphany wine’), it has always been a part of my life. The more I sipped, the more curious I became about everything that went into wine and what made it so damn tasty. Once I started working in the biz, I decided I needed to step up my ‘wine geek’ status a notch or two which was when I decided to enroll in the WSET. The Wine and Spirits Education trust is based in England with satellite schools throughout the globe and is one of the most recognized and respected wine education organizations in the world. They offer a variety of programs starting with a basic Level 1 Award in Wines all the way up the wine education ladder to one of the most grueling and intense programs out there, the notorious Level 4 Diploma in Wine and Spirits.
I entered the program through the International Wine Center in NYC 7 years ago at the Level 3 Advanced Level. While the Diploma Level gets most of the attention and accolades, the Advanced Exam is not to be discounted as it is a serious test of wine knowledge and blind tasting skill. It consists of a written theory section containing both multiple choice and short essay questions followed by a blind tasting of two wines under stringent time limitations. So after successfully passing the exam, the fateful decision had to be made…. To Diploma or Not To Diploma.
With a full time job at Wine Enthusiast and at the time having a 3 and 1 year old at home, I probably should have had my head examined. But having completed a Masters in Elementary Education program in my younger years, and more importantly having this deep rooted passion for wine, I was infinitely intrigued to see what all the hype was behind the Level 4 Diploma. There are 6 units to the program, each with its own exam. In order to complete the program you must pass all 6 within a 3 year time frame, and every one of the tests at this level makes the Advanced test seem like taking an eye exam with a magnifying glass. There are separate Units for Sparkling Wine, Fortified Wine, Spirits, Wine Production, The Business of Wine and the Granddaddy of them all… Unit 3 – Light Wine. ‘Light’ is a complete oxymoron here as this makes up half of the program and is the heaviest of all in terms of information, tasting and time expended. The WSET uses the term Light Wine, but it is synonymous with ‘still wine’, so this section covers every region in the wine producing world and every wine that comes out of those regions…literally.
I won’t go into the gory details of what is entailed in terms of studying… but let’s just say that my alarm was set for 4:30 every morning and my home, car and office were all decorated with homemade wine flash cards. Not to mention the inordinate amount of blind tastings (not drinking mind you) that my poor wife had to administer late into the night to train all the senses. So after passing a majority of the other units and heading into my third year of the program, it was time to take on Goliath. Who would have thought there was so much to know about wine?!? How many hectares of vineyards are planted in Valais? What grapes are used in the Nagy Somlo region of Hungary? At what time did they pick the grapes for the 1973 Chateau Montelena award winning Chard? What was the name of the third child of the Chateau Margaux winemaker in 1982? That sort of thing.
The Unit 3 exam is a 12 wine blind tasting followed by an extensive written section. The WSET’s goal is to see if you are able to identify specific characteristics in wine, connecting them to particular grapes and regions, judging quality and ageability while defining the wine using the their ‘tasting grid’. A major benefit of the WSET model is the credit awarded by properly describing the wine characteristics. So even if you are incorrect in identifying the grape and/or region, if your description grooves with the majority of WSET examiners grading your exam you still have a shot at earning enough marks to pass.
After months and months of blind tasting and sleeping with the Oxford Companion to Wine under my pillow praying for some form of osmosis, the day had finally arrived. The first flight was to examine 3 wines all produced from the same grape variety. In front of me sat 3 lemon colored wines with varying intensity, so I started going through the tasting grid trying not to jump to any conclusions (which is easier said than done). I detected grapefruit and some grassy notes on the first wine, so I ignored the grid as clearly these were all Sauvignon Blanc. Luckily, my snap judgement was correct as all 3 wines were indeed produced from Sauvignon Blanc. Of course, you do not find out results until about 3 months after the fact, leaving around 90 days to crucify myself for falling into the most obvious blind tasting pitfall. But the grapefruit don’t lie… most of the time.
The next 3 wines all were produced in the same country. As I sniffed the first white wine, a hint of honey emerged over the apple and pear fruit core…obviously Chenin. Having already hastily predetermined the grape variety I moved down the line to the light red wine which emitted pretty aromas of red cherry, strawberry and a black pepper spice, so this had to be Pinot. My brain was racing trying to connect the dots. Chenin runs rampant in the Loire valley and the Pinot had Burgundy written all over it…France it is. The last sample was a sweet style dessert wine with quite a distinctive honeysuckle aroma, but it didn’t have that Sauternes-like character. It must be a late harvest Chenin from Bonnezeaux or somewhere in the Loire. Or could this be one of those trick tasting flights? South Africa produces plenty of Chenin and some Pinot, but this Pinot didn’t have those classic South African earthy undertones, and it felt like a cooler climate style of Chenin… so it simply HAD to be from the Loire.
Or, not so much… the first wine wasn’t even Chenin. It was a Kabinett Riesling from GERMANY! Both wines can have apple and pear fruit with a slight honey note as well, which is exactly why you don’t jump to conclusions. The red wine was in fact Pinot, but Spätburgunder would have been more appropriate in this case. And of course, the final wine was not an obscure late harvest Chenin, but an obvious Auslese Riesling.
In a word…FAIL!
The next flight of 3 needed to be placed in a ‘good, better, best’ order with specific reasons as to why. Moments after the wines were poured the entire room filled up with black fruit, smoke and spice… blatantly Syrah. However there was some clear evidence to back up my impulsive guess as all the wines had dark berry fruit with either sweet spices, smoked meat or olive tapenade. I had them all pegged as Northern Rhone wines, and while they turned out to be fairly high quality Australian Shiraz with some age on them, I felt like I nailed that section which provided a much needed boost of confidence going into the final flight.
The final 3 wines for the exam were a random sampling of any wine from anywhere. In front of me stood a white, rosé and red wine looking like Mariano Rivera at the bottom of the 9th ready to take me down. The white had a lovely nose of green apple, white flowers with just a touch of lemon peel. WIth its high, crisp acidity, this one really felt like a dry Riesling. It ended up being a dry, delicate Torrontes (which can carry Riesling character) but I was positive on my call so I was feeling strong heading into the Rosé. Fresh strawberry and cherry fruit, a little rose petal note and wonderfully bright acidity. I remember thinking to myself: ‘If this isn’t a Cotes de Provence Rosé than I simply have no idea what the hell I am doing’. Luckily, that is exactly what it was.
Having believed I was 2 for 2 so far, I was feeling like Bacchus himself going into wine number 3. I got within about 3 inches of the glass and that was all I needed. I tried to fight off those jump to conclusion demons, but how could it be anything else?! It was deep ruby in color exuding intense aromas of black cherry, cassis, vanilla and hints of eucalyptus with opulent fruit on the palate, high tannins and a long, dry finish. I figured the WSET took pity on us and finished things off with a lay-up… a high quality Napa Cab. But of course, the conclusion-jump once again landed me in the muck. This dead ringer for a Napa Cab was in fact a new world style Gran Reserva Rioja. But, I must have nailed just about every note in this section as I miraculously Passed with Merit on the final 3 wines.
With the morning 2.5 hour tasting exam in the books, it was time for the written theory section for the final 3 hours after a much needed lunch break. I would have preferred the order reversed, as all of that tasting (even though you’re spitting) does take a toll on the mind and body. But nonetheless, it was game time. 5 of the possible 7 essay questions had to be answered with a certain amount of marks to earn a pass. I won’t bore you with the details of this section, but let’s just say I am thankful that I committed just about the entire Oxford Companion to Wine to memory, as there were some ridiculously obscure questions on regions, grapes, events and wine styles for sure. And trying to beat the clock for this part of the exam was even more challenging than for the blind tasting.
Turns out Tom Petty was right… the only thing more stressful than taking the exam is the three month waiting period to find out the results. After months and months of nail biting, self-crucifying and continued wine tasting in anticipation (without spitting this time), the irrevocable results had finally arrived. I braced myself for the worst and prayed that I passed just one of the two sections. I hesitantly opened up the envelope with my heart racing in full panic mode. I peaked just barely enough to see the results and was elated to learn that I passed BOTH the tasting and written parts of the exam. With a giant fist pump and a roar of ‘Hells Yeah!!’ that could be heard all around my block, it was over. Mission… accomplished.