Blind tasting Fino Sherry

Q: Dear Rachel,

I am struggling to assess acid, especially where there is residual sugar and high alcohol. For instance when tasting a Fino, the low body and dry style for me always makes the acid stand out. I know Palomino is a low acid grape variety so will write low/medium-, but that is not what I'm tasting. 

In a wine like these, do you have any tips/tricks for identifying the acidity level?


A: Thanks for your message. That’s a really good question. 

When we're blind tasting in exam conditions, it's important to remember that our assessment of a wine's acidity, sweetness, or other category is not just about how we perceive the wine, it's a question of recognizing and articulating its underlying qualities. So, as you mention, a wine can taste high in acidity when we know it's technically low in acidity!

When tasting a fortified wine which has very high residual sugar, it definitely becomes more challenging to determine the acidity level. For some, like a great Madeira, the acidity will sing in your mouth despite the sugar. Another clue of higher acidity is that despite the sweetness and alcohol you’re registering, the wine tastes fresh, bright, or balanced.

A sweet wine with a flabby flavour profile or lower acidity can sit heavy on the palate and taste flat, or have overwhelming sweetness or alcohol without balance.

Palomino like you mentioned, is a grape that produces lower acidity wine, and its juice is often adjusted with some tartaric acid before it undergoes fermentation - but Fino can have a bright, refreshing flavour profile, and sometimes a crisp salinity too (as in Manzanilla).

For me, the freshness that could taste like acidity comes from the biological aging/resulting acetaldehyde (AKA it smells distinctly of flor). Grapes for Fino often come from the best sections of albariza soil, plus the flor consumes glycerine, resulting in a lighter body.

With Fino, the flavour from flor will be immediately recognizable on the nose and palate, and you should ask yourself whether it’s there for each pale fortified you taste blind, so you can check in with your palate about whether the acidity is as high as it’s being perceived.

I found the analytical info for Fino and Oloroso from the Consejo website, it was curious to see Oloroso is listed as potentially having higher ranges of TA as it doesn't always taste that way on the palate!

From the Sherry.Wine website

From the Sherry.Wine website

From the Sherry.Wine website (check out the TA and Glycerine levels)

From the Sherry.Wine website (check out the TA and Glycerine levels)

Also of interest is this tasting article from Decanter China, in which Fongyee Walker MW suggests tasting a Fino (low acidity, high alcohol) against a Hunter Valley Semillon (high acidity, low alcohol).


What #blindtastingfailure feels like...

What #blindtastingfailure feels like...

What's the #1 mistake you can make when blind tasting?

In my opinion, the biggest mistake is: deciding what you are tasting before you are finished assessing the wine!

I was recently at a blind tasting where we were doing 12 wines (all red) in a mock Master of Wine exam setting. We had just over two hours to taste the wines and write up our essays. The problem, I went into the practice exam having got into town very late the night before. Definitely not enough sleep to stay sharp while doing a substantial flight of red wines. Plus, I'd skipped breakfast.

Tasting humble pie: I got to the last two reds, the end was in sight! After so many tannic wines, I was ready to be done. We were told they were from the same country and were made from the same grape. They had a medium ruby colour.

I smelled the nose and got some bright red fruit, and a hint of what struck me as aromas of semi-carbonic maceration. I somehow decided right then and there that they must be Beaujolais

Big mistake. Huge. {Pretty Woman reference}


They were Syrah.

Re-tasting them after the bottles were revealed, right away, there was the gamey, savoury note. Plus the distinctive peppery flavour. The assertive tannins. 

While tasting, a voice in my head had said: these have too much tannin to be Gamay. But instead of listening, I tried to make Gamay fit by postulating they were Morgon.

How did I ever convince myself these were Beaujolais? It was a really bad ID.

I know how: not enough sleep. Not having a proper breakfast and glass of water before tasting. By rushing through to identify the wines before doing a proper assessment.

Everyone makes mistakes. I'm sharing this in the hopes the next time you have an exam that you avoid some of these pitfalls. The #1 being, always assess the wine objectively, then use deductive reasoning to try and identify what it could be. The mind is a powerful thing, and put on the wrong track, will tell you that you're smelling and tasting things that aren't there.

Next time I do a mock exam, I'll be sure to remind myself of the Parable of the Syrah Beaujolais.

Thanks for reading! Commiserate in the comments, and if you're brave, share the worst ID you've made in a blind tasting.

Cheers & Cin Cin,



blindtasting for wset diploma

Q: Hi Rachel, I'm having some trouble with blind tastings in picking out primary, secondary and tertiary flavour characters.

For example, characters such as nutty I find difficult to pick out, and dried fruit could be be either primary, secondary, or tertiary. How do you differentiate?

A: The way I learn to pick up flavours and aromas I personally find challenging, is to taste examples that show very high intensities of that item.

For example, I was having trouble picking up on VA (volatile acidity), until I tasted a Chateau Musar red. Now I associate VA with that wine, and the scent of a freshly opened bag of dried fruit! Once you develop a flavour memory, it becomes much easier to identify that note in the future.

My rules of thumb when tasting, and deciding on primary/secondary/tertiary: if I’m getting mostly ripe fresh fruit, neutral, or citrus/floral character, it’s youthful/primary. If I’m smelling and tasting mostly winemaking notes (especially oak/oak spice/toast/vanilla/nutty, MLF/lees stirring/cream/butter) along with fruit I slot it into secondary/developing, and if it’s dominated by earth, spice, leather, nuts, tobacco, or faded/dried fruit, but no fresh fruit, it’s tertiary/developed.

For your questions on nuttiness and dried fruit, I’d start with an example that showed each.

Nutty notes: I often get this where oak or extended lees aging is showing up in the glass (secondary), an aged/oxidative style of white like white Rioja (tertiary), and often on fortifieds that have seen extended aging in barrel like tawny port, darker sherries, Rutherglen muscat etc. I sometimes taste a fresh almond quality in wines made from Marsanne (primary).

WINES: I’d try an Oloroso or Amontillado sherry, as I often get roast nuts on these wines (even though it’s a fortified, I think sherry is a good place to start for ID’ing nutty in non-fortified wines), and a white Rioja from a traditional producer.

Dried fruit notes: I pick up dried fruit in three main ways - where it’s dried out on the vine in a hot windswept climate (such as in Lodi) and some of the berries have raisinated, which can be primary in a youthful wine. Or, where the grapes have been dried for appassimento style wines which have a sweet raisin-y note (secondary), and in older or oxidized wines where what was once fresh fruit has faded to a softer earthier dried fruit note (tertiary).

WINES: There’s 'youthful' Amarone for picking up secondary aromas (winemaking) of dried fruit. A good quality Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel or McLaren Vale Grenache, which can have great intensity of primary wind dried/ripe fruit on the nose and palate. For tertiary dried fruit, I'd taste an older Chianti, or if you can get an older Amarone, that would make a great comparison with a younger vintage (secondary vs tertiary).



PS: Have a blindtasting tip for differentiating between primary-secondary-tertiary, or a new question for me? Comment below!


blindtasting q&a.jpg

Q: Hi Rachel, I have a question about tasting.

What are the elements of “Long length”?  When do you say it has long length? Is it the acidity? Or tannins? Or Alcohol?

A: Great question.

When I think about a wine’s length, it’s all about how long after it's spit out/swallowed that pleasant flavours of the wine linger on the palate.

When I spit out a wine, and right away the taste fades or turns sour/bitter/sickly sweet etc, that’s a short finish. 

If the flavours echo through my palate for a long time, and I can still sense the wine after it's gone, that’s a long finish - and if it’s in between those two, then it’s a medium finish.

Some wines linger for what seems an age, and those are the best!

I believe balance has a lot to do with length. If a wine is too hot with alcohol, or has thick rustic tannins, or unbalanced acidity, it can’t have a long pleasant finish. A wine that has those elements in harmony, along with complex flavours, can achieve long length... and long length is a hallmark of a high quality wine.



PS: leave your blindtasting comments and questions below! I'll answer them in this ongoing Q&A series.


How excited am I to have my two entries into Jancis' wine writing competition published today?

Pretty darn excited!

The first article is a fairly cheeky list of wine writing tips from the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, and the second is a story about how starlings came to the Okanagan/Similkameen courtesy of Shakespeare.

Of the published entries, the winner could potentially become a columnist with JR!

Read the articles here.


IWSC Icewine Flight

One of the most interesting experiences I've had since starting a wine career, is learning to be a wine judge. 

I applied to the International Wine & Spirit Competition when almost done the Diploma, and was accepted as an Associate Judge. This is a fantastic program in London which allows students to sit in during judging and to score the wines with the panel, with the caveat that a trainee's scores are not part of the final tally. (I'll include the link at the bottom of this article for those interested in applying). 

This year I returned to the IWSC, this time as a fully fledged Judge, sitting on the USA and Canada wine panels. This year, my scores counted! Here's a rundown of what happens in the judging room, along with a few lessons I picked up from the expert tasters I worked with.

Calibrate Your Palate

Each day of judging begins with a warm up flight (or 'kite'), of two red wines and two white wines. We're given the grape varietal, vintage, and provenance of the wines on our summary sheet for the day, which also lists every flight to be judged. For example: Warm Up - Sangiovese, Chianti Classico, 2014. P1. P2. Garganega, Soave, 2015. P3. P4.

The wines are brought out by the pouring team in ISO glasses that have a little numbered sticker on the base which correlates to the wine judging list. All the bottles are stored in a separate room, and our samples come to us pre-poured, so judges never find out what producer/brands they're tasting from.

We take a few minutes to score the warm up flight, then one by one, call out our score to be recorded and tallied. The chief judge scores last. We write down the total score the wine achieved, and the average. The average is used to determine whether the wine has received a medal.

During the warm up, it's a chance to sort out your palate for the day, and calibrate your scoring to quality, which was especially important as an associate. Coming into the very first day, I wasn't sure how the scores worked! 

Use The Range

Wines can be scored on a scale up to 100. One of the key lessons I took away was to use the full range of numbers, and not to sit safely in a zone of say, 77-80 points. If a wine is superlative, give it a commensurate score. If a wine is a Silver, give it a solid silver score and not barely a silver score.

If a wine is fatally flawed, it gets sub-49 (if a wine is flawed, a fresh bottle is opened and judges mark the second sample. If the second bottle is also flawed, it's a shame).

I've been asked whether a great wine will cause disagreement among judges. What generally happened with a fantastic wine was a unanimous recognition of its high quality, which was almost uncannily accurate among the panel. So, a superior wine has specific qualities which rise above subjective opinions!

A flight of sparkling wines from BC's Okanagan Valley

A flight of sparkling wines from BC's Okanagan Valley

Learn From Experienced Judges

Judges from around the world were on the various panels - Masters of Wine were thick on the ground, and trainees visited from Plumpton College and various corners of the globe (California, Italy, and Hungary last week). Everyone had unique perspectives that enhanced the judging experience. I had the pleasure of sitting on panels chaired by Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, who shared a miniature masterclass on scoring icewine with us.


The chief judge decides on how the flights of wines may be grouped together. The day starts with reds, then progresses to sparkling, then dry whites, and finishes with any sweet wines.

After the flight arrives, we commence, tasting in silence (no phones during judging). We'd nose the wines first, getting consensus on any that may be showing flaws. While nosing, I marked with an asterisk on my marking sheet any that had particularly lovely aromas.

Then, I'd work my way through the wines, making notes as I went. I tasted through all of them, scored, then tasted through again. As I re-tasted, I made a point of not looking at my previous score, to see whether my assessment was accurate against my first impression. 

Once everyone was finished, we'd call out our scores, always in the same order of judges. The chief judge reviewed the scores at the end of this process, to be fair to any wines that were sitting on the boundary between medals, or between no medal and a bronze - or any wines which had been brought up or down by one judge versus a consensus of scores. I was impressed with how fair to the wines the process was!

A flight of Okanagan Valley Merlot

A flight of Okanagan Valley Merlot


What question do you really want to ask... is it whether judges get paid? I know I was curious.

I learned that top tier judges, such as Masters of Wine, will often be paid to be judges at the various competitions around the world, although sometimes it is just their airfare and hotel that is covered. One judge mentioned receiving first class airfare, which sounds lovely, and I wonder whether that still happens.

As an associate judge at IWSC, you are paid in experience. For full judges, there is a per diem.

Another question is about finding out who has made the wines we taste. Do we get to learn the names? No! We have to wait for the medal winners to be announced to find out. I know that I have a few marked down that I'm very excited to learn about.


Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

Cheers, Rachel

Link to IWSC Judging



what i learned in the wset diploma.jpg

I've had a draft of this post in the works for a while, but I've been simmering over what I wanted to say since completing the WSET Diploma last year.

I know many readers just sat for the January 2017 Unit 3 Diploma exam, and wanted to share this with you in case you find yourself in the same boat I was in...


"I think I failed the exam"

Those were my first thoughts as I handed in my Unit 3 exam. Really, I felt gutted and depressed at the thought of having to go back and study for this monster exam again. I felt like I was disappointing my family, who'd seen me spend so much time preparing, and my friends, for missing a lot of fun events and maybe having to miss even more. 

If you find yourself here, have hope. Have hope that you did pass the exam, that you know your stuff. Sure, wallow for a while, but give yourself a pep talk too.


Is That All There Is? (cue Peggy Lee)

It's probably sacrilege to say this, but I felt both incredibly free (no more studying!), and a bit lost after the final Diploma exam. What would I do now? Now that I had all this information in my head, what would I do with it? 

It was almost like having to reconnect with the person I was when I first embarked on the program - I had to try and remember = what were my goals back then, and did they match up with my current situation.


Memorizing vs. Knowing

Anyone who's read the Unit 3 curriculum knows how vast and yet, detailed, it is. There's a massive amount to learn, memorize, and retain. Some regions were easy to recall, and they were the ones I had travelled to and experienced first hand.

In the months after writing the exam, as I waited for my mark (and prayed to St Jude, please let me have passed this exam!), those memorized details started to fade. I'd be asked about some obscure grape varietal or appellation, that I knew I should remember, and it was on the tip of my tongue but not springing to mind. I realized the exam was over, but the learning wasn't.

If I wanted to truly know these wines and regions, I'd have to keep working, keep reading and tasting, and especially travel to visit them. But, the wine world is so big, I'd have to get specific and focus. The new challenge became: where did I most want to go and what opportunities could I find that would take me there. 

In the months after the final exam, I went to Valpolicella, home of one of my favourite wines (Amarone), to Lodi, California, in a pilgrimage to visit the old Zin vineyards (incredible), and I'm now planning a trip to the Douro.

Where do you most want to go and experience?


Tasting Wine For Pleasure

Right after the exam, I found myself wanting a crisp, refreshing lager more than a celebratory glass of wine. I was a bit worried, like I might not recover the sense of wonder and flavour that had drawn me to study wine in the first place. 

Over time, the romance of wine returned to me. It became a real pleasure again to order at the restaurant, or wander and explore a wine shop. If you find yourself forgetting why you love wine, don't worry, it'll come back to you.


On To The Next Challenge

Just when I'd managed to put the exam out of my mind, I received my pass. If you'd talked to me right after the exam, I'd have sworn up and down - that's it for me! No more wine certifications!

But then.... the sting of the exam started to fade. The memory of those many hours preparing, and the stress, had faded. It had even begun to take on a slightly rosy glow. I think one day, I'll even look back fondly on that time ;)

What's next: well, there's the Master of Wine program. I know several of my classmates undertook the Diploma because it's a pathway to the MW - and some are already in the MW now! Personally, I'm glad I've had this year to go back over the Diploma curriculum, and the time to try to learn and understand more beyond memorization. 

Many people who take the Diploma love a challenge, and have a desire to achieve. They're curious and have a love of learning. So here's my question for you: what do you want to do after the WSET Diploma - what's next for you? Or, if you're just embarking on the Diploma - what are your goals in taking this program?




One of the best things about the wine industry are the incredible people you meet, many of whom found wine and knew, that was it!

Just like you and I, they needed to make a career out of this passion. But how did they translate this love of wine into a business or profession?

Here are some wine career stories I've come across, that I hope will inspire you in your journey.

How Jancis got her start as a wine writer.

How Whitney became a sommelier

You can find more wine playlists in my YouTube channel - where I've put together over 60 video playlists for each wine region and type of fortified and spirit, to help with your studying.

Do you have a video or podcast to recommend about how a figure in the wine industry got their start? Please share your wisdom in the comments!


Have you heard about this incredible travelling trade tour in the Rhône Valley?

Taking place this year from April 10-13, it's a great way to explore this important wine region, and open to media & people in the wine trade.

Visitors will travel from Avignon up into the Northern Rhône to Mauves, Tain l'Hermitage, and finally to Ampuis, with trade tastings and seminars at each stop. The tastings and events are free, and you'll need to cover your own travel and hotel costs. What a way to learn more about the Rhône!

A trade tasting in Avignon

A trade tasting in Avignon

Of the over 650 producers who will be at the tastings (pouring an impressive array of 4,000+ wines), you'll find wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Beaumes de Venise, Tavel, and more from the Southern Rhône while in Avignon. In Tain l'Hermitage and Mauves, you'll explore wines from Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, Cornas and Saint-Peray. In Ampuis, get ready to learn more about the wines of Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu.

Not a bad spot to taste wine in!

Not a bad spot to taste wine in!

You can find out more about Découvertes and register here.

For those of us who'd like to go but can't make it this time because we're busy studying, I found an educational game in the milieu of Carmen Sandiego produced by Rhône Valley Wines, called Le Rhône Valley Club. Once you register, you can log in to learn with all kinds of activities. A fun way to review the region!


All images courtesy of Rhône Valley Wines.


Do you set New Year goals? I pulled up my 2016 goals to take a peek at what I set out to achieve, and realized how many items related to wine, including finishing the WSET Diploma.

For 2017, I thought it would be fun to set a completely new set of goals totally specific to wine, and hope you can join in with me.

Last Year's Goals

Here are a few things I worked on last year:

Train as a wine judge: One of the most incredible things I set out to do was attend the International Wine & Spirit Competition, to train as a wine judge. The WSET has a program where Diploma students can apply to attend as an Associate Judge and learn firsthand how to judge wine. The application details are available in the WSET Global portal. I flew into London for several days of judging US and Canadian wines, and it was one of the coolest wine experiences I've had. I got the news a few weeks ago that I'd been promoted to Full Judge status, and will be back to London to judge this spring. Very exciting! If you're completing your Diploma right now, I highly recommend applying for this opportunity.

Become a VIA Italian Wine Ambassador: Vinitaly Academy runs a fantastic program in Verona, Italy each year. You get five days of classroom instruction from Ian d'Agata (author of Native Wine Grapes of Italy), and a full pass to Vinitaly wine festival, along with the chance to attend exclusive tastings around the city (our class saw Sting at a private performance in a palace at OperaWine!). It was wonderful meeting wine students from around the world. I also spent some extra time touring Valpolicella, Lake Garda, and Venice, and loved my time in what's called the Second Rome (aka Verona - it has lots of ruins and ancient wine cellars under the restaurants). If you're into Italian wine, you can apply to the program here. Caveat: the exam is very tough :O

Work on a vineyard: Last summer, my husband and I bought a five acre organic vineyard in BC's Similkameen Valley. It's a beautiful place filled with organic farms and orchards, just west of the Okanagan Valley, and a 3.5 hour drive from Vancouver. The Similkameen has all kinds of wildlife (hawks, quails, bears, coyotes), and skies that are always changing due to the winds blowing in from four directions. The vineyard is a fixer-upper project, and hasn't been pruned in a few years, so I'm looking forward to learning first hand how to restore the vines to productivity, and even graft new varietals. Phylloxera isn't so bad there, so many vines in the area are own-rooted.

{Do you have a suggestion for a red grape that will do well in a windy, short season area, where it can get to 40 degrees celsius in summer? Gamay, Zinfandel & Cabernet Franc are in the running}

The vineyard in autumn. You can see the Chardonnay vines are looking a little scraggly!

The vineyard in autumn. You can see the Chardonnay vines are looking a little scraggly!

Write a book: For several years, I've been dreaming of writing a guide to the wineries of the Okanagan & Similkameen. My book Winetripping was published last summer and it was a thrill to see this project come to life after visiting and researching hundreds of local wineries. Most important was how much I learned about BC wine and wineries, and supporting those wineries by promoting visitors and wine lovers to buy directly from them!

Setting 2017 Goals

Here are some ideas for planning your own wine-related goals for the upcoming year:

Travel to _____: Where's somewhere you've always wanted to visit, to try the local wines? For me, it's Portugal, to stay in Oporto and tour the Douro Valley. 

Try _______ wine: What wine have you always read about and wanted to try, and how can you make this happen? Or, what's a wine area that you want to get to know better? I want to try older vintages of wine from classic regions (such as Bordeaux, Vintage Port, and Champagne), something that doesn't happen too often as they can be expensive - I'm planning a group tasting so that everyone can share and enjoy the wine together. In terms of regions, I want to taste more wines from the lesser seen appellations of California.

Take the ______ wine course: Is there a wine designation or course you want to complete this year? Maybe it's the final unit of the WSET Diploma, the French Wine Scholar program, or becoming a Court of Master Sommeliers Certified Somm. Maybe you're thinking of applying to enter the Master of Wine program? That's my big education goal for the year - finger's crossed!

________ wine skill: What's the #1 wine skill you want to master in 2017? It could be sabering bottles, blind tasting, learning to make wine, or working a harvest. This year, the wine skill I'm working on is learning to care for a vineyard, specifically how to prune vines.

________ wine project: Do you want to set up a blind tasting group, a wine blog, write a guidebook, or read through a wine library - what's a wine project you want to create this year? I've got an idea that has me pretty excited, and isn't that the point?

I hope this list has inspired you to write out a few wine specific goals for the year! Let me know in the comments what your 2017 goals are :) I look forward to reading them!