LESSONS FROM A MOCK MW BLIND TASTING EXAM: PART 1

12 red wines. 2 1/4 hours. Everyone, sharpen your palates, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

12 red wines. 2 1/4 hours. Everyone, sharpen your palates, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Whenever I have the chance to taste with Master of Wine students, I leap at it. I’m not an MW student, so it’s an amazing opportunity to learn (especially when considering whether to apply in June).

What kind of questions are the students asked, how do they compose their answers, what logic are they using as they taste?

Last weekend, I sat a mock Paper 2 exam. There were 12 wines to taste, all of them red, and we had two and a quarter hours to write the exam. There were three flights within the 12 wines, and each flight had a set of questions relating to those particular wines. In this article, I’m going to focus on one cleverly presented flight of wines from within the mock exam, not only because it stumped everybody, but also as it hammered home a few key takeaway points on blind tasting exams in general.

Wines poured and we’re off to the races

Wines poured and we’re off to the races

The flight had four red wines, and in the mock exam it was the last of the three flights. On the instruction sheet, we’re told they’re all from the same country and that each is a blended wine. For each wine, we must: identify the origin as closely as possible, assess its quality in context of its origin, and comment on its maturity level.

Here are my notes:

Wine 1 - Med+ ruby with hint of purple. Deepest colour of flight. Medium tears. Musty aroma. Med+ intensity dark berry, smoky spice, oak suggests USA. Med body, med acid, med+ velvety tannins, med/+ alc ~13.5%, smooth/no edges.

Wine 2 - Med- ruby, watery rim, sheeting tears. Med- intensity red fruit, earthy, not getting a lot of scent. High acidity, med+ alc ~14%, crunchy raspberry. Very concentrated.

Wine 3 - Med ruby tending to garnet, rim is showing some age. Med tears. Med+ intensity, US pickle oak, red fruit, soft spice. Perfumed. Very high acidity, high tannins, very bright flavours. Has some age.

Wine 4 - Med ruby. Med+ intensity, game, smoke, rock, dusty. Med body, med alc, balanced. Youthful.

Lesson 1: My notes, taken at the tail end of the exam, are not up to snuff. I’ve gotten tired, and have skipped some important categories. Because I haven’t rigorously assessed the wines, it makes it much harder to draw conclusions based on the question. I have overtasted all 12 wines, going back to them over and over because I can’t place them, leading to palate fatigue (and very dark red teeth). I nosed through all 12 to begin, and left this flight till last because it was the deepest coloured and most pronounced set.

Takeaway: stick to your note taking system, whether it is a grid, cross, or other. Minimize how often you taste each wine to avoid palate fatigue, for example only taste each sample twice.

Lesson 2: This was a rather sly question as written, because unless you were careful, it was easy to draw the wrong conclusions. The question tells us that all four wines are from the same country, but doesn’t mention region. It tells us they are all blends, but doesn’t say anything about them being the same blend. When I brainstormed red blends, at first I was trying to come up with four different blends for each country. But, after re-reading, I saw that these could be all the same blend, or all different, from the same region, or from many regions in one country. I also grasped on the second read through that the question was not even asking for us to ID grapes, but to comment on origin and maturity.

Takeaway: re-read the question to clarify your understanding of it matches up with what the examiner is asking you to do. Having an incorrect understanding of the question’s goal will set you down the wrong path.

Lesson 3: So, I had re-read the question and noted what it was really asking. Based on the tasting, I reasoned this was an old world wine region, with warm climate. Then, I made my list of possible origins. Here were my three top choices:

- Italy

- Spain

- France

…but guess what? The place the wines came from is not even on that list. So, I’d spent my time working from an incomplete assessment of the wines, trying to fit them in to a region, but none quite fit.

Takeaway: if you’re making a list of possible regions, or grapes, have a stand by memorized list that you work from. For example, I should have had a full list of warm climate countries known for blends ready in my brain. Because, if the answer is not even in your long list, it will never appear in your answer!

So, where were our mystery red blends from? The guesses at the table ranged from Spain, to France, and Italy. But it was:

Wines L>R 1-2-3-4

Wines L>R 1-2-3-4

PORTUGAL! Of course. A warm climate, lots of red blends, old world. It wasn’t even on my radar. Whoops! Lesson learned.

Hope you enjoyed this summary, and happy blind tasting. If you have any suggestions or blind tasting tips, please leave a comment below.

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

Wines from L>R 4 - 3 - 2 -1

Wines from L>R 4 - 3 - 2 -1

DECADENT TAYLOR FLADGATE SINGLE HARVEST TAWNY PORTS

I don't remember much wine around as a child, with the major exception of Port. At Christmas or special suppers, I have vivid memories of the sweet, dark, red wine that I might have a sip of after pleading with my Dad.

In the years since, I've always kept Port in the house, and not just for the holidays. This inherited fondness might also have been the repeated references to laying down wine in JRR Tolkien.

My first true 'investment' bottles bought to start a wine collection were Vintage Port, and I continue to add several more a year with the goal of starting to open them in a decade or so. Tawny Port, which spends much more time mellowing in cask, is a particular favourite, with almost universal appeal: smooth, with caramel and spice flavours. If you're a dinner guest at my home, you're being offered Port at the end of the meal!

So, it was with particular excitement that I was invited to taste a selection of Taylor Fladgate single harvest tawnies from the vintages 1964 through 1967. Think of what was happening in the world 50 years ago, and consider that all this time these wines have been alive, just waiting to be enjoyed. 

The tasting room, holding a table decked with variously hued amber wines, was filled with Port perfume, reminiscent of a spice cake baking in the oven.

The following are my tasting notes, but first I'd like to mention, all were delicious and I'd be happy to purchase any of them even at their premium price point - they are well worth the money and would make excellent gifts. How many 50 year old wines can you buy that offer this kind of value... not many. 

Taylor Faldgate Very Old Single Harvest Port 1966.jpg

Taylor Fladgate 1964 Single Harvest Port - $256

Remarkably intense bouquet. Cognac-like nose. Fig, vanilla, plum, sweet spice, bright, lifted, wow. Crème caramel, cedar. Striking show up front.

Taylor Fladgate 1965 Single Harvest Port - $260

Orange tawny hue. Corsican wildflower honey, soft, feminine, seductive. Tobacco, marzipan. Opens up nicely.

Taylor Fladgate 1966 Single Harvest Port - $260

Deep amber brown. Cigar box, caramel, orange peel, pomander, roast coffee and hazelnut. Masculine, cologne-like complexity. Surprising whiff of jasmine and honeysuckle. A full rounded nose, complete.

Taylor Fladgate 1967 Single Harvest Port - $260

Deepest tawny colour. Sweet on the nose, with spicebox, cigar, clove; a robust presence on the palate. Vibrant orange and zest notes, sultanas, allspice, incense. Quiet power and confidence. 

Casks of aging Port biding their time

Casks of aging Port biding their time

Port Serving Tips

~ Ideally your Port is lightly chilled. 15 minutes in the fridge should do the trick.

~ Can you save some for later once you open the bottle? As a rule, older vintage Port is good for a few days after being opened, but best to drink it in one sitting. More sturdy recent vintages from the 2000's+ will last a week or so before fading. Tawnies are already oxidised so they hold up better, a pleasing 6 months or so after opening. Late Bottled Vintage or Ruby styles are good for 8-12 weeks before they lose their freshness.

~ Let your fancy Ports have a little room to breathe before enjoying. Give your wine an hour or so to open up before tasting. I don't make a fuss about doing this with White, Ruby, LBV, or 10/20 year olds.

~ The more the merrier. Port isn't exactly low alcohol, so explore half bottle formats for small dinner parties, or serve them to a large or appreciative group. Tawnies are an exception, as they're quite long lived once opened. I keep several formats of tawny Port on hand (10 year, 20 year, etc), to serve at the end of meals. If I were to serve one of these Single Harvest Tawnies, I'd plan a special dessert to pair with it: a selection of cheeses (Manchego, Stilton, Brie de Meaux), plus something sweet like caramel spice cake with crème Anglaise.

The History of Port by TF

Taylor's has a great selection of videos about Port on their Youtube channel.

Tidbits In The World of Port & TF

We had the pleasure of hearing from Jorge Ramos, Sales & Marketing Manager for the Fladgate Partnership (which owns TF, Croft, & Fonseca) at the tasting. Here are some tidbits for those interested in learning more about Port and TF:

  • Did you know that the Late-Bottled Vintage category was invented for the Canadian market? Apparently it was especially produced for the restaurant trade, who wanted the flavour profile of Vintage Port but with no need for further aging, ie: ready to sell and drink right away. The first vintage offered was 1965, for sale in 1970.

  • Taylor Fladgate's house style aims for a 'balanced' and consistent flavour profile. These Single Harvest Tawnies, however, are issued especially to emphasize varietal character.

  • Taylor's is the only British Port house never to be bought or sold! In 2001, it re-purchased Croft (which had been theirs previously until 1865 when it had been sold off). It's said to have one of the largest reserves of very old cask aged Ports of any house.
  • Technically, a '50 year old' Tawny Port is not allowed, so these Single Harvest Tawnies were issued vintage dated. That's why you'll see 10-20-30-40 but not 50 on shelves. PS: technically, the name for a vintage dated tawny is a Colheita

  • The best Ports TF makes are still foot trodden in granite lagares (stone troughs), not mechanically/piston trodden. This very old fashioned but gentle technique is said to produce the finest results.
  • Ports are made from a blend of 40 or so native Portuguese grapes, including: Touriga Nacional (adds concentrated dark fruit flavour and tannins), Tinta Amarela (finess and balance), and Tinto Cão (acidity, ageability), among others. Older plantings have a mix of varieties in the field, but new vineyards are uniformly planted by varietal.

  • New plantings in the Douro are using laser guided trenching to create a 7 degree angled slope to preserve water. Viticultural issues in the area are erosion and weed control, so cover crops like clover are being used.

  • Tawnies aging in cask lose about 3% of their volume each year as they rest in 600 litre neutral oak barrels.
  • Port spirit can come from anywhere, it's not required to be from Portugal. There's been a big improvement in the quality of brandy used in recent decades. 

  • When a large order comes in to TF, their master blenders produce a batch on demand. So, if a liquor board or large store sends in a request for 20 Year, it's made to order!
  • Canadian customers can keep their eyes out for a special Confederation edition of the label of the 1967, celebrating our 150th birthday. There's also an 1863 Very Old Tawny on the market, for the spectacular price of $3,650CAD!

All images/video courtesy of Taylor Fladgate. Thank you to Pacific Wine & Spirits for the opportunity to taste these Single Harvest Ports.

VINHO VERDE RISING

Mists in Melgaco, Minho 

Mists in Melgaco, Minho 

The white wines of Vinho Verde have a reputation: they're spritzy, light, and refreshing. But lately, there's been rising interest in the wine world as quality improves. 

If you've been looking for a wine to while away the Summer heat, say hello to 'veen-o vaird'. Or, 'veen-o vair-day', if you prefer. In the glass, this lower alcohol wine can be shockingly zesty and flavourful with lime, melon, kiwi, and a uniquely juicy salinity. Just remember that some wines are meant to be enjoyed in their youth, and this is one of them.

Green as far as the eye can see

Green as far as the eye can see

The vines are located in the far northwest of Portugal on the Atlantic coast, a surprisingly mild and verdant area with plenty of rain and lush river valleys.

You might see VV labelled on the bottle as Vinho Verde DO (for Denomination of Origin) or Minho GI (for Geographical Indication).

The wine regions of Portugal. Got them all? Good

The wine regions of Portugal. Got them all? Good

This is a hotspot for native grapes, some with challenging names, which helps to explain why we don't often hear about them. Wines are often blends of several grapes, but increasingly producers are releasing 100% varietal wines. Some white grapes you'll encounter are: Alvarinho (kin to Spain's Albarino; intense aroma, complex, floral), Arinto (minerality, vibrant acidity), Loureiro (meaning 'laurel leaf'; similarly floral nose to Gewurz), and Trajadura (peach, lower acidity, full bodied, adds weight to blends).

Lindoso Espigueiro, Portugal

Lindoso Espigueiro, Portugal

Over 2000 years of wine history. The Romans were here (of course)

Over 2000 years of wine history. The Romans were here (of course)

Although there are over 2000 brands made in the region, here in Canada there are two exports that dominate the market: Casal Garcia and Gazela, which are both appealingly light on the pocketbook. That's starting to change though, there's a new push to bring in more selection. The people demand Vinho Verde!

Everyone turn to channel 13 on your headset and follow me. Mizarela, Portugal

Everyone turn to channel 13 on your headset and follow me. Mizarela, Portugal

Terraces galore

Terraces galore

A word you might see on VV label's is Quinta ('kin-ta'), which means estate or farm.
You want sub-regions, you get sub-regions! To the North: Minho River, South: Douro River, West: Atlantic Ocean, & East: the Marao Mtns

You want sub-regions, you get sub-regions! To the North: Minho River, South: Douro River, West: Atlantic Ocean, & East: the Marao Mtns

Notable Vinho Verde Wines to Buy:

Via Latina Vinho Verde DO Loureiro 2015: A rosey floral on the nose of this spritzy, high acidity sipper made by a wine co-op. Green mango and apple notes are the perfect antidote to rich, high fat dishes. 100% Loureiro.
Quinta da Aveleda Vinho Verde DO 2014: A winningly steely blend of Loureiro and Alvarinho with flashy saline acidity, and peaches 'n cream textured palate.
Quinta de Azevedo Vinho Verde DO 2014: Silky gunmetal and very, very mineral, with a touch of lime peel, and downright salty in the best kind of way. 95% Loureiro, 5% Arinto.
Pluma Alvarinho Vinho Regional Minho 2015: Yellow flowers are the lead into this satiny, juicily acidic wine. Lots of tasty white peach on the palate. 100% Alvarinho.
Tapada Do Marques Vinho Verde DO Arinto 2015: Green melon, tropical kiwi, and green apple skin are balanced by an appealing bitterness and white floral perfume. 100% Arinto.

Have you ever tried Vinho Verde? Do tell in the comments below!

Cheers,

Rachel

Photos courtesy of Vinho Verde & Wines of Portugal

YES WAY, PORTUGUESE ROSÉ

Portugal, not just the land where Port comes from! This little country makes some delightfully refreshing rosé wine, perfect for sipping in the Summertime.

Here are a selection that range from glou-glou (think pocketbook friendly, but tasty) to ‘had me at hello’. Bonus: if you’ve been looking for some hot weather wines that won’t knock you out, these range from only 9.5-12.5% alcohol.

Mateus Original Rosé (sparkling): There’s no other way to put this… If you bring this wine to a party, any snobs present will likely be secretly judging you :O. If you’re fine with that, enjoy! It’s tasty (think strawberries), Tempranillo rosé with a little sweetness and moderate alcohol (11%), the definition of cheap & cheerful. Perk: no one will feel guilty mixing a cocktail with this. Serve well chilled. ~$8

Aveleda Casal Garcia Rosé 2014: A crisp, yet off-dry and fruity (think strawberry & rhubarb) wine from the Vinho Verde area in the North of Portugal. Pretty label and bubblegum pink colour, perfect for the beach. Only 9.5% alcohol. ~$10

Casa Santos Lima Portuga Rosé 2014: A drier style, but still fresh and fruity (raspberry & strawberry) made from the Castelao grape. Would be delicious with grilled fish or lighter Summer pastas. 12.5% alcohol. ~$12