TIPS FOR BLIND TASTING SPARKLING WINE (WSET DIPLOMA UNIT 5)

sparkling wine blindtasting tips unit 5 wset

Q: Dear Rachel, my study focus is on Champagne and sparkling wines right now, so I'd be interested in more observations and tips for how to do well in a blind tasting for sparkling wines.

A: Thanks for your question, here are some tips on blind tasting sparkling wines, along with exam strategy and suggested tasting flights to practice with! Feel free to comments below with your own sparkling wine blind tasting tips.

Cheers, Rachel


Blind Tasting Strategy

When tasting sparkling wines, it can be confusing for the palate. So many sparkling whites, so little time (or, you could luck out and getting a sparkling Shiraz).

When tasting, don't try to slot the wine into a category right away, take your notes as per usual and after you've assessed them, go back to them to look for clues. 

I find major clues on the nose of the wine. Yes, of course the mousse/bubbles are the defining character in a sparkling wine, but the nose helps me with ID, and I don't typically find the bubbles very helpful for this (exception: when a wine is poured and it's really, really frothy). Look for these items in particular as you nose the wines: floral notes (Prosecco, Sekt, Asti), autolytic/leesy notes (Trad Method, time on lees), rubber (some Cavas), diesel (Riesling), minerality (Champagne), tropical fruit (California, Australia), wet wool/lanolin (Chenin). These are not hard and fast rules, but general prompts to ask yourself about as you smell and then taste. 

On the palate, determining acidity is so important. Knowing which wines are likely to display lower acidity is a major helper for you. Personally, I find quality Champagne in particular has a high ringing acidity that lingers at the back of the throat, and BdeB Champagne can have a particularly piercing minerality on the palate. I often find Cava has less acidity and a more rounded body.

Other clues:

Strength of mousse can be helpful. Take note if you feel the bubbles/atmospheres are lower in a particular wine, as several styles are made with lower pressure.

Alcohol level can be a challenge to assess, with the bubbles and sometimes high acidity in sparkling wines interfering in our perceptions. The ABV can be a clue to be aware of, so when you do practice tastings, I recommend that you note not only the category of alcohol level (ie Med+, Med-) but take an actual guess at the specific ABV (ie 13%, 11.5%). Then make a point of noting after the reveal what the actual ABV was and compare to your assessment. You'll start to see a common range for the different styles/regions of bubbly.


Exam Tips

Clean Glasses: make sure you have properly washed your glasses of any residue so the bubbles don't adhere to any debris in your glasses.

Watch While Pouring: The exam starts when the examiner says it does, but you can carefully observe the wine while you pour it. Look at the bubbles, how frothy it is when poured, and the colour. This will help you move quickly through the appearance section of your exam with ease.

Sniff, Then Decide Order: Nose the wines, then decide the order you will taste them in. You don't have to taste wine sample #1 first. Leave any with strong aromas till last.

Not Getting Anything on Nose: If you are trying in vain to ID any aroma characteristics, take a slurp of the wine and write your palate note. Then go back to the nose. Often, this will help you ID some aromas you couldn't before.

Re-Nose the Wines: After you've tasted all the wines and written your notes, go back to the wines again. The warmer temperature of the wines may help release extra clues that weren't apparent at the beginning (for example, I caught a rubber-y note on a wine that helped to confirm it was Cava during my exam).

Making an ID: Not every tasting exam question will ask you to ID the wine. For those that do, think like the examiners - they want you to identify classic examples, not to trick you. So, here's a list of questions I use to suss out the potential candidates:

1) is the wine aromatic > Yes (think tank method Asti, Prosecco, Sekt)

2) is there autolytic character & how much > Yes (think Trad Method = Champagne, Crémant, Cava, new world sparkling) 

3) is there high or low acidity and corresponding body -plus what kind of fruit character? (Low acidity, fuller body with tropical/stone fruit> think warmer region / High acidity, light to medium body with citrus/green/apple/pear fruit> cooler region).

4) is there evidence of oak and is it balanced? (Think: reserve wine, barrel ferment, old world vs new world)

5) what's the quality level: how long is the finish and is the wine balanced? (Long finish with balanced acidity> premium / Short finish with neutral flavour, unbalanced sugar/acidity, flabby> less premium)

6) does the colour give you any extra hints to confirm your assessment? (Pale - young/cool climate. Deeper colour - oak use/bottle age/warmer climate)


Comparison Flights

Here are some suggested flights for blind tasting practice:

Traditional Method - Champagne Comparison

Non-Vintage Champagne - Vintage Champagne - Another new world traditional method (such as Cali/NZ/AUS/SA)

Traditional Method - Non-Champagne Comparison

Crémant d’Alsace - NV Cava (traditional grapes) - Cap Classique SA - (Bonus points: Franciacorta)

Aromatics

Asti - Sekt - Prosecco

The Rosés

Rosé Cava - Rosé Crémant - Rosé Champagne

Sparkling Reds

Brachetto d’Acqui - Lambrusco - Sparkling Shiraz

Crémant Flight

Crémant de Loire - Crémant d'Alsace - Crémant de Bourgogne - (Bonus points: Crémant de Limoux/Blanquette de Limoux)

Chenin vs Chardonnay vs Riesling

Vouvray/Saumur - Chardonnay-based Cava - 100% Riesling Deutscher Sekt or new world

'Other' 

Deutscher Sekt - New Zealand Sparkling - Australia Sparkling 

Mass Production Bubblies - choose low-mid priced, widely available producers

New world tank method - Cava - Crémant

New World Premium Flight

Choose three premium sparkling wines from: NZ, Australia, South Africa, USA (WA/OR/CALI), Chile, or Argentina

PROSECCO SUPERIORE & WHY IT'S WORTH SPENDING MORE FOR

 Future UNESCO site? An application is in the works

Future UNESCO site? An application is in the works

It's a truth universally acknowledged... that a chilled bottle of Prosecco must be in want of a drinker. But must it be true that all Prosecco is equally cheap and cheerful?

Dear reader, today I will try to convince you in favour of spending a smidgen more in pursuit of higher quality. I put it to you that Prosecco Superiore is not only a delicious wine, but that it's worthy of your respect and interest.

Prosecco is made in an area of Italy called Conegliano Valdobbiadene, in the Veneto region in the northeast of Italy. Perhaps you've heard it's a hilly place where the vineyards are so steep they have to be harvested by hand, as no tractor would survive the slopes, but I think this picture says it best:

 It's a leg day

It's a leg day

There are two towns which give the region its name: Conegliano (home of the famous oenology school) and Valdobbiadene. There are 15 communes in this area, and you may see the name of one of 43 individual sites, or Rive ("ree-vay") on your bottle, in addition to the words Prosecco Superiore DOCG

The most famous subzone within the DOCG area is called Cartizze ("car-teet-zay"), a tiny 107 hectares that is known for some very special bubbles. One trick I learned from a winemaker is that Cartizze often has the scent of wisteria blooms, which is very romantic, as is the touch of sweetness found on the palate.

So what sets Prosecco DOCG apart? It's these steep, steep slopes, which make the best home for quality sparkling made from the Glera grape = the best aspect, the best soils, the best ripening (ps: Glera's a distinctive creature: it has a delicate floral aroma, peaches too, especially white peach, plus green apple). 

Wines made from the best steep sites have a definite brightness and lift that is utterly refreshing, and yes, you can taste the difference in a blind test. By law, the grapes must be picked by hand. Non-DOCG wines have a huge demarcated area, including the lesser regarded valley floors. 

Aren't you curious to try more of the wines produced in these hills? I know I am.

 These slopes are mayjah (the terraces are the work of centuries)

These slopes are mayjah (the terraces are the work of centuries)

Here's where things get a little confusing: the residual sugar content. There are three levels you'll see on the label: Brut, which is the driest (0-12 grams/litre), Extra Dry is the traditional style in the middle (12-17 g/l), and the sweetest is called, wait for it... Dry (17-32 g/l). So, easy to remember: just think the reverse of dry is Dry!

Other terms you might see are: Millesimato, which is the vintage the grapes were harvested. Spumante means sparkling. Frizzante, which is semi-sparkling and aged on the lees in a traditional style, and Tranquilo, which means 'still' (the rules are that Frizzante and Tranquilo wines aren't labelled with Superiore). Demi-long refers to the wine sitting on lees for at least six months, and Long is for at least one year.

Most Prosecco is made using the Martinotti (also known as Charmat or autoclave) method, which helps glorify the Glera perfume, although interestingly there are some wines being produced in the Traditional (or Champagne) method. 

 Veneto, meet Friuli. Friuli, Veneto. Protected from north winds by the Dolomites, with the Adriatic to the east.

Veneto, meet Friuli. Friuli, Veneto. Protected from north winds by the Dolomites, with the Adriatic to the east.

Notable Prosecco DOCG Wines to buy:

Bisol Superiore di Cartizze DOCG Dry 2014: Meyer lemon meets purple floral, and sweet red apple, lightly spiced with ginger. Creamy bubbles, luxurious.
Colvendra' Prosecco Superiore Millesimato Brut DOCG 2015: Soft candied pear, white honeysuckle, refreshing acidity with harmonious mineral and green apple palate. Summery. Melon kissed with grapefruit zest.
Sorelle Bronca Particella 68 Prosecco Superiore DOCG: Delicate green melon, leesy, creamy, yet vibrant. A stony mineral core with lilac top notes.
Terre Di San Venanzio Fortunato Valdobbiadene Brut DOCG: Luscious bubbles, fuller bodied. Notes of pear drop, green apple, and floral.
Val D'Oca Le Rive Di Colbertaldo Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry DOCG 2015: Full of green apple and crisp fresh pear. Orange peel citrus, green melon. Mineral for miles. Acidity balances plush residual sugar. Notably creamy mousse. Pair with delicate foods.
Villa Sandi Valdobbiadene Superiore Di Cartizze Vigna La Rivetta Brut DOCG: Lilac and fresh bloomed purple wisteria. Leesy complexity meets red apple on the palate. A treat.

I hope I've piqued your curiosity and you'll give these wines a try. Let me know, what's your favourite Prosecco? 

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

Photos courtesy of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Consorzio

WINES FOR VALENTINE'S DAY

valentineswine.jpeg

Need an idea for a new wine to buy for your Valentine? Or a bottle to open with friends? I’ve put together a list of fun options worth checking out.

When I think of wine and Valentine’s, it’s: something sweet... perhaps? Something fizzy, something fun... definitely.

For bubbles, here’s a bottle that’s cheapy-cheap yet super tasty, plus it gets bonus points for its bright red sparkles and being under <$15: Casolari Lambrusco Di Sorbara. This juicy frizzante is Lambrusco from Italy, land of lovers and sparkling red wine. It’s got a hint of sugar, and would be gorgeous in a flute with a raspberry garnish. Perfect for a Galentine’s cocktail too!

If my Valentine were to pour something sweet, I’d ask for a Pedro Ximenez sherry, known in wine shops as ‘PX’ (plus, asking for a bottle of PX is like a secret handshake that tells the wine clerk how cool and knowledgeable you are). It’s sweet stuff, verging on luscious, made from grapes that have have been sun dried to almost raisins before pressing. PX can be paired with very sweet desserts, so don’t worry, it will hold it’s own. It tastes like brown sugar, toffee and caramel deliciousness, so would make a great team with sweet apple pie, sticky toffee pudding and the like. Expect to pay between $15 and $40 for a bottle, depending on the maker. I like the Lustau PX, it’s widely available too.

When you want to say to your Valentine, this is something special and so are you, pull out the Tawny Port. Think of the bright ruby red port you’ve seen before, then mellow it out in cask for 10 or 20 years until it’s smooth, silky and sexy. Think fireside, think warming up after a romantic walk on a chilly beach, or maybe the perfect way to cap off an indulgent meal… The Taylor Fladgate 10 year old Tawny offers an excellent value to flavour ratio. I was just gifted a Ramos Pinto 20 year old Tawny for my birthday, and if you're lucky enough to be my Valentine, you can have a sip! 

Happy Valentine’s Day to you, I hope you’re able to try one of these wines and share with the one you love. 

NEW YEAR’S EVE BUBBLY & CANAPES

NYE is the perfect time to pop some bubbly. Whether it’s a Prosecco, BC sparkling, or a splashy Champagne, you’ll be sitting pretty with these easy to prepare canapés.

Below are recipes for some of the most popular bites from recent wine tastings I’ve hosted. The best part – no matter what kind of sparkling you serve, they’ll pair perfectly! These are the recipes I recently made on Global TV and CTV News.

Puff Pastry Roulade

Ingredients:

1 package of puff pastry

1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon herbes de Provence

To garnish:

Small wedge of brie or camembert cheese

Jam (such as cranberry or pear)

Chives

Instructions:

Cut puff pastry in half, and on a floured board, roll into a rectangle approximately 6” wide by 14” long

Brush the top of the pastry with water, then sprinkle with Parmesan, paprika and herbes de Provence

With the long side facing you, roll the pastry into a long thin cylinder

Slice into 1/4” rounds

Bake in a pre-heated oven at 450F for 8-10 minutes, or until golden

Once cooled, top with a dollop of jam, plus a small piece of cheese, and garnish with chives

Caviar Potato Chips

Ingredients:

Kettle-cooked plain potato chips

1 ounce caviar (such as Northern Divine)

1 small jar crème fraîche

Finely shredded lemon zest of half a lemon to garnish

Instructions:

Select round flat potato chips

Top with a small spoonful of crème fraîche

Add caviar using a non-metal spoon

Garnish with shredded lemon zest

Cheese & Grape Parcels

Ingredients:

1 package phyllo pastry

1 small bunch seedless green grapes

4 ounces Goat cheese

6 oil-packed sundried tomatoes, cut into thin slices

Vegetable oil to brush with

Instructions:

Lay two sheets of phyllo together, brush lightly with oil, then cut into 6 pieces (once lengthwise, then into thirds)

Cover unused pastry with a damp cloth

Lay each 2-ply piece into a muffin tin or onto a baking sheet, then top each with one grape, a tablespoon of goat cheese, and slice of tomato

Gather and twist the phyllo to create a parcel

Bake in a pre-heated oven at 400F for 7-10 minutes, or until golden

WSET DIPLOMA DIARY: FORTIFIED, SPARKLING & BRUNELLO

 The peach scrunchy is back on diary duty

The peach scrunchy is back on diary duty

With all the tastings, festivals, and prepping for exams, it feels like Spring has sprung up around me. In the garden, seeds I rushed to plant before heading to Calgary are already up and growing!

Vancouver Wine Fest happened at the end of February, one of the biggest wine festivals in North America, and it was just incredibly fun. The Australians held court, their wines featured, with wineries visiting from around the world. I was so impressed, in particular with the Aussie white wines. In a move away from cheaper Shiraz and the larger appellation ‘SE Australia’, they are focusing on terroir, and labelling from more specific sites – Hunter Valley, Clare Valley, Mornington, and even Tasmania (try the Jansz Tasmanian sparkle for something fun).

March was awesome – I was lucky enough to get a Champagne & sparkling tutorial from a professional Champagne judge. We tasted through a set of Cava, Prosecco, and Champagne to get her tips on preparing for the WSET Diploma Sparkling exam, under exam conditions – 8 minutes per wine (sounds a lot, but goes faster than you’d think!). Her best hint on how to tell if the wine is Champagne while tasting blind? The finish lingers in the very back of your throat, almost like a fine perfume.

Then the Brunello Consortium was in Vancouver, tasting their newly released 2010 vintage, and the talk of the town was how good a year it was. Lead by local wine writer Anthony Gismondi, we were thrilled to hear from 10 visiting winemakers from Montalcino. I was in Montalcino in 2013, and what a gorgeous place it is. A hillside town overlooking rolling hills of vineyards, stone walkways, and lots of charming cafes and wine bars. Plus, amid all the history it was strangely high-tech, almost every wine store had several fancy Enomatic wine dispensers. One had at least 50 different Brunellos and Rossos on offer. Load up a little card with credit, and you can peruse the wines selecting up to an ounce to be dispensed. I will be posting on my favourite 2010 Brunellos shortly.

All was not milk and honey though, there were two big WSET exams to contend with: Fortified and Sparkling. As I painstakingly recreated a 6 foot map of the world on the living room wall and filled in all the specs, I began to wonder whether it was a good idea doing both exams on the same day! Did I leave enough time to review?? Off to Calgary I went, and at 9 am on Tuesday, we wrote the Sparkling exam. A blind tasting included a Cava, an Asti, and a NZ traditional method sparkling which was very delicious. The fortifieds followed at 11 am. We had a Cream Sherry, a Maury, and a VSOP Cream. Very tricky, as the VSOP had the acid and length of a fine Madeira!

All I can do now is wait patiently for the 8 weeks until marks are ready, and hope that I was successful. Advice for WSET Diploma students: know your producers (Symington!), don’t procrastinate, and do more reading than required (the Christie’s Champagne Encyclopedia & Jancis’ Purple Pages were invaluable).

Cheers, Rachel

WSET DIPLOMA DIARY: FORTIFIED & SPARKLING

 I save my peach flounced pen just for diary writing...

I save my peach flounced pen just for diary writing...

The past few weeks have been so busy, that while I still feel it’s nice to wish people Happy New Year, somehow it’s almost Spring.

Off on a plane I went, to an intensive weekend of preparing for both the Sparkling and Fortified WSET Diploma unit exams in Calgary. The days consist of sitting in quite a nice lecture hall with 20 other students, while a Master of Wine candidate reviews the study materials (fascinating, but an intimidating amount of information {memorize the villages of Champagne, the grapes they grow, the soil types etc}) and pours us many wines. The trick is that they are poured from a black sack, which handily obscures what the heck they are! Yes, if you want to cheat, you can peek to see the type of bottle, but I am steadfast in looking at only the wine as it pours into my ISO tasting glasses. I am a woman of principle. 

If you like port and sherry, you would have loved day two: tawny port, Amontillado sherry, old Madeira, vintage port, Rutherford muscat from Australia, and lots of Vins Doux Naturels (VDNs) from France. Personally, I love fortified wines and think they are some of the tastiest and most interesting wines to be had. The Sparkling unit, unfortunately, has reduced Champagne from an occasional luxurious delight, to “wine with bubbles” that I must taste repeatedly and pragmatically (LOL don't worry Champagne, I still love you). 

Don't tell the wine makers, but after a long day, one Non-Vintage Champagne can taste remarkably like a chardonnay-based Cava, and even like a NZ sparkling made with chardonnay and pinot noir. They’re all made using the same method, and feature similar grapes. It does lead to a bit of second guessing as the timer winds down, and I know I’m not alone in the class. Thank goodness for sparkling shiraz and Lambrusco, at least I can tell what they are right away! The shiraz tastes like sparkly jam, and the Lambrusco, gritty sour cherries (caveat emptor: I've had lovely Lambrusco’s, but not all are created equal). At least the vintage Champagne does taste distinctly of toasty, nutty goodness. I can’t wait till the exams are done, when I can celebrate and truly enjoy downing a glass of bubbly!

I was recently at a tasting in Seattle for Walla Walla wines, what a fun group of grapes to be drinking. The Walla Walla specialties are Syrah and Merlot, and there’s also some great Chardonnay and Riesling, but there are many, many types of grapes being grown. There were about 50 wineries pouring for an eager crowd of people “in the trade” (writers, bloggers, restaurant owners), and of course people that just wanted to drink for free. My favourites were easily Sleight of Hand Cellars, L’Ecole 41, and Watermill Winery (from the Oregon side).

One of the hazards of a tasting event is the spit buckets. Yes, spit buckets. You were probably taught as a child, like me, that spitting in a public place is not only rude, but disgusting. Against this conditioning, I am expected to spit a bright red substance a substantial distance into buckets sitting on a table, that are already quite full of other’s efforts. Yuck. Yet, if you don’t spit out the wine, you are looked at like a heathen that knows nothing about wine. And, you stand quite a chance of getting drunk (quelle horreur). Plus, people are crowding around you, sometimes jostling, and watching your technique… no pressure!

Despite the presence of spit-bucket hogs (the peeps that sidle up to the bucket, and block others access through various means), I was making a valiant effort with an inky syrah, trying in vain to keep my long locks from impeding the process, and feeling quite suave about it, when some wine splashed back up from the bucket to spray on my face. Yuck times 1000. Would it be chic or déclassé to bring my own personal spit solo-cup to the next event, I wonder?

Coming up this soon is the Vancouver Wine Fest, the largest wine festival in North America, and this year’s theme is Australian Shiraz/Syrah, where I hope to taste some delish Aussie sparkling and fortifieds too. Then, the big WSET exams loom closer. Very exciting stuff!

PS: The next enrollment for the Diploma Prep courses will begin in January 2017!

 

HOW TO BUY SPARKLING WINE AS A GIFT

 A flower? How thoughtful... but I was really hoping for some Champagne

A flower? How thoughtful... but I was really hoping for some Champagne

One of the top questions I get from wine lovers is, “What wine should I buy for X occasion”? Or, they need a gift for the boss, or a wine to bring to a dinner party.This is my answer: SPARKLING WINE!

Let me enumerate my reasons:

#1 It goes with everything. From oysters to pizza, you can’t go wrong with sparkling.

#2 It’s fun! Everyone loves the bubb.

#3 There’s a wide range of pricing. From entry level, to spendy Vintage Champagne, whatever your budget, there’s a sparkling for it.

Now we’re going to talk options. We all know Champagne (which on a label denotes it’s made in the Champagne region of France). But there are some other less well known bubbles I want you to know about too. They’re not all made in the same way as “Champagne Method” (called “Traditional Method” when used outside Champagne) which greatly affects their price. For a primer on the Champagne Method, check out #Instawineschool Day 6.

Prosecco:

Made in the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions of Italy (the North-East corner). Often cheap, cheerful, perfect for making cocktails (Bellini anyone?), or enjoying on it’s own, Prosecco is the go-to wine to bring to a house party or as a small thank you to the neighbors for picking up your mail. Most Prosecco is made using the tank method, in which the bubbles are added to a wine while it’s in a tank (as opposed to created in the bottle via secondary fermentation) which makes it cost effective. Prosecco is made from the grape Glera, and is usually crisp, fruity and fairly dry, although sweeter versions do exist. If you’re looking for a top quality ‘Secco keep an eye out for the letters DOCG on the label.

Cava:

Made in Spain. Cavas are actually made in the same method as Champagne, so you’ll see ‘Traditional Method’ on the label. It’s often produced from a blend of local grapes that you don’t hear too much about: Macabeu, Parellada and Xarello, mainly in the Catalonia region in the North-East of Spain, although we're starting to see more made from Chardonnay too. This is a smart buy, as you'll find flavours comparable to Champagne (shhh, don’t tell them I said so) but at under half the cost. Cava is perfect for bringing to a dinner party or fancy brunch, and I love to make my favourite cocktail, the Kir Royale, with it (top your Cava with a lashing of sweet ruby Cassis liqueur).

Non-Vintage Champagne (NV):

Made in Champagne, France, this is for when quality counts. NV Champagne is usually made from a blend of three grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. The grapes can come from all over the Champagne region, and the final wine will be a blend of wine made in different years, hence the term “non-vintage”. Master blenders are responsible for recreating the house style year after year. My favourite NV Champagne is Veuve Clicquot, as I love the truly toasty brioche note it has, and I'm also partial to Taittinger and Ruinart. Expect bubbles that are fine and creamy; some people say they look like a string of pearls running from the bottom of the glass. This would be a delightful birthday present, Mother’s Day gift, or something to thank your hostess for a weekend stay. PS: if you see Blanc de Blancs on the label, it's made from Chardonnay, and Blanc de Noirs is Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier.

Vintage Champagne:

OK, take your best grapes, from your best vineyards, in a great year, and you have the beginnings of a Vintage Champagne. This Champers is from a specific year: while the grapes may come from various vineyards, they were all grown in the year declared on the label. Vintage Champagne lays on its lees for even longer than the NV stuff. That’s where the bottles are resting in the caves with the yeasts (lees) still in the wine, and gives us those sought-after bready notes. Vintage Champagne can be had for sometimes just a slight premium over the NV, although you can always spend more, and it's perfect for a special celebration. I’d buy Vintage for a wedding anniversary, romantic Valentine’s Day dinner, or to celebrate a big business win!

Thanks for reading! I’d love to know what’s your go-to sparkling? Send me a shout out in the comments below.