MY WSET DIPLOMA REVIEW

I hesitate to tally, pondering all the bottles, books, flights, and hours of studying, just what the total cost of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (or WSET) Diploma has been. However, the final exam looms four weeks ahead: UNIT 3, the exam that instills fear in the hearts of wine students around the world. Given a choice between the tallying and studying, I choose to tally (and dally) by writing a review of my WSET Diploma experience. 

WSET Diploma Costs

Here are the expenditures thus far, with the major caveat that I travelled to my course in another city and bought the lion’s share of wine for solo study:

Tuition cost for WSET Level 4 = $9,975 CDN* (covered 11 weekends of lectures, 30-60 wines poured in each lecture, field trip to Okanagan wine country, exam fees, official WSET texts, and DAPS preparatory exams)

Spirits bought for Spirits unit = $700 approximately 

Wine bought for Unit 3 Light Wines = $2,000 approximately

Fortified wines purchased for Fortifieds unit = $300 approximately

Sparkling wine & Champagne for Sparkling unit = $400 approximately

Coravin (to maximize my investment in all these wines) = $431 for the starter kit, and well worth it

Coravin argon capsules = $325 for 24 pack (one capsule lasts about 50 tasting pours)

Books for additional study (I bought way too many, see note below) = $1,000+

Total = close to $15,000 CDN

(*I was incredibly grateful to receive a scholarship from the BC Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier for $1,000 towards my WSET tuition, I highly recommend you apply for scholarships and bursaries for your WSET studies)

The Classes

I researched several providers offering the WSET Diploma, including the correspondence option, and ultimately decided to take the one run by Fine Vintage (owned by James Cluer MW). I chose this program because it had a condensed package structure of 15 months start to finish. I knew by signing up I would be taken through the material and exams at a fast clip.

James, in addition to leading a weekend tour of the Okanagan for us and teaching on both viticulture and Bordeaux/Burgundy, had arranged an incredible list of guest lecturers who included: Ian d’Agata on Italian wine, Philip Goodband MW on the Global Business of Wine and Spirits, David Lawrason on Southern Hemisphere wines, and Stephen Skelton MW on Viticulture/Viniculture. Our class was very lucky to have instruction from two very bright and engaging MW candidates: Lynn Coulthard and Jenny Book.

Like many people in our class of 22 students, I flew/drove in for the monthly lectures in Calgary. Students hail from Edmonton, Oregon, Kelowna, and Prince Rupert, and about 2/3 of the class are Calgarians. For this program, it was worth the trip, but the locals had a huge advantage when it came to forming study groups, something to consider when you’re choosing your provider.

About one quarter of the class are not in the wine trade, either hobbyists or looking to enter the trade. Some of the careers represented are: wine agents, those who work in/manage wine stores, sommeliers, entrepreneurs, wine educators, and writers. There was even a Canadian MP, who showed up once or twice then never came back. It’s a highly competitive and competent group of people, not unlike what you’d expect in an executive MBA class. The attrition rate is higher than I expected, of the 22 we started with about 17 people are still showing up (even though there are no refunds).

PASS/FAIL?

The pass rates are posted for each exam within the WSET portal, and about 12-16 weeks after we write, our results arrive. Thus far, knock on wood, I’ve passed everything.

The multiple choice viticulture exam is by far the easiest of the six, although some questions are very difficult. It was our first exam and everyone in the class passed. At the time, I thought it was one of the more challenging exams I’d face (ha ha, if I only knew). Grade = Distinction.

We then moved on to Fortifieds and Sparkling, which we studied simultaneously and wrote the exams on the same day. I loved fortifieds, as the wines are so distinctly coloured and flavoured that it helped immensely: Port in all its incarnations, Madeira, a rainbow of Sherry.

The sparkling wines, with the exception of sparkling shiraz and lambrusco, were rather more challenging to pick apart (is this clear, pale sparkling wine a Cava or Champagne, or a NZ or California?? Luckily I was able to pick up some last minute rubber tire notes on an exam Cava and ID it – it pays to always go back to your wine samples at the end).

These exams are each based on a blind tasting of three wines, plus a series of three theory essays. By far, the tasting is easier than the theory, at least in my opinion. There are relatively few points awarded for correct ID of a wine, so it’s possible to do very well by analysing your blind sample carefully even if you can’t place it. There is no faking the theory. Don’t forget, the examiners are from the land of Jane Austen, so specificity and style rule the day. Grade = Sparkling/Merit – Fortified/Distinction.

Next, we studied Spirits and Global Biz. Spirits, I loved studying, because of the variety of production, culture, and mainly history! If you love history, you’ll particularly enjoy this unit. Spirits, like fortifieds, are very distinct in colour and flavour. The exception may be some whiskies, as the subtle difference between a slippery and sweet Irish can sometimes blur with a Canadian blend. In our final exam, we were given a grappa (immediately identified by its soapy florality), Famous Grouse blended whisky, and a double bourbon cask finished Single Malt. That last one was a bit tricky. For theory, you need know the different methods of distillation inside and out, all the stages of production too: Single Malt vs Blends, Cognac, Gin, Vodka, Rums. Grade = Distinction.

For Global Business of Wine and Spirits, the first gauntlet is a case study. We were given the case three weeks before the exam. In our class’ case it was: The Négociant System in Burgundy. We had to research everything topical, newsworthy, historical, etc and be prepared to offer our informed opinion. I handed in seven handwritten pages, in what I thought was an epic (but upon reflection may have been a bit wobbly) style. Our class wrote this exam on the same day as spirits – a lot of handwriting. The second half of this unit is comprised of a paper of between 2500-3000 words on a topic chosen by WSET. Ours was The Gin Renaissance. We had a few months to put together a concise (it took me longer to edit down below 3000 words than to write the paper) opinion on the future of the gin market, history of the spirit, methods of manufacture, and why the resurgence of the last 30 years happened. Still waiting on the grade for this paper. Grade = Case Study/Merit.

Unit 3 Still Wines is the behemoth unit. We’ve been having lectures on this since July, and the final is in January. Synopsis: take every non-sparkling, non-fortified wine in the world, then study it. The exam is comprised of a blind tasting of 12 wines, in groups of three, plus three hours of theory paragraph and essay questions. The pass rate for January theory exams is unfortunately very low, around 30%, which suggests a few things: the exam is too hard, students are not prepared, and/or too much Christmas holiday relaxing is happening. I’ve been blind tasting several times a week for months, so the name of the game over the next several weeks is theory theory theory.

Is it worth it?

Yes. Yes, it’s worth it. Wine is my favourite subject, because the more I learn, the more I realize I'll never know it all. It’s the everlasting gobstopper of topics.

Take history, geography, food, agriculture, culture, travel, the pleasure of a good glass, endless variety, sharing with others. Once you get into the Diploma, you will know how much you didn’t know and if you love to learn, it will make you very, very happy.

(Fine print = you might drive friends/family a little crazy with all that studying)

The WSET Diploma is the direct route into the Master of Wine program, should that interest you. The Diploma itself is a respected program, highly recognized in the trade. If you say “WSET Diploma” to people in the wine industry, they’ll know right away that you work hard and know your stuff.

I’ve already seen it in the career progression of several classmates over the past 15 months: they’ve moved from employee to manager, from somm to owner, written books, are teaching new students, taken trade trips, it’s really quite impressive. I believe several of us will be applying to the MW program. The level of tasting ability is incredible. We went from not being able to pick out the best quality wine in a flight, to nailing Alsatian Pinot Gris and picking out Eden Valley Riesling blind with confidence.

In Conclusion

I should mention that the Diploma has been much more challenging than I anticipated coming out of WSET Advanced. It’s a huge leap in technical tasting, and memorization of SO MUCH INFORMATION. Now, when someone tells me they’re an MW student, I bow down to their chutzpah.

That being said, every level of the WSET is challenging and a bit nervewracking. Level 1, I was nervous in the exam. Level 2 I was nervous in the exam. Level 3 I was nervous in the exam… Whatever level you’re at, keep going – it doesn’t get easier but it doesn’t get harder than you can handle!

WSET Diploma Prep Checklist

If you’re going for the Diploma, I’ve put together a free checklist of what you need to do to get prepared 90-60-30 days before you start. I give you a list of the books and one magazine you’ll most use, along with basically all the tips I think you need to start off on the right foot.

PS – I’ve created a WSET Diploma prep course, with practice multiple choice exams and flashcards! You can find out more here. If you have any tips or suggestions from your experience studying, I’d love to hear. Find me on Instagram or Twitter.

 

REFRESHING AUSSIE WHITES FOR PATIO WEATHER

What do patio umbrellas, floppy hats, coconut scented sunblock and backyard bbqs bring to mind? If you’re a wine lover, it’s a crisp, refreshing glass of chilled white wine.

Here are a few selections from a country that knows how to rock the outdoor get together, Australia! They may be best known for their powerhouse Shiraz reds, but I think you’re going to fall in love with these distinctive, lively whites from some of the oldest family wineries in the country.

Next time you head to the wine shop, seek out the Aussie section for these tasty bottles:

‘The Money Spider’ Roussanne 2013 – d’Arenberg

Rumour has it, if the tiny money spider crosses your path, money is soon to follow. This zesty, zingy wine is vibrantly full of lime and honey blossom. If you’re into NZ Sauv Blanc, give this little number a try! $17+

Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2013 – McWilliam’s

Made from high altitude grapes, which helps capture bright acidity, and concentrated crisp green apple and pear flavors. If you’re into Chablis, give this zinger a chance to delight you at your next picnic. $18+

‘Museum Release’ Marsanne 2008 – Tahbilk

Not too many people have had the chance to taste a Marsanne-based wine, a bit of a shame really, as with a little age like this 2008 release, it has incredible mineral, peach & melon, plus a nutty, toasty richness. Perfect for a leisurely glass on a chic patio. $21+

‘Vat 1’ Semillon 2011 – Tyrrell’s

This lux sipper is perfect for bringing to a fancy BBQ, a total crowd pleaser with hints of lemon, lime and a hit of popcorn richness from bottle aging. Pair with some shrimp kabobs and you’re golden! $35+

CHIANTI CLASSICO IN THE LIMELIGHT

ONCE upon a time, the powerful Republics of Florence and Siena were great enemies. Being medieval times™, it was decided a battle between two noble knights would settle the score over just who owned the territory between their beautiful cities, in the area we know today as Chianti.

At dawn, the rooster’s crow would be the signal for each knight to leave their city and where they met, they would fight to create a border between the territories. The Sienese had a lovely white rooster, who they groomed and fed. The Florentines had a black rooster, who they caged and treated (at least according to the Sienese) quite poorly. The little guy was underfed, and really, really hungry.

On the day of the duel, the black rooster was so eager for the day to begin, and for breakfast, that he started crowing and crowing, nevermind that dawn was hours away. Since, technically, Mr. Florence can now start to ride, he gains a massive head start on his journey south. Dawn arrives, and the white rooster crows. Mr. Siena starts on his way. But the black rooster has given Florence such a head start, that the two meet only a few miles north of Siena! The Florentine knight wins the duel, and coincidentally, most of the territory of Chianti comes under Florence’s power.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the black rooster comes to be on bottles of Chianti Classico… or so they say!

When you think of Chianti, does it bring to mind the straw-wrapped candle holder from Lady and The Tramp? Well, if so, it’s time to reconsider, and give Chianti a fresh chance. A good Chianti is a delicious prospect.

Chianti Classico is a region in Tuscany that lies between the cities of Florence and Siena. Look for ‘Classico DOCG’ and that trademark symbol of a black rooster on the label, this means you’re getting wine from this specific region. There are about 10,000 hectares of rolling-hill vineyards in Chianti Classico, and most of them are the grape variety Sangiovese. Sangio must make up at least 80% of what’s in your bottle, and the other 20% can be a local grape like Canaiolo or the more familiar Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.

About that Sangiovese: when it’s a younger wine, expect red fruit flavors like strawberry and some good tannins. Then, as it matures, it can develop an earthy, baking spice note that is quite appealing, and as those tannins soften they become almost magical. I love this grape when I catch the scent of violets. I think of it in some ways as a more powerful cousin to Pinot Noir, so if you like those aromatic PN qualities, I think you’ll enjoy Sangio.

Sometimes, it’s a little confusing – what’s the difference between regular Chianti and Chianti Classico? For that, we have to go back to 1716, when the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, gave official borders to the wine region. Then, flash forward to the early 1900’s, when Chianti, growing ever more popular, has greatly expanded production. In response to the higher demand, wine starts being grown in lesser areas, outside the official zone but still called Chianti.

Of course, quality and reputation start to suffer. So, in 1932 specific rules were set out, that only Cosimo’s original historic area can call itself ‘Chianti Classico’ (there are 9 communes within Classico such as Greve in Chianti and Radda in Chianti). The outer areas that don’t fall within Classico can call themselves plain old ‘Chianti’ plus a place name (for example Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Senesi).

Italians love quality, just think of Italian suits or Italian sheets. So of course, they have a quality ranking system within Classico:

~There’s the basic ‘Chianti Classico’, which has to have at least 12% alcohol and mature for 12+ months. These can be quite good, and will be the most cost-effective option.

~Then there’s Riserva, which has a little more alcohol, 12.5%, implying that maybe the fruit was a little better, and it gets double the aging at 24+ months, which can also help those tannins get a little smoother and bring out the spice and earth notes. Very good value to be found here.

~Now, as of 2013, there’s a new top tier blockbuster, called Gran Selezione, boom! It needs to have at least 13% alcohol and age for 30+ months, plus it must be made from the winery’s best grapes of a single vineyard – and yes, the price is much higher to match. If you like Brunello, you’ll love the Grand Sel’s.

If you’re open to giving Chianti Classico a try (and you really should), these are all wines that I loved and would give my ‘buy’ rating to:

Classico

Chianti Classico DOCG Cennatoio Avorio 2012

Chianti Classico DOCG Casina di Cornia 2012

Chianti Classico DOCG Rodano 2010

Chianti Classico DOCG Castello di Cacchiano 2009

Chianti Classico DOCG Felsina Berardenga 2012

Riserva

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Castello di Gabbiano 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Villa Antinori 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Cortevecchia 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Carobbio 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva O’Leandro 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Casa Sola 2009

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Montornello 2012

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Poggio a’ Frati 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Vigna Misciano 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Campoalto 2009

Gran Selezione

Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Don Tommaso 2010

Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Castello Fonterutoli 2011

 

Cin Cin, Rachel

CHATTING WITH SOMM DLYNN PROCTOR

Image of Magill Cellar Door Courtesy Penfolds

Image of Magill Cellar Door Courtesy Penfolds

Have you seen the documentary Somm? A great movie for wine lovers, it follows the travails (and wine-mad drama) of four aspiring Master Sommeliers, as they study, prepare and panic for the big exam, one of whom is Mr. DLynn Proctor.

DLynn is now a Brand Ambassador for Aussie giant Penfolds (#dreamjob), travelling around the world to promote, pour, and chat about their wines. Tonight in Vancouver, he’s impeccably dressed, just like in the movie, complete with natty tie and pocket square. In person, he’s animated and ready to pour while charming the crowds with a tip or anecdote, a born entertainer.

Before chatting with DLynn, I tasted the Penfolds wines on offer. The Hyland 2008 Chardonnay from Adelaide stood out as a winner, it had great texture and body, with a hint of vanilla on the palate. For those with a sweet tooth, the Penfolds Club Australian Tawny is a steal at $20. It’s all brown sugar, dried fruit and caramel, with over 200 component wines in the blend – there’s a reason Aussies call these wines ‘stickies’, they’re sticky like a good toffee pudding.

I also had a chance to taste the super premium 2012 RWT (Red Winemaking Trial) Barossa Shiraz, which retails for about $200 – nice wine if you’re buying! If you’re shopping for Aussie reds, not just those of the super premium variety, keep an eye out for the very good 2010 and 2012 vintages.

Q: What’s the your best tip for someone just getting into wine?

DLynn: Find what you like. Whatever you’ve tasted and liked, whether it’s wine with blue fruit, dry wine, tell your somm what you like and have them make a recommendation for you. Drink what you like, don’t be pressured into drinking what your friends talk about.

Q: What’s a region in Australia that you think we should check out?

DLynn: Adelaide, for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs.

Q: How about a top new area worldwide?

DLynn: Walla Walla, Washington.

Q: What’s the coolest opportunity that’s come out of the success of Somm?

DLynn: I’ve been in the wine world since the age of 20, 21, so I’ve had the chance to experience lots of things before Somm. The coolest wine related experience was in 2007 at Vinitaly, I wandered over to the stage where the band was on a break and just started playing the guitar. Before I realized what was happening, the band had joined me at the stage and suddenly we were playing for everyone. Very cool experience.

Somm’s sequel Inside the Bottle is out as of Summer 2015. Expect to catch up with familiar faces while delving behind the wine industry’s velvet curtain. Cheers!

THE BEST OF 2010 BRUNELLO

Lovely Brunello. Delicious, expensive, debonair Brunello di Montalcino.

Brunello is a red wine made from the Sangiovese grape. The best Brunellos are capable of long aging (30+ years), and can take several years of cellaring in order to be considered ready to drink.

The region has about 3,000 acres of vineyard, in the tiny and romantic Tuscan hilltop town of Montalcino, Italy. If you visit, you will get some exercise as you walk up the cobblestone walkways, under arches and past fountain squares, to arrive at one of the many chic wine boutiques.

Brunello is aged for a minimum of five years after the year the grapes are harvested (six years for Riserva wines). The time in oak barrels, and in the bottle, helps to mellow this powerful, tannic, and complex wine. If you like Pinot Noir, think of Brunello as it’s older, more powerful cousin.

Yes, a good Brunello will set you back some money. It’s not the kind of wine you pop out for and drink the same night. These bottles require a little love and patience. I’ve got a couple sitting downstairs that will be ready to drink over the next five years; I visit with them every once in a while, just to check in. That being said, if you’re splurging and see a bottle on the winelist, prepare for a sensory experience – this is a sexy, thoughtful wine that will prompt discussion!

The other thing to consider about Brunello is that not every vintage is as good as the others. Keep an eye out for these years, they are excellent vintages: 2004, 2006, 2007, & 2010.

If you want a taste of Brunello, but at a lower price point, may I humbly recommend Rosso di Montalcino. These wines are less than half the cost, made from younger vines and aged for less time. But, they are good drinking, easy to enjoy (less tannic and softer), and offer some of the same intoxicating bouquet of a Brunello. 2012 is a vintage to buy.

What to eat with your Brunello: this wine pairs best with savory, rich dishes. Think roasted or grilled meats, or aged cheeses like Pecorino.

Here are my top 5 Brunello to look out for from the 2010 vintage. These are in no particular order, but if I had to buy just one, it would be the Campogiovanni:

~ Banfi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {sweet earthiness, plum, light cinnamon spice, vibrant & alive}

~ Campogiovanni Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {black roses, hint of vanilla, dark sour cherries, moody spice, grippy}

~ Capanna Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {violets, juicy red fruits, softer, sexy, feminine, earth, pure silk}

~ Il Grappolo Fortius Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {powerful concentration, a little savory, mineral, spicy violets}

~ Tenute Silvio Nardi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {ripe fruit balanced with leather, earth, spice, stone, silky tannins, approachable now}

Cin Cin,

Rachel

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

HOW TO WIN AT A WINE FESTIVAL

Yes, I did say to wear comfortable shoes, but... no birkies please 

Yes, I did say to wear comfortable shoes, but... no birkies please 

Are you heading to a big wine tasting event?

Fight the overwhelm, check out my top 9 wine tasting tips for having an awesome time at a wine festival:

~Don’t drink everything in sight (despite the temptation), be discerning, try to read up a little on the wineries you want to check out ahead of time. I take a look at the wineries participating in the event, and make a list of 3-5 must try wines that I’m excited to sample. I head to those tables first, which helps me get oriented in the room and avoid being overwhelmed by options.

~Circle the floor once before you start tasting to get the lay of the land, plan your attack, make note of your favourite wineries.

~It’s more than OK to spit out the wine. It can be a long night, and there are many wines to try. Have a sip if it’s really delicious, but don’t be embarrassed to use ‘ye olde spit bucket’ or tip out your glass into it after you’ve had one sip – you don’t have to finish everything they pour for you. I spit out 99% of the wine – unless it’s mind blowing or 50 year old port 

~Eat a solid meal before the party. Pasta, bread, anything that will fill out the corners of your stomach. Food served at tasting events is usually of the bite-sized canape persuasion, there are lineups, and they are snacks not a substitute for a real lunch/dinner.

~Dress for success. Of course, you can wear jeans and a t-shirt, but this is a fun event to dress up a little. A cute dress, or nice blazer will really help you stand out as stylish. Leave the 3″ heels at home though, your feet will thank me. I opt for cute but comfy wedges or ballet flats.

~Be polite and friendly to the people pouring your wine, it can be a long event for them, especially as the crowd gets buzzing. Don’t forget to compliment the wines you love, you may even be talking to the person who made them!

~Once your wine glass is filled, step aside so others can reach the table. If it's busy, don't monopolize the table's host. If it's reasonably quiet, feel free to ask your questions about the wine (or grab a card from the table to look up later).

~Have a plan to get home safe. No drinkin’ and drivin’ of course. Plan your transit route, grab a cab/uber, or take advantage of the festival's hotel packages.

~If the table you want to visit is too crowded, head to the quiet booth you’ve never heard of before. I’ve tasted delicious wines and met interesting people just by being open minded about trying something totally new.

~Lastly, have fun and keep an open mind. Try a new grape, a new winery, a new region that you’ve never had before. I also challenge you to try a grape you’ve had before and not enjoyed. If you’ve completely written off Chardonnay, you could be missing out just because you had that one off-putting bottle, when another style may blow your mind!

BEST OF VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL WINE FESTIVAL #VIWF 2015

australia.jpeg

I’m just back from the first day of tasting at Vancouver Wine Fest. The Savour Australia room is open from 230-5 for people in the trade (writers, wine buyers, restauranteurs), and it’s a nice chance to cruise the room and take advantage of the smaller crowds before the evening sessions which can get a little crazy… like 10 people deep at the table crazy.

What shocked me today is that I have more whites than reds to recommend. When you think of Aussie wine, don’t you immediately picture a juicy, jammy red? The whites were gorgeous; lively, great concentration and distinct flavours. I didn’t stick to just the Aussie’s though, I perused the entire hall, so there are wines below from Spain to New York state. The items I’ve listed below are either delicious, unique and delicious, or hard to find and delicious. 

Here, in no particular order at the whites I think you’ll enjoy:

~Mionetto Luxury Cartizze DOCG is a flagship Prosecco. It was creamy, with light mousse, apples and lemon. Not tart, overly foamy or aggressive like some Proseccos can be, this is the Champagne of Prosecco (sorry, I had to say it). $40-50.

~Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon 2007. I tried this, and couldn’t believe how rich and creamy the mouthfeel was. Then I learned that the wine had aged for 8 years, and yet somehow manages to taste bright and fresh. It’s a mouthful of mineral and lime goodness, but oh that texture is sexy. This wine is unlike any Semillon you’ve had before, seek it out! $50.

~McWilliams Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2013. So maybe I just love saying Tumbarumba, but this tasty Chard shows how vibrantly acidic yet balanced Aussie whites can be. A little apple and some oak, with creamy lees notes, just lovely. $20-30.

~Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch Chardonnay 2012. My favourite Chardonnay of the day was this wild fermented beauty from the Victoria region of Oz. It had a voluptuous and silky texture, and flavours of yeast, and lots of fresh fruit. Quality doesn’t come cheap though… $40-50.

~Brotherhood Sparkling Chardonnay. This New Yorker sparkler was very tasty indeed, and hails from America’s oldest winery established in 1839 in the Hudson Valley. We hear a lot about NY wines, but don’t get a chance to taste too many. Crisp, dry but not too dry, delish. $20.

~Devil’s Lair 2012 & The Hidden Cave 2014 Margaret River Chardonnay. Here’s a pretty pair from the far West coast of Oz, perfect for tasting together. The The Hidden Cave is unoaked, fresh, vibrant Chardonnay and the Devil’s Lair has seen some goodly oaking, and is perfect for someone who loves Cali Chard but wouldn’t mind a little more refinement. No oak vs. oak – you be the judge! The Hidden Cave $20-30. Devil’s Lair $40.

Sweeter Stuff:

~Goldtropfchen Auslese Riesling 2011. For those who like a little sugar in their bowl, this Mosel Valley beauty balances tight acidity with the perfect dose of sweetness, and the Riesling aromatics we all love (a little diesel, honeysuckle, stone fruit). $30-40.

~De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon 2011. From pretty Riverina comes this botrytis (“noble rot”) affected sweetie. This is lighter and brighter than I expected, full of apricot, orange peel, whiteflower honey, and some vanilla. $30 for 1/2 bottle.

~Taylor Fladgate 1965 Very Old Single Harvest Port. What can I say about this one? I didn’t spit it out, that’s for sure. It is a gorgeous golden cinnamon brown, and smelled of sweet tobacco, brown sugar and Christmas cake. Seek this out and savour (there was no one at the stand at the beginning of the show, but by last call it was a wall of elbows). $300.

~Gonzalez Byass Apostoles VORS 30 Yr Palo Cortado. If you don’t already love Sherry, give this a try. It just sings on the palate with a luscious undercurrent of briny sea smoke, and a layer of spicy, sweet baking spices. I bought a bottle of this one to put away for a rainy day. $35 for 1/2 bottle.

Reds:

~Cleto Chiarli Grasparossa di Castelvetro Amabile Lambrusco. Call me crazy, but I wasn’t keen on tasting five Lambruscos today. But wow, am I glad I did. This table is completely unique in the tasting hall. Ranging from lighter rose style Lambrusco, to this Amabile (sweet) style, every glass was smooth, sultry, with mild rounded tannins. Just plain elegant (not in the pejorative sense). None of that grittiness that can come with the territory. The Amabile is chilled before fermentation is completed to keep some residual sugar in the bottle. It’s not overtly sugary, there’s just enough to offset the keen acids, and highlight the smooth cherry notes. $30.

~Peter Lehmann 1885 Shiraz 2013. The vines that made this wine were planted in hot Barossa Valley in 1885, and they are giving concentrated, lush, ripe wine even today. The nose on this wine was plush, spicy and had lots of brambly fruit. This is a bottle to open by the fireplace for an evening of relaxed conversation and contemplation. When I think of good quality Aussie Shiraz, this is what it should taste like. $50.

~Wolf Blass Grey Label Shiraz 2012. This is from McLaren Vale and it’s rich, ripe, with toasty mocha and plenty of black fruit and spice. Bonus, it’s ready to quaff now! $30-40.

#VIWF has got something for everyone - let me know if you have a favourite that I missed.

TOP 3 TO TRY AT VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL WINE FEST #VIFW 2015

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Hey wine fox! The public tasting nights are on now at Vancouver Wine Fest 2015.

The theme is Australia Shiraz/Syrah, and there are an incredible 170 wineries represented at the event. A little overwhelming right?

Well, you can always do what I do, and have a few “must try” wines to seek out before trying all those other incredible looking wines you’ve never heard of!

Here are my three picks for you to check out:

1) Start out your night with a sparkling from the land of the Tasmanian Devil! Tasmanian sparkling wine is so hot right now, which is a little ironic, as it hails from one of the coolest regions in Australia. The Jansz Premium Cuvee is made in the Methode Tasmanoise (a cute riff on Champenoise) on the North-Eastern corner of the island in red basalt soil. Expect creamy bubbles with a fruity hit of strawberry, honeysuckle and citrus… Yum!

2) Then, if you’re feeling up for a powerhouse red, get to the Wolf Blass table early to beat the crowds. Start with some of their delish Chard, before moving to the reds. Their Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz has ranked high in a blind test with some of the most expensive Bordeaux Cabs in the world. This is a great chance to taste a $100+ cult Cab and decide whether you think it’s worth all the fuss (I do!).

3) Since we’re ostensibly at VanWineFest to celebrate all things Shiraz (Australia is the focus, but wineries from all over the world are here), make sure to stop by the Yalumba table to try their Octavius Shiraz. Named for the 100L oak barrels (called ‘octaves’) made onsite by their own coopers, the grapes come from some very old vines in the hot Barossa Valley. Yalumba is the oldest family owned Aussie winery, and they make some truly delicious bottles. Also be sure to try their wild fermented Y Series Viognier, a silky little number with full body and lots of stone fruit.

PS: there are some legit old world fortified wine houses at the tasting. Before you leave, make sure to visit the Taylor-Fladgate, Fonseca, Croft & Gonzalez Byass tables for a little night cap!

Have fun! If you have a hot tip about a wine I’ve got to try at VIWF 2015, let me know below in the comments.

HOW TO TASTE WINE LIKE A PRO

This woman is contemplating all that goes into  truly  tasting a wine...

This woman is contemplating all that goes into truly tasting a wine...

No one needs a lesson on how to drink wine, that part comes naturally. Today we’re talking how to TASTE wine, and by the end you’ll be tasting like a pro. These are the techniques I use in my wine Diploma course for every wine I taste – and they’re all poured blind (aka from a plain decanter, no label), can you believe it?

Before we get to tasting, I want you to harness your inner Sherlock Holmes, because what we’re embarking on will require you to pay attention to lots of little clues, use your powers of deduction, and make a conclusion (you're also going to need to dispatch any self-consciousness you have around seeming precious). 

For this exercise, you’re going to stop thinking of wine as a beverage, and start thinking of it as a mystery you need to solve.

Remember this, it’s your tasting shorthand: SEE – SWIRL – SMELL – SIP – SAVOUR

First, we SEE the wine. Ideally you’ve got a white counter or piece of paper that you can view your glass over. Taking a look at the wine, we’re specifically looking for three things: how deep is the colour, opaque or pale? Is the wine crystal clear and bright, or is it a little murky? What colour is it – for whites does it have a green tint, is it lemon yellow, gold, or does it have a brown tone? For reds, is it vivid purple or ruby red, does it have a hint of garnet (brick red), or even brown?

When I’m looking at whites, I tilt the glass at 45 degrees over the paper, and look at the rim of the wine for hints. For example, Sauvignon Blanc tends to be very pale, almost watery, and sometimes has a bit of green in it. With reds, I do the tilt too, but I also put the glass down, and look straight down to see if I can make out the stem. If I can’t see the stem, I call a wine opaque.

Depth of colour can give you a clue about where the wine was grown and potentially even what grape it could be. Grapes grown in hot climates like Australia or California can have deeper colour. Some varieties like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo will appear paler and more translucent in the glass. Wines like Zinfandel and Shiraz can have very deep colour, and sometimes they are totally opaque, so I’m mentally perusing what grapes it could be right from the get-go.

A clear, bright wine can indicate a well made wine, whereas a murky wine can indicate a few things: it’s an older wine that has thrown sediment (ie the tannins have precipitated out of the wine and are now visible), the wine was not filtered by the winemaker, or in some cases it could be faulted (ie something is wrong with it – this will come through when we smell and sip). Colour will also give us clues about the potential age of the wine. As wines age, they tend to become paler (reds), deeper in colour (whites), or develop a brown tone (brick colour in reds, tawny colours in whites).

We’re also taking a look at the “legs” or “tears” as they run down the sides of the glass. Thick, heavy, slow-moving tears can indicate a wine that has higher alcohol or could have residual sugar (ie it’s sweet). Whenever I see really thick tears, I think hmmmm, what will this taste like?

Next, we SWIRL. We talked the importance of swirling on Day 1 of #Instawineschool. This step is sometimes overlooked, but it’s really important in order to get the clues we need when we sniff. When we swirl our glass, we’re oxygenating the wine, and creating a wine vortex in the glass. Give your glass 5-10 seconds of swirling, as this sends the volatile aroma compounds into our noses as we SMELL.

Don’t laugh, but when I SMELL a wine for the first time, I swirl then breathe out and inhale deeply with my eyes closed. I try to put out all other thoughts except for what I’m smelling in the wine. If I need to take another smell of the wine, I give myself a couple of breaths before going back to the glass so I don’t wear out my nose.

As I smell, I’m looking for the very first impression I get. It might be blackberries, or vanilla, or spice. This is our first clue as to what the wine is. Then I start running through the scent families to tease out specifics. Do I smell fruit? Yes, is it stone fruit (apricots, peaches, plums), apples (red or green), pears, tropical (pineapple, mango, passionfruit), citrus (lemon, lime grapefruit)? Are there any floral notes (roses, violets elderflower, orange blossom)? Do I smell any hints from winemaking – butter, cream, bread, vanilla, toast? How about scents that tell us about age – earth, spice, leather, mocha, tobacco?

If a wine is all fruit, that is, the scents you’re picking up are wholly types of fruit, then we’re likely dealing with a younger wine. If you can pick up some hints of winemaking, like vanilla or oak, bread notes, then the wine is developing. If all you’re getting is smoke, spice, earthiness, mushrooms and tobacco, with no fruit, then the wine likely has some age on it, and we’ll call it fully developed.

If you’re smelling wet cardboard, you may have a ‘corked’ wine. We hear this term all the time, and no, it doesn’t refer to bits of cork floating in your glass. There’s a compound called TCA (trichloroanisole), that can sometimes be found in cork, and it creates a musty wet cardboard or wet dog odor. It can also dull the aroma and taste of a wine, making it flat. Cork production is much more careful these days (it was found that chlorine was an issue), so cork taint is becoming less common than in the past.

Some grapes have ‘tells’; you smell the glass, and the bouquet is so evocative that you just know what it is. Gewurtztraminer smells like lychees and roses. Riesling can smell of petrol. Pinotage can smell like tar. Cabernet Sauvignon of mint or eucalyptus. Syrah of black pepper. Gruner of grapefruit. Take note of any distinct aromas you get.

If you think I’m spending lots of time on SMELL, you’re absolutely right. This step is where I pick up most of my clues about a wine!

Now, we SIP. Finally we’re tasting some wine. Close your eyes, take a good sip, and don’t be afraid to slosh the wine around your mouth. We need to get the wine to all your tastebud areas (sweet, bitter etc).

If you’re feeling brave, try the SLURP. Taking a sip, purse your lips as if you’re playing the flute, tilt your head forward a tiny bit, and breathe in a steady amount of air. The air will pass through the wine, creating a slurping sound. This trick brings extra aroma compounds to the back of your mouth, where they will be picked up by your nose. Careful not to drip down your shirt!

Again, take note of your very first impression of the wine. Is it super acidic (juicy, vibrant, mouth puckering)? Is it tannic (velvet or toothpaste feeling, gritty, astringent, sandpaper tongue)? Does it feel heavy like cream (full-bodied), full fat milk (medium-bodied) or light like fat-free milk (light-bodied)?

Sensing alcohol is another trick. Take a sip, swallow or spit your wine, then pay attention to how fast your saliva starts running. Sounds strange, but the higher the alcohol, the more your mouth will water.

Then, like we did with SMELL, start running through the flavours you’re getting. They may echo the same things you smelled earlier, or you may pick up something totally new. Run through fruit, spice, flower, other flavour families to try to put a name to what you’re tasting. If you need a tip, read the back of the bottle to see what the maker is suggesting, although it’s best to learn by reading this after you’re done! When you can pick up lots of different flavours, we call the wine complex.

Now, we SAVOUR. This step can get skipped, but the whole point of drinking the wine is to enjoy it right? After you swallow, how long do the pleasant flavours linger? The longer the finish, the more you can be sure this was a well made quality wine. A quick or simple finish, or one with unpleasant aftertaste can indicate a cheaper or commercial grade product.

Now that we’ve SEEN – SWIRLED – SMELLED – SIPPED – SAVOURED, think of all the clues you picked up along the way, the flavours, texture, aromas, and consider them.

Finally, ask yourself the most important question of all: Do I like this wine?

Developing your palate, learning to identify grapes, and picking out flavours is all well and good, but it’s all about finding wine YOU love.