Monthly Archives: December 2015

MW reflections

Last month marked the pinnacle of my wine education when I was officially inducted as a Master of Wine at the annual awards ceremony. Held at Vintners House it was a very special evening attended by many of the people who I had met along the course of my MW studies, both students and tutors, as well as – most specially for me – my husband, parents and two fellow wine monkeys.

Of course graduation ceremonies are always happy times, but I can think of none happier – or noisier – than this one. As each of us 24 new MWs individually went up on stage to accept our official certificates there was a new wave of applause, hollering and general appreciation from the audience. Not to mention more than a few tears. It really was an incredible evening that will live a long, long time in the memory.

Celebrating monkeys

Celebrating monkeys

A month or so on has given me some time to reflect on what it all means – and where I have come from. One really lovely aspect of becoming an MW that I didn’t anticipate was the many, many letters, notes and emails of congratulations I received – both from friends and colleagues but also many from people I haven’t yet met. One of those notes was from my very first wine tutor from back when I had just finished university and hadn’t yet started in the wine trade. I took an evening class in the WSET intermediate level (now level 2) along with my Dad and one of his colleagues, both keen wine lovers, and I still remember to this day how exciting it was to learn a little more each week about the world of wine. Not to mention getting more than a bit confused with the German classification system! That course is what really made me think about the wine trade as a future career – and 6 months after I finished I moved to London to start on Oddbin’s Trainee Manager programme.

10 years has passed since then and I have moved through various jobs along the way – but one constant has been my wine education. At Oddbins I completed my WSET Advanced and then started on the Diploma. After a break when we moved out to New Zealand for a year and a half I restarted the Diploma and ended up graduating as the highest scholar in my year, being awarded the Vintners Cup. That propelled me onto the MW which has taken up the last 4 years of my life with all of its highs and lows along the way. So it is perhaps no surprise that the one question I keep getting asked now is, what next?

With my certificate in 'The Art of Wine'

With my certificate in ‘The Art of Wine’

It is a very good question – and for someone who has essentially been studying in one way or other since school it is strange to think that there is no further to go in terms of wine education. The MW is it – now my challenge is to keep my levels of knowledge up to scratch, to keep up with as much of the new research, topics and debates as possible so that I can help my mentees with their own studies.

But I have also got another project brewing –one that will take rather longer than 4 or even 10 years and will affect my day to day life even more than studying for the MW. My very own mini-monkey is due with us in just over 2 months’ time and I can’t wait. Give me 6 months to a year and then we can think about what comes next for me with wine. For now, my new challenge is to be a mummy and it’s sure to be the steepest learning curve yet.


Wines to pair with Star Wars

imageChristmas is almost here and so we are being bombarded with news articles telling us what wines we should drink with our Christmas meal. What goes with turkey? What goes with duck? Never mind that. This is also the time of year when Star Wars mania hits hysterical (and historical) levels. Some of you will be busy re-watching the original trilogy and some of you may even be tempted to re-watch the prequels (although I’d seriously have to question why).

So, which wines pair with Star Wars? Here are my suggestion, and these ARE the suggestions you’re looking for.

Episode IV A New Hope
It’s shiny, it’s new, it’s exciting and it’s revolutionary. What better match for this film than a South African white from one of the young guns of Swartland?

Episode V Empire Strikes Back
Dark, epic, brooding, massive and quite evil. Best match? Amarone della Valpolicella. It’s cold on Hoth so you’ll need something spicy to warm you up. Amarone will help you thaw, much like Leia’s heart eventually thawed for Han.

Episode VI Return of the Jedi
A big fat blob is slayed by a slender princess in a golden bikini. There are playful Ewoks fighting steely stormtroopers. It all ends with fireworks. If there ever was a film to go with Riesling, this is it. Preferably Alsatian. It’s the little imperfections that make it beautiful.

Episode I The Phantom Menace
Mesa think this is going to besa hard work! No kidding. Huge, colourful, shiny spectacle – ambitious and a bit overconfident? Sounds like a job for an oaky Bordeaux blend. Preferably in a suitably heavy bottle with 100% new oak and polished tannins. Argentina then.

Episode II Attack of the Clones
Yoda with a lightsaber! The only good scene in a film that otherwise wastes screen time on a whiny, annoying immature teenager who is apparently going to become the most badass villain in cinema history. Oh please, George!! This sounds like a job for Merlot, it may be heard screaming “I am better than all of you!”. Not so.

Episode III Revenge of the Sith
Does this film make you, like Anakin, scream ‘Noooooooo’? If so, its effects may be accentuated by sipping on some suitably evil Sauvignon Blanc. I won’t be doing that but then again I don’t plan to watch the prequels…

So there you have it. May the force be with you.

Darth Lenka

Chinese wine; a tasting of wines from Ningxia

A recent invitation to a tasting of Chinese wines from Ningxia by a friend who had just returned was too good an opportunity to miss.  A small select group of interested palates collected on a blustery Monday night for the tasting.  Expectations were varied but curiosity had certainly been piqued.

The presentation was excellent and the wines certainly looked the part with some very smart packaging.   However, though showing promise, the wines did not quite live up to their labels, or their price tags.  There is still plenty of experimentation and exploration going on as producers strive to learn more about which vines are best suited to their soils and their extreme climate.  As with many relatively young markets, the most suitable varieties are not always the same as the varieties and wine styles popular with the consumers which can prove to be a difficult line to walk for the producers who need a strong domestic market but want to focus on quality.

Kanaan Winery Riesling 2013

Though perfectly drinkable, the wine lacked the precision or persistence I would look for from the Riesling grape.  There was little in the way of aromatics with a neutral nose and palate, though on the plus side it did have a fresh acidity and some textual weight.  The little fruit character there was showed oxidative notes leaving a bitter tang to the finish.


Jia Bei Lan Unwooded Chardonnay 2014

This was certainly the most appealing of the whites we tasted with ripe melon and apple, a creamy mid palate and good concentration of fruit.  It was certainly not a complex wine but it was well proportioned, fresh and perfectly drinkable.   Jia Bei Lan is starting to move away from plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon which they feel it doesn’t suit the climate, towards Chardonnay, Tempranillo and Syrah.

Li Lan Winery Lancui Pinot Noir 2013

An attractive nose of perfumed cherry is sadly dominated by lots of sweet oak.  The core of the wine has ripe soft red fruits but these flavours were again lost amid aggressively spicy oak and a warm finish.  There is certainly potential with the fruit quality here, but they need to pull back from the heavy handed oak use and let the fruit sing.

Li Lan Winery Lancui Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

This told a similar story to the Pinot; attractive, fresh, supple cassis fruit dominated by excessive spicy oak.  There was a lack of integration in the wine with both warmth and sharpness clashing on the finish. The potential is there, just some more experimentation is needed with both the viticulture and the winemaking to achieve more balance.  This is of course a long process as only one variable can be changed at a time to assess the impact on quality.

Xuanyue 2013

A soft, broad nose with very chocolatey oak, the body was surprisingly light and soft with some sappy red and black fruit and a herbaceous note but the oak char dominated the finish leaving a sense of bitterness.


Jia Bei Lan Grand Reserve 2009

An intense wine with dark fruit, earthy richness and firm, dry tannins.  The acidity is fresh and there is a combination of dried over ripe, and bright crunchy fruit on the palate and again, plenty of oak hitting the finish.

It was a fascinating snap shot of just one production region in the vast wine landscape of China.  It is a region that poses many climatic challenges with hot dry summers and extreme cold in the winter which can kill the vines.  Though the wines are not quite hitting the high quality mark yet, there is plenty to be excited about.  As investment in viticulture and winemaking continues and more importantly they take the time to experiment, we can expect to see a significant improvement from the East.

  • Alex