Tag Archives: Institute of Masters of Wine

Judging Bacchus

Bacchus is Spain’s most important wine competition and this year Lenka and I were invited to be part of their judging team. More than 50 judges gathered at the grand Casino de Madrid in March for the competition – a mix of Spanish winemakers and sommeliers as well as a large number of international judges, including 18 MWs. And over the 4 days of the competition we sipped, spat and scored over 1700 wines between us from 21 different countries.

Judges at Bacchus

The Bacchus judges. How many MWs can you spot?!

I have judged at a number of different wine competitions now (see my previous post on judging at the IWC) and have to admit that the OIV system used at Bacchus is not exactly my favourite. Unlike other competitions where wines will be presented in flights by region and variety, with OIV the only information you are given on each wine is the vintage and residual sugar. Wines are also presented individually rather than in a flight– so you don’t have the opportunity to benchmark against other wines.

Bacchus scorecard

The OIV scoring sheet at Bacchus

Theoretically this is supposed to mean that each wine is judged solely on its quality which is certainly an admirable thing to aim for, but the reality is that wine is a product of its place and variety and it can’t be separated from them. It is how we all buy wine, and what gives us an idea of what to expect when we open a bottle. You’d be pretty surprised to open a bottle of, say, Pinot Noir and find it tasted more like a Shiraz. And so when judging wine, knowing the origin and variety gives you vital clues as to what you would expect – for how can you judge typicity (which is one of the factors in the OIV system) when you don’t know what it is meant to be?

Judging Bacchus at the Casino de Madrid

The grandest of judging locations

Gripes about the judging system aside, it was a real pleasure to judge Bacchus. Unsurprisingly the vast majority of wines were Spanish, but looking at my crib sheets I was surprised to discover we also tasted wines from as far as Mexico and Peru, as well as France, Portugal, Italy and Slovenia amongst others. By the end of the competition we awarded 529 wines with a medal – 332 Silver, 179 Gold and a mere 18 received the top gong of Great Gold Bacchus. You can see the full results here.

Whilst judging can be a lot of fun, it is also hard work so all of the judges really appreciated the extra activities and dinners that were organised around the judging. These not only gave us the chance to taste more wines in a relaxed environment, they also allowed us to get to know our fellow judges – and explore the beautiful city of Madrid. The three masterclasses that were organised were particularly interesting – with the Palo Cortado masterclass by Gonzalez Byass’ master blender Antonio Flores being a real highlight. Watch out for Lenka’s blogpost reporting on that soon.

Emma


Exploring minerality

‘Wine producers like to kneel in their vineyards and scoop up a handful of dirt for you to admire. “See this gneiss (or schist, or limestone)” they’ll say. “Minerality. You can taste it in the wine”.’

The idea that the rock type that a vineyard’s soil is based on can affect the flavour of a wine, giving it so-called minerality, has been knocking around for a long time. It is certainly a romantic thought that you can go into a vineyard, look at the soil and be able to ascribe certain aromas and flavours in the wine to it. There is something about the sensory nature of soil – you can see, touch, smell and even taste it – that makes it easy to apportion wine flavour to. But is this idea of minerality really accurate, or is it just a romantic notion used by marketeers to add to wine’s mystique?

The thorny topic of minerality formed the basis of a recent seminar held by the Institute of Masters of Wine and aimed to shed light on these questions. By the end of it would a room full of MWs be able to agree on what minerality is? We were about to find out.

 

IMW Minerality seminar

 

The first part of the presentation was hosted not by a wine professional, but by geology professor Alex Maltman from the University of Aberystwyth and was titled ‘Why ‘Minerality’ is not the taste of vineyard minerals’. So, stating his position very firmly then.

Thus followed a quick chemistry class in minerals, how they are formed from constituent elements and how they are bound in rocks, followed by the disconnect with how vines take up nutrient elements from the soil to grow. Essentially, geological minerals are made up of compounds formed of eight elements. These minerals bind with each other to rigid aggregates aka rocks. Over a long time rocks can be weathered to sediment, which mixes with moist humus (organic matter) and water and becomes soil. Vines need 14 essential nutrients to grow which they can take up from soil when dissolved in water. So, on the surface it sounds like:

Elements combine → minerals which then combine → rock.

Rock weathers → soil → vines uptake minerals from soil.

But herein lies the disconnect: just because some geological minerals are in the soil, it doesn’t mean that they are able to be taken up by the vine. And on top of that, weathering is such a slow process that it cannot provide all of the nutrient elements that a vine needs. Instead, these nutrient elements come from the humus – the recycled organic matter in the soil (dead leaves etc). On top of that, the three main essential nutrients that vines need are sodium, phosphorus and sulphur and these can only come from humus, not weathered geological elements.

So Professor Maltman proved quite succinctly that minerals in the rock are not taken up by vines – let alone find their way into grapes and onwards into your glass. He then went further, arguing that beyond the geological arguments, you simply can’t taste minerals themselves. He gave the example of flint, a wine descriptor that often occurs in so-called mineral white wines. Flint itself is silica which is flavourless, odourless and tasteless. The aroma we link to flint is actually the smell of flint being struck – striking flint releases sulphur and iron impurities into the air, giving a distinctive smell. It is not, however, the smell of flint itself. Professor Maltman concluded by noting that minerality is a metaphor – you have to be alluding to something else. ‘Whatever minerality is, it’s not the taste of vineyard minerals’.

So, if minerality is not from vineyard minerals then what is it? What does it mean?

Well, in the words of pre-eminent viticulturist Dr Richard Smart, ‘Minerality as a wine descriptor is a nonsense…..I think that it is a deliberate method to mystify wine by wine writers’.

So, is mineral a term used by wine trade but not understood by consumers? The final two speakers, wine sensory scientists Dr Jordi Ballester and Dr Wendy Parr, were on hand to share their research on what minerality means to people.

Dr Ballester’s research asked people simply to define minerality. Perhaps unsurprisingly the wine experts (Burgundian winemakers) came up with many descriptive words, all of which were positive – with the most used ones including gunflint, acidity and shellfish. On the other hand, consumers lacked any sort of consensus over descriptors and these were not always positive. This seems to indicate that whilst the wine trade knows what they mean by minerality, consumers do not – and aren’t sure if it is a good thing or not. The other result of note was the lack of consensus on descriptors from the wine experts – 34 people were surveyed resulting in 17 groups of words, including everything from gunflint to salty to flower. Not exactly a ringing consensus of what minerality means.

Dr Parr then expanded on this by talking about her research which looked at French and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc producers to ascertain whether minerality is a specific character (or characters) in a wine – or if it is driven by expectation: the idea that you think something is mineral and therefore you taste it.  She found that the French and New Zealand producers could both smell and taste minerality and that there was cross-cultural consensus on what flavours were associated with minerality. Simply put, there was definitely something in the wine driving a description of minerality. And in general these wines tended to be more citrus/fresh with an absence of passionfruit and green characters. But, she also reported that the wines had been put through a rigorous chemical analysis and they didn’t find anything that ‘minerality’ can be attributed chemically.

This research seems to show that minerality as a concept does exist and can be tasted in a wine – but there is a lot of variability in terms of the actual descriptors used by different people. So, could a room full of MWs and their guests agree what minerality was? We were about to find out.

What followed was a blind tasting, first of 5 Chardonnays and then of 10 Sauvignon Blancs. We had to taste each wine and score it on a scale of 0 (no minerality) to 10 (high minerality). Easy, you might think. Well, the results were fascinating.

 

Minerality

 

This graph shows the results for the Chardonnays and the number of attendees who scored each wine as ‘the most mineral’. As you can see there wasn’t much consensus! There was a similar result for the Sauvignon Blancs, leading Dr Parr to comment ‘the notion of mineral doesn’t tell us a lot’.

An open discussion with the room then asked what we mean when we say mineral. The comments included chalky, acid, salty, palate weight, lack of sweetness, hardness, tension and friction amongst others – an interesting mix of true flavours, textural ideas and even more semantic concepts.

So if a group of MWs can’t agree on what minerality is, means, or tastes like – what hope do consumers have?

Indeed, Dr Parr ended up by arguing that minerality is an umbrella term with many aspects to it and that we as wine professionals should be more specific when describing mineral aspects in a wine. So just as using the descriptor ‘fruity’ is very generic and can be broken down into the type of fruit, whether they’re ripe or unripe, fresh or cooked – so minerality should be dissembled and wines should be described as salty, stony or steely – or any of the many other descriptors out there. Not only would that be more understandable for consumers it would also open up the world of minerality further and shed light on what we are really describing in a wine.

So, if minerality can be tasted in a wine but it does not come from vineyard soils – where does it come from? That sadly is a question still to be answered – quite simply, the research hasn’t yet been done. Professor Maltman commented that there is a possibility that geology could influence soil bacteria somehow – which then might have some effect on the vine and resulting wine. Certainly, the microbiology of soil in vineyards is a topical subject at the minute and might shed some light. Or perhaps it is some climatic influence happening at a local level.

For now we simply don’t know what causes minerality in a wine. It will just be another one of wine’s mysteries until the right research happens.

Emma


The Golden Age of Australian Chardonnay?

A recent tasting organised by the Institute of Masters of Wine focused on only one grape variety from just one country. But when the variety is Chardonnay and the country is Australia there was no chance of it becoming a one-trick tasting. Instead, the wines were chosen to showcase the diversity of styles and regional differences in this vast country. With the tasting booklet asking two incisive questions, the task was on for the attendees to see for themselves: Has the search for restraint led to market-unfriendly austerity? Or, has the reaction against the bold, rich styles of the 1990s led to generally greater complexity, terroir expression and age-ability?

Alongside Shiraz, Chardonnay was one of the grapes that put Australia on the global wine map back in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time the style was all about ripe, tropical fruit flavours combined with sweet oak and a buttery texture. Consumers worldwide embraced this new style and Aussie Chardonnay production sky rocketed from less than 40,000 tonnes in 1990 to 340,000 tonnes in 2015.

But of course trends change with time, and a decade or so ago consumers started to move away from the rich, buttery styles of Chardonnay – looking instead for more restrained, crisp styles of white wine. And so the pendulum began to swing. The focus shifted to cooler climate regions such as Yarra, Mornington and Tasmania and to earlier picking, older and larger format oak, no MLF and increased use of indigenous yeast fermentation. For some winemakers this was what they had been doing quietly all along, for others it was breaking new ground.

It is fair to say that in some cases the pendulum swung too far and the wines became too skinny and acidic, lacking a core of fruit. But that was perhaps an understandable result as winemakers spent time experimenting and perfecting their styles. Which brings us back to the tasting and the chance for the attending MWs and MW students to taste and compare a selection of today’s Australian Chardonnays.

The wines in the tasting were arranged regionally, allowing attendees to pick out the stylistic differences from each of the 15 regions featured. These crossed the breadth of Australia from Margaret River in Western Australia to Hunter Valley in New South Wales and featured cool-climate regions such as Tasmania alongside warmer, inland Riverland.  Established names such as Leeuwin Estate Art Series and Shaw & Smith M3 shared the spotlight with lesser-known newcomers like Ochota Barrels The Slint and Ministry of Clouds: a true cross-section of contemporary Australian Chardonnay.

The Golden Age of Australian Chardonnay

Just some of the Aussie Chardonnays at the tasting

For me, and others I talked to, the tasting more than demonstrated Australia’s credentials as a producer of world-class Chardonnay. Where once there would have been lashings of tropical fruit, now there isn’t a pineapple in sight. Instead lemon, peach and apple form the ripe fruit core of the wines, surrounded by layers of mealy oak – occasionally smoky, but never buttery – all wrapped up with bright, zesty (and, importantly, natural) acidity. Indigenous yeast and high solids ferments certainly lent a funky, textural edge to many wines and the reductive, struck match note on some wines added a controversial element, splitting opinion in the room. But this just served to underscore how far Australia has come from the ‘sunshine in a glass’ one-size-fits-all type of Chardonnay. Instead there were wines to suit all palates and all occasions.

So, have we entered the golden age of Australian Chardonnay? Certainly this tasting showed the pendulum has settled and found its sweet spot between ripe fruit and bright acidity. But with winemakers continuing to search out the best vineyard sites in their respective regions, with vine age getting gradually older and with continued experimentation in the winery who knows what else Australia has got to come in the future. We will just have to wait, watch and taste.

Emma