Tag Archives: wine tasting

Groundhog day: getting ready to face the MW exams. Again

Possibly the hardest thing about preparing to face my nemesis, the practical exam, is the repetitive emotional roller-coaster of the whole process. It is a ground hog day of early morning study, weekend study, psyche myself up, game face on, 12 wines blind followed by the crushing realisation that, once again, I have got the wines wrong.
As the MW reads out the variety and origin of the wines to a background of fellow candidates hissing ‘yessss’ accompanied by mini fist pumps, the dark clouds gather over my head and a cold feeling of sickness pervades the pit of my stomach. How did I not get that one right?? Again?
Back to my books, back to the endless dry notes, back to the hapless boyfriend/parent/friend pouring me yet another wine blind after a long day at work. Back to climbing out of that dark pit of despondency, analysing my errors, vowing to learn from them and starting that exhausting mental journey back into the sunshine of positive thought.
Last night an MW held a practice tasting for a few of us at his home after work. Deep breath. Here we go again. But last night things were different. Last night I was the one hissing ‘yessss’, certainly not for all of them, but enough for that dark cloud to recede and be replaced by the glimmer of something that at first I struggled to recognise… hope.
I have awoken today to the fledgling feeling of a genuine ‘can do’ attitude. I am not naïve enough to think that this war is won and I know that I am going to be revisited by my dark cloud again many times before I sit the exams in June, but for now I intend to build on this feeling.
And so here we are, days away from the 4 day residential course and the mock exam. And you know what. I am feeling positive.


Time to Fall in Love Again…

For 3 years now I have been tearing wine apart; probing it, questioning it, analysing it, resenting it and loving it in equal parts.   It was a slippery slope as my emotional response to wine was replaced by systematic analysis. What is the alcohol level, the acidity, the residual sugar? Can one detect the presence of malolactic fermentation/lees aging/oak aging? Is the oak new or old? Is it French, American or Slovenian? Is it 225 litre barrels or large botti? How long has the wine been in oak? Pedantic? Yes. Necessary? Sadly, also yes. Love was in danger of being sacrificed at the cold table of scientific analysis with the High Priest of the IMW looking down in judgement.

Despite the MW practical exams finishing at the beginning of June, I have still been tasting wine in a frenzied state of analysis – a vinous version of PTSD I fear. I have been so busy analysing the wine that I have been forgetting to ‘feel’ the wine, to let the flavours and textures wash over me, to allow my senses to run wild with the pure, holistic, sensory joy of good wine. Like someone with a nervous tick it was proving difficult to throw off.

However, last weekend, for the first time in a long while I was tasting with my heart and not with my head.  The result was completely self indulgent and utterly marvelous! It was Emma – aka ‘Science Monkey’s’ – much anticipated wedding which meant for once, though I was in a wine region I was not manically taking notes and firing out questions to bemused winemakers but sitting back and indulging in non-vinous conversation (well, for the most part). I was enjoying being surrounded by great friends, bathed in sunshine and enjoying some of the world’s most dramatic wine-scapes of the Douro valley.

IMG_0275 .

I was drinking good wine in the setting it was designed to be enjoyed… a chilled magnum of crisp Albarino by the pool in the blazing sun with Lenka, (evil monkey); a delicious supple Mencia in the evening playing a rather competitive game of rummy; a romantic bottle of Alvarhino over a lengthy tapas lunch in sun drenched Porto. And that is not even touching on the Pol Roger flowing like water into my glass on the big day (it always pays to make friends with the waiter early on!), and the grand vinous finale on the wedding day was Dow’s 1977 port, laid down at the groom’s christening many years before, and received with great pleasure by the eager guests.


Though scientific understanding of what is in the glass is exciting and invigorating, and analysing the wine rewarding and challenging it is equally important to remember to sit back, smile, forget about the science and just be enveloped by the sheer pleasure of the aromatic beauty that is in your glass.

Thank you Emma and Miguel, not only for a truly beautiful wedding, but for reminding me why I love wine so much.


–          Alex

Thinking outside the wine box and into the match box

A little while ago I was having a conversation with an English artist living in Paris.  It transpired that when he moved to France, he was clearing out his flat and found a huge collection of match boxes from all the different bars, restaurants and hotels he had visited across the world over the years.  Each match box brought back a flood of memories … a hot date, drowning his sorrows, lonely in a foreign city, a strip bar on a stag do, a business meeting.  He took a photo of each of these match boxes; some had wine stains, some were torn, some had one match missing, some had two, some had numbers written on them, some had none, and he made a photographic collection.

He found it fascinating that while each stranger in a gallery stared at his cryptic memories, it brought alive adventures and stories in their minds quite different to the true history of the match boxes.  The box with the silhouette of a woman on it conjured images of dark red rooms, scantily clad waitresses and clandestine liaisons when in truth it was all that was left of an innocent drink in a European hotel bar.  Imaginations were set afire with possible scenarios.

It struck me then that this is exactly how wine should be: a very personal experience to be interpreted in any way that moves the individual.  The sight of a label, the aroma of a wine, the taste of a wine; all these sensations have the power to ignites long lost memories, or to create imaginary ones.  Our senses are powerful when we allow them to be and can dance a mean and intriguing dance with our imagination when freed to do so.

As the discussion progressed we decided that we would put together a wine and art dinner; pairing the wine with not only the food, but with the photographs – a wine and a course to go with one of the experiences.  There was no prescribed right or wrong.  We were seated at a long table in the centre of a small gallery, the collection of match boxes hung around us on the white walls.  As the wines and the different courses were served people were swiftly drawn to different photographs that they felt worked best with the pairings.  Their individual sensory adventure spoke of different scenario’s which were represented by their own interpretations of stories behind the match boxes.  The interaction of the guests (none of whom would describe themselves as wine aficionados) with the wine was as fascinating as it was spontaneous and energetic.  It was a freeing experience; there was no talk of oak, of harvest yields, of organic versus biodynamic, just unadulterated enjoyment, debate and laughter.

So this Christmas indulge in a glass or two; take a sniff, take a sip, sit back, close your eyes and let your imagination take flight, you never know where you might end up.

Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year to you all.


How much is too much?

A man slumped on the floor, head in hands with glazed eyes and vacant expression. Minutes later he stumbles towards the toilet, hand firmly placed over mouth whilst people swiftly move out of his way. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when he makes it to the toilet and the door shuts behind him.

You might think this was the result of a few too many beers at a down-at-heel bar late on a Friday night. In fact, this was the scene at a consumer wine tasting in Manchester early on a Saturday evening just a few weeks ago. Of course, this man was not representative of the attendees at the tasting as a whole, but the vast majority of those present were certainly tipsy and many were on their way to drunkenness. For the first couple of hours at the event everyone had been interested in tasting and learning about the wines on show, but the final hour or so was more about getting their money’s worth and drinking as much as possible.

Contrast this scene with that of another consumer tasting I worked at not that long ago, this time in Stockholm. Here the attendees were truly there to learn about wine, many were spitting as they went around – and once they had tried what they wanted, they were happy to leave, feeling that they had had a good evening. There wasn’t a drunk person in sight.

So what is it about people in the UK that causes us to act like children in a sweet shop when it comes to alcohol? Why don’t we know how much is too much – and why do we feel the need to drink as much as we can just to perceive that we’ve got our money’s worth?

Sadly there isn’t an easy answer to any of these questions. What is clear though is that it is no good for us in the wine trade to act as though these issues don’t really affect us – that they’re more to do with the perceived ‘lesser’ alcoholic drinks of spirits, cider and beer than wine. It may be easy to argue that wine is a more exalted alcoholic drink due to history, culture, its ability to match with food or even perceived health benefits – but at the end of the day wine is alcohol and, frankly, that is one of the (many) reasons we drink it.

The issues of alcohol and its negative impact on health and society are regularly debated in the media and by the government. Minimum pricing was just the latest in a line of ideas to improve the problem but that now seems to have been shelved (something, personally, I am pleased about – see my previous blog arguing against minimum pricing here). However, in my opinion, ideas to limit the sale of alcohol via pricing or tax or by limiting advertising are not really addressing the problem – which seems to be more of a cultural mindset than a price-sensitive issue.

It will only be when we really understand why we as a population think that the only way to have a good night out is to get drunk or why when people go to a wine tasting that they think that they have to drink as much as possible to get their money’s worth that we can begin to solve the wider problem.

In the meantime my fellow monkeys and I will continue to drink wine not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. For our mindset is that there is nothing more enjoyable than having a glass or two of good wine with good friends. Lets spread the word.


Make mine a drum of wine

Fresh out of the grueling master of wine exams I fled straight to the beautiful Ionian island of Kefalonia to let my aching brain recuperate under the burning Mediterranean sun.  The air was heavy with the scent of wild herbs, the air alive with the music of goat bells and crickets, and not a house or a human to spoil the view down the rugged hillside to the turquoise ocean.

There was only one thing to perfect this beautiful solitude and that was obviously a glass of wine (no, I am not yet sick of the taste of wine).  Upon opening the fridge I was mildly horrified to find a 5 liter plastic drum of yellow ‘white’ wine.  Driven by the desperation of a late morning thirst I poured myself a glass. Don’t judge me, watches are forbidden on holiday and therefore I am not bound by ‘acceptable’ drinking hours.

Now let me state my case before you call me a snob.  I am a huge advocate of Greek wine; there is a roll call of stellar producers spread throughout the mainland and islands including Gaia, Alpha Estate, Biblia Chora, Sigalis and Harry Hatzidakis which I can’t recommend highly enough.   I am also an advocate of alternative packaging for greatly improving its carbon footprint.  However this particular beauty could have been mistaken for olive oil, and at less than euro 10 for 5 liters my expectations weren’t high.

Despite my nose being screwed up in anticipation of disappointment, I was in for a very pleasant surprise.  It had a certain easy going charm and a round fruited freshness that perfectly suited my sun lounger and my mood.  It didn’t demand my attention, allowing me to alternately submerge myself in Wilber Smith and the view.  It was the perfect accompaniment rather than the main focus, and was all the better for it.

As the sun dropped my mind rose from its torpor, and so too did my desire for something more challenging, more complex and more thrilling.  A stunning Assyrtiko/Sauvignon Blanc from Ktima Biblia Chora hit that spot perfectly, and matched the intellectual banter around the table.  Ok, well maybe I’m over estimating the conversation, but certainly not the wine!

The beauty of wine is just that; it can be simple, clean and refreshing or it can be complex, intense and lingering, it is simply a case of finding the right moment in time to do that wine justice.

– Alex

Setting the World to Rights

I suppose you could say the first proper wine tastings I went to were at university at the wine society there. My Dad might like to point out the various wine tastings he held at home for his friends over the years where I might get a sip of wine if I was lucky, but I’m not sure that really counts. The uni wine tastings were great – we’d get a lecturer or someone from Oddbins along to talk to us about a few wines and we’d enjoy learning about the wines whilst drinking our way through them (not sure we’d heard of spittoons in those days). We even had someone from Wine Australia come to take us through some aussie wines a few times.
Well, don’t things just come full circle – for there I was last week as that person from Wine Australia doing wine tastings for various university wine societies. And it struck me that not only do things come full circle, they also don’t change. There was still the slightly geeky boys in the corner frantically taking notes (though these days it seems pen and paper has been discarded in favour of iPads), the postdoc types who think they know rather more than everyone else about wine and aren’t afraid to show it, and the gaggle of girls who are interested in the wines but halfway through the tasting get waylaid by such conversations as ‘5 year plans’ and ‘where will we be when we’re 30’ and generally setting the world to rights. Well, I’m not afraid to say I was one of those girls at my uni wine tastings and never in a million years would it have crossed my mind that by the time I was (nearly) 30 I’d be working in the wine industry, studying for my MW and hosting those same tastings.
University wine societies are great. I made some fantastic friends through mine and we still see each other and enjoy a bottle or two of wine – and although the conversation has moved on somewhat, we do still like to discuss where we’ll be in 10 years time. But beyond that, it was these tastings that really instilled a love of wine in me – and shaped my career in the wine industry since then. It was heart-warming to see so much interest and enthusiasm from the students I talked to last week. With questions ranging from food matches, alcohol levels and soil types to debates on screwcaps vs cork and the potential effects of minimum unit pricing, there was clearly a huge willingness to learn about the whole subject of wine, as well as enjoying tasting the wines. As for the wines themselves, well we showed quite a range over the tastings at the five universities I visited including all of the main grape varieties and the main regions and surprisingly the top wine overall was voted to be a Riesling from Great Southern in Western Australia – Ad Hoc by Larry Cherubino. Surprising, as Riesling tends to be a grape variety that we in the wine trade love – but the general public don’t seem to have quite caught onto.
And that probably nicely sums up why I would encourage everyone with even the slightest interest in wine to join a wine society – at university or otherwise – and go along to wine tastings. Or even just to invite some likeminded friends over, open a few bottles and chat about the wines. For that is the best way to learn, to discover new wines and see for yourself what you like to drink. And that’s really what it’s all about. Setting the world to rights at the same time with a few friends is just a happy consequence.