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Barcelona Wine Tasting Newsletter: December 2016

Every month I send out a simple newsletter to the members of Maestrazgo Wine Club; a small group of wine-lovers who meet once a week to explore the world of wine together in a small tasting room in Barcelona. For more information on Maestrazgo Wine Club and how to book a wine tasting in Barcelona, check out this page for more information.

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December: The harvest is well and truly over! The grapes have been picked and the main focus will now be in the winery itself, as wines finish fermentation at different periods, destined for different styles of storage and ageing before being included in any final blends. In the vineyard, this is an excellent opportunity to prepare for the next year, with some growers choosing to clean up any unwanted weeds that have been growing throughout the harvest, wash the hard wood of the vines with a copper-based fungicide and cultivate the soil to allow the winter rains to soak in deeply. In cooler climates, a lot of growers now start ‘buttage’, that is the ploughing of soil close to the base of the vines to protect them against the cold winter weather. General maintenance work may start, but nearly all efforts will be focused towards the newly fermented wine and perhaps even an opportunity to take a break every now and again; certainly deserved after the strenuous efforts of the harvest!

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Hello Wine Lovers! Here we are, in that most festive time of the year and gearing up for what is hopefully a stress-free and wonderful holiday for everyone. I’ll be personally working over the Christmas period but not before I’ve had a chance to catch up with you all, with three wonderful tastings to say bon voyage to 2016; a complicated year in the world but a wonderful one for Maestrazgo Wine Club! This month we’ll be kicking off with rich, tasty red wines from around Spain in our tasting ‘Winter is coming’ before preparing for a trip to sunny South Africa in our international wine tasting of the month. Our final tasting of 2016 will be ‘Fintans Fridge: Spanish Edition’; basically an opportunity for me to pull an eclectic mix of wines from my own collection from all across Spain and share them with you all! 30 spots available in total and hopefully a chance for some more good times together before a Christmas break. On the off-chance I don’t see you prior to 2017, my thanks for being a part of Maestrazgo Wine Club in 2016; our little group is all the richer for your participation. Have a wonderful Christmas and a very Happy New Year! 🙂

Events: Maestrazgo Wine Club:

8th December– Winter is coming – 25 euros p/p

15th December – International Wine Tasting: The Wines of South Africa – 30 euros p/p

22nd December – Fintan’s Fridge: Spanish Edition– 30 euros p/p

Articles: I probably spend too much of my time reading online articles about wine. However, as a result I can find and select a choice few to share – here are my three favourites from last month!

  1. ‘You don’t need to be a good taster to be a good sommelier” by Spanishwinelover. This is a really lovely interview with Josep Roca, one of the three brothers that make up El Celler de Can Roca and the head sommelier of the operation. Frank and honest, it goes to the heart of what being a good sommelier is all about; professional service, taking genuine care of your guests and expressing yourself openly and honestly. A great read. http://www.spanishwinelover.com/enjoy-216-you-dont-need-to-be-a-good-taster-to-be-a-good-sommelier

  1. ‘With the wines of Montsant, it’s all in the drinking’ by Eric Asimov. Oddly enough this isn’t actually about Montsant, it’s more an article about the irregularities of scoring wines professionally and for competitions when the pleasure is really in the drinking of it. Whilst I disagree with some of Erics conclusions, the article is very well thought out and written, and is worth a 5 minute thought-provoking read. It’s a pleasure to see good wine journalism outside of the industry itself! http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/28/dining/wine-school-montsant.html

  2. ‘WWC’ 5 by Pierazzo da Faltre. One of the most charming pieces of writing I’ve read for a long time. A wine-writing competition was launched by Jancis Robinson MW and some of the resulting pieces are now being published on her website, including this gem. A rambling, delicate piece about the simplicity of wine, local food and wine culture in an almost Hemingway-esque style. If you read anything, read this. http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/wwc-5-pierazzo-da-feltre

Wine of the Month: I’m constantly on the look-out for wines of real quality and value; I rarely purchase anything over 30-40 euros a bottle and more commonly you’ll find me drinking in the 6-25 euro range.

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Albariño de Fefiñanes III Año, 2013 : Is it reasonably priced? Nope. Easy to find? Absolutely not. I can’t help it though, it really is the best wine I’ve tried this month that’s anywhere near normality in terms of price, and absolutely one of the best Albariño’s I’ve ever had the pleasure of trying, period. The first vintage of this wine was all the way back in 2002 and the recipe has remained remarkably unchanged; top quality Albariño grapes from Valle del Salnés, fermented and then aged for 27 months on the lees, adding complexity, depth and a beautiful honeyed sensation that persists well into the finish. At 35 euros a bottle it’s unlikely to be gracing tables across the country this Christmas, but for those it does it will last long in the memory! Available at https://www.vinissimus.com/es/index.html

Wine Facts

Some fun and interesting facts about the world of wine. Terminology, myths and FAQs; as science becomes more ingrained in our industry, we discover new and exciting realities every day!

‘Appellation’Appellation law was first introduced in 1923 for Chateauneuf du Pape in France, as a way of connecting the inherent characteristics of the wine and its place of origin. This includes regulations on yield, grape varieties, and vine management techniques and of course, the geographical origin of the grapes themselves. This system is critiqued by many as being too rigid and inflexible with regards to innovation, although it has gone a long way to defining wines in the way we know and understand them today. In Spain our mostly commonly used appellation is Denominación de Origen, commonly referred to as ‘DO’. For more detailed information on the different Denominación de Origen of Spain, I recommend this excellent page from a reputable online retailer of Spanish wines in the U.S http://www.spanishwine.com/information-wine/spanish-wine-regions-do-denominacion-de-origen/

New World/Old World” – The easiest way to think of this is to split the world of wine into two halves; one that’s been making it for as far back as 7000 years (Europe, North Africa and the Middle East) and the other that’s been making it within the last 400 years or so (South Africa, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and so on). The terms themselves are quite newly coined and whilst “New World” was once used quite patronisingly, there is now a lot of admiration as the diversity and technological improvements are now coming thick and fast, much of it hailing from across the ocean. The differences between the Old and New Worlds of wine have been steadily eroded as those in the Old World have increasingly adopted technical innovation, whilst those in the New World are increasingly exploring the concept of regionality and terroir. Great for the world of wine, terrible for those of us doing blind tasting!

How do I open a wine with a heavy wax capsule without making a mess everywhere?” – I only learnt how to do this properly quite recently, courtesy of my friend Alex. The best way to do it is to pretend it isn’t there; take your best corkscrew, drill it into the cork through the wax and start to extract the cork. Once it’s halfway up, it’s a good opportunity to clean the neck of the bottle and remove any residual dust from the wax, before removing the cork and the wax entirely. In older bottles this can be tricky and unfortunately, a certain amount of mess is unavoidable as you might need to use a different bottle opener such as an Ah So, and the wax will have to be removed prior to this. The worst offenders I’ve encountered have been the older wines of Vina Tondonia; it’s quite the ordeal getting it open, but so worth it once you have!

Social Media

These newsletters only come out once a month and there is a limit on space for content. If you use Social Media and want to keep up with regular wine updates and occasional rambles, feel free to connect with me on any of the following platforms.

Blog: winecuentista.com

Facebook: Wine Cuentista

Twitter: @Wine_Cuentista

Instagram: wine_cuentista

That’s it for this months newsletter. I hope you enjoyed it and please, if you have any suggestions or things you would like to see get in touch! Either respond to me here or email to fintankerr@winecuentista.com I can’t wait to see you all soon for more wine, food and good company. 🙂

Fintan Kerr

www.winecuentista.com

Barcelona Wine Tasting: The Wines of Chile

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Perhaps no other country in the world has been expanding into new wine regions as rapidly as Chile over the last decade. Once known as a supplier of cheap, affordable and very reliable wines grown courtesy of their almost perfect climate, Chile is now starting to spread her wings and expand her styles, regions and varieties in practically every direction, or at least as far as the Pacific Ocean and the soaring Andes mountain range will allow her to! It all started back in the 1500’s when the Spanish settlers brought vines across, notably Moscatel, Torontel and ‘the common black grape’ that we now know as Pais. Since then, Chile has expanded rapidly since becoming a major wine producer in its own right, the 4th biggest exporter of wine in the world and an increasingly exciting place in the world of wine for consumers and winemakers alike.

The fact that Chile has been making wine reliably for over 4 centuries stretches the concept of ‘The New World’ a little as far as wine making is concerned, and indeed Spain actually tried to slow down the development of the industry in Chile in the 17th century, concerned as it was a real threat to exports of Spanish wine. Thanks to the enterprising governor at the time, this failed and Chile continued to grow and flourish, not least due to their intelligent decision to set up Quinta Normal, an experimental vineyard that housed many of the vitis vinifera varieties that would soon be decimated by phylloxera in Europe (Chile still remains the only major wine producing country in the world that is phylloxera free!). Today 80% of the countries production is covered by 4 enormous producers, spear-headed by Concha y Toro, but thanks to investments in international varieties, new equipment and an ever growing export market, Chile has now been joined by a wealth of smaller producers, most of whom are producing top quality wine destined for Western markets.

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Geographically speaking, Chile is a skinny little country which from North to South, undergoes an enormous variation in climate. Not only that but as of 2011 Chilean winemakers have been able to indicate where their wines were grown using the terms ‘Costa’, ‘Entre Cordilleras’ and ‘Andes’ as a lot also depends on whether the vineyards are closer to the sea, the mountains or in between the two. Soil types also vary, from ancient granite and schist to the west, to clay, loam and sand being more common towards the central and coastal ranges. Add to this the perfect Mediterranean climate with cloudless, sunny days and hot, dry summers and there’s an absolute wealth of options available for winemakers and vineyards owners in terms of what they plant, when they pick and what styles of wine they want to make.

This week with Maestrazgo Wine Club, we intend to take a look ourselves through 6 different wines from the country, with 3 whites and 3 reds making up the list. From crisp, cool Chardonnays to crunchy, green Carmenere and the bright, powerful fruit of modern Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s an awful lot to taste and appreciate in this understated country. I have a feeling that the next 10 years could see a big change in the general appreciation of Chilean wines and I can only hope that more become available here in Spain!

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Viña Chillan Sauvignon Blanc Itata Valley 2015 – The Itata Valley is to the south of the country, around the regions of Bio-Bio and Malleco, and was previously known as a producer of the basic Pais variety, as well as some Muscat de Alexandria although the recent investment of this area has seen an emergence of cooler climate international varieties. Viña Chillan is the result of this type of investment, producing a blend of good quality, organically grown vines, mostly with international varieties from Pinot Noir all the way to Zinfandel. Their Sauvignon Blanc is a pretty wine, full of tropical fruit, spice and citrus with a nice full body to it. It’s a good example of modern wine-making and a push forward for organic viticulture in a country that will change its approach to viticulture drastically over the coming years.

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Tabali Coastal Limestone Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 – The Limari Valley by comparison is right to the north of the country and has become something of a revelation since the 1990’s when this area first started to be truly explored. Here the cooling influence of the Ocean is vital, as well as the strips of soil comprising mainly of limestone, with particular praise being lavished onto the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs produced here. Tabali are a producer who set up here early in the 2000’s, with an aim to producing European varietals in a distinctive, cooler climate style. The result in this case is a crisp, bright Chardonnay fermented in French oak and subjected to battonage to add body and weight. Fresh, creamy and very youthful this is a great example of the new style of Chardonnay being produced in Chile.

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Calyptra Chardonnay Gran Reserva 2012 – 650km away from Limari to the south of Santiago lies the Cachapoal Valley, an area best known for producing top quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere. The slightly warmer climate here also lends itself well to full bodied styles of white wines, typically Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. This is definitely more of a stereotypical ‘New World’ style of Chardonnay with more obvious oak, cream and vanilla as well as riper, more tropical flavours. Calyptra have been showered with awards in the last few years, from Decanter to the Wine Spectator, and it will be interesting to see how it holds up against our cooler climate whites!

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Maturana Wines Carménère Marchigüe 2013 – Staying in the Cachapoal Valley, we’re now moving onto our first red wine of the evening, a tiny production of Carmenere blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. Carmenere is Chiles ‘own’ grape in the same way that Malbec is associated with Argentina; both came from Bordeaux over a century ago but they’ve now found their spiritual homes in South America. Carmenere produces a deeply coloured, full bodied style of wine that is distinctly herbaceous, often unpleasantly so if the grapes aren’t fully ripe. As a result, blends of other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are often added to soften the wine as well as adding. some structure and fruit. Maturana Wines make a miniscule 3500 bottles a year, so I feel particularly lucky to be able to share this!

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Odfjell Orzada Syrah 2011 – Further south again, this time to Maule, a hugely important area of production in Chile. Cooler than Cachapoal to the north thanks to the influence of the Pacific, this area focuses mainly on red wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and interestingly, Carignan which has seen a resurgence over the last few years with some spectacular results. This week we’re going to take a look at Chilean Syrah, a varietal that seems to really get around the world quite comfortably, oddly enough through a Norwegian owned winery! Expect to see lots of juicy black fruit, pepper spice and oak influences from 12 months of ageing in mixed French and American oak barrels.

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Echeverria Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 – Curico Valley was put on the map when a certain Miguel Torres arrived there with a plan to expand his wine empire in 1979. There are two distinct climates here, with the area around Molina being much cooler thanks to breezes coming down from the Andes whereas towards the west, everything becomes notably warmer and drier. Not renowned for an affiliation with a single grape variety, this area has instead become known for its ability to produce good quality grapes in a wide variety of styles. Echeverria has been a family business since the 1930s, with around 65 hectares of vineyards producing a wide portfolio of products. We’ll be finishing the tasting with their special selection of Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in French oak for a total of 20 months A full bodied, powerful wine with lots of black fruit and green bell pepper; a perfect sign off for a Chilean wine tasting!

What do you get if you take a group of lovely people, 6 excellent wines and good food to pair it with? A great evening, by my calculations. This will be our penultimate international wine tasting of 2016 and I can’t wait to get it started! The tasting is fully booked but if you’d like to be informed about future wine tastings we’re doing, please make sure to make an account with Meet-up and join Maestrazgo Wine Club, as the Newsletter containing all the dates will be sent out on the 1st December. If you’d like to book a private tasting at any point, check out what we can offer here. I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone on Thursday to explore the wines of Chile; see you soon!

On a personal note: Thanksgiving

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The world of wine blogs will today be absolutely rife with articles about pairing wine with traditional Thanksgiving food. As the food never really changes, the wine options are remarkably similar every year so expect to see recommendations for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Beaujolais and other medium bodied wines, perfect for a plate of turkey, stuffing and yams. I myself will be heading to spend the evening with a friend and their excellent party that I first attended last year and will be bringing a magnum of La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Reserva 2001; it’s going to be delicious!

That’s not why I’m writing this short piece, though. Last year was my first ever Thanksgiving and I enjoyed it a great deal. It wasn’t so much the food, the wine and the company which are usually top of my list, but the fact that the holiday felt like it still has meaning. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas but it does appear to have lost its way somewhere along the line, with adverts in Western countries going up in late October and time spent with friends and family taking a backseat to the increasingly commercialised process of buying vast quantities of presents, usually more by obligation than a real desire to celebrate the holiday. By comparison, last year my favourite part of the evening was sitting down with a great group of people and saying what I was thankful for. Now in 2016, a year that has kicked an awful lot to the curb around the world, I actually find that I have more to be thankful for than ever. So whilst I will keep it short and simple tonight (the turkey will get cold otherwise) I’d like to offer a Thanksgiving note here instead.

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2016 has been a remarkable year for me. 2015 was my first year working in the wine industry, learning about the amazing world of wine and meeting lots of new friends and 2016 has been a rapidly accelerated version of that.

I’ve had the enormous pleasure of starting and getting halfway through the WSET Diploma with Merit and Distinction marks for every exam. I’ve met several new, good friends in the process and look forward to returning to London for classes in early January. I’m more committed than ever to my goal of becoming a Master of Wine and the support I receive as I move towards this means a lot to me.

I started a local wine tasting group in Barcelona known as Maestrazgo Wine Club, and it’s now the most active group of its kind in the entire city. This wouldn’t be possible without the wonderful people who attend and I’m enormously grateful to all of them. I’m also very thankful to my friend Jose of Bodega Maestrazgo; without him, Maestrazgo Wine Club simply wouldn’t be the same.

I’ve been able to start branching out and working with one or two different companies on projects. Devour Spain have been a big part of my life this year, leading their Wine and Tapas Tour has been a distinct pleasure and I’m very fortunate to have found such a wonderful group of people to work with. I now meet and introduce Spanish wine to people from all around the world every week, which is incredibly satisfying. I’ve also had the pleasure of working closely with Le Petit Ballon in France, another great group of people currently enjoying their hard earned success in the UK and constantly looking to improve wine culture.

Wine Cuentista has gone from strength to strength, again largely thanks to the wonderful people who’ve attended my tastings, booked my time privately and read this blog! Thank-you to you all, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us all!

Locally in Barcelona I’ve met a wealth of new, lovely people in the wine industry, many of whom are now personal friends. Having a network of support is not something I take for granted and I always look forward to tasting, chatting and sharing wine with them all.

I’ve gotten my fitness and health back on track with an exercise program that saw me lose 15kgs of weight after spending 3 years working in an office and getting very out of shape. I now feel much healthier and happier and I owe a debt of thanks to Alberto and Diana for getting me started. Onwards and upwards!

Last but certainly not least, I’m enormously grateful to be surrounded by people I love. My family, my beautiful girlfriend and all of my friends are instrumental to my well being, whether they know it or not. Living in Barcelona is exactly where I want to be, working with wine is exactly what I want to do and the people in my life make me smile everyday; what more can a man ask for?

My thanks to you all for being a part of my wonderful 2016. With all the external noise and issues the world is facing right now, I couldn’t feel more fortunate to be in the position I am in and I look forward to continuing to share the world of wine as we move forwards. Whatever you’re doing today, whether you’re celebrating Thanksgiving or not, I recommend taking a few minutes and thinking about what you’re thankful for, you might be surprised by just how much that is!

Barcelona Wine Tasting: The Sweet Wines of Spain

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Nearly every European country with a long wine-making tradition produces at least a few sweet wines, some of which have survived the ages and are still considered to be some of the worlds greatest expressions. To this day some Tokaji wines from Hungary, Sauterne from the south of Bordeaux, Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany and others command premium prices, despite the world drinking less fortified and sweet wines than ever before. Spain joins them in the production aspect, if not the price, with a plethora of sweet wine styles from Sherrys, sweet Muscats, Pedro Ximenez, Monastrell and others, and indeed has been making ‘rancio’ style wines since the beginning of our wine making history.

As with all sweet wines, the historical significance is really related to the practical issues of getting them around the world in one piece; going back even a little over a hundred or so years ago, moving a table wine from one country to to another was a good way to risk turning it into unpalatable vinegar. Sweet wines, on the other hand, with their stronger, headier flavours, higher levels of sugar and often higher levels of alcohol due to fortification were the drink of choice, as they would arrive at their destination more or less intact. This was particularly important in warm countries such as Spain, where a single hot day in the baking Mediterranean sunshine is enough to turn your fresh, fruity red wine into something quite dull and uninteresting.

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However, with the advent of modern technologies, sweet and fortified wine sales have fallen through the floor over the last 40 years, with most modern consumers opting for lighter, drier wines that are usually a little easier to pair with food. Wines no longer need to be powerful and sweet to survive before being consumed and as a result, the market for sweet wines is dwindling away. One silver lining of this, of course, is that it’s generally the best producers who are left making the remaining wines, and they’ve been recently joined by some ambitious attempts to recreate different styles, often using very new technologies such as cryo-extraction in places not previously renowned for these styles of wine. It was my pleasure to introduce 5 such wines to our tasting last week and showcase the depth of options available in Spain alone, which whilst may not become the mainstay of an individuals collection, certainly have their place at the dinner table.

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Gramona “Vi de Glass” Riesling 2011: We kicked off the evening with probably the least traditional style of fortified wine made in Spain; ice wine made not be the natural elements dropping down well below zero, but using a chamber designed to artificially freeze the grapes prior to pressing. This has been a technology used in France since the late 1980s but was started to be used by Gramona in 1997. The premise is identical to that of the natural production of ice wine in both Germany and Canada; freezing the water in the grapes and squeezing out a thick, viscous juice from the resulting press with a lot of varietal flavour, sugar and acid. However, doing this artificially gives a great deal of control over the process as you can choose at which temperature you’d like to freeze the grapes. The higher the concentration of sugar, the lower the temperature needed to freeze the water in the grapes themselves, and the less juice you receive per ton. Therefore, winemakers can now choose the quantity of the icewine they need and adjust the temperature accordingly; lower temperatures mean that only the ripest juice is allowed to leave the press, but lowers quantity substantially. In France the common practice is to freeze grapes at -6ºC. Gramona by comparison choose to make their wine at -15ºC. I was surprised at how good this was, retaining both the youthful fruit and minerality of the Riesling in a good balance with the sugar levels. The bottle is a little difficult to store, but makes for a wonderful centre piece!

Jorge Ordonez No.2 Victoria 2015: We went from perhaps the least typical style of Spanish sweet wine to perhaps its most; sweet Muscat from Malaga. DO Malaga is interestingly the only DO in Spain to focus entirely on the production of sweet wine, having been influential in the courts of Medieval Europe and peaking in popularity in the 19th century with its recently revived “Mountain Wine”. Muscat de Alexandria, the ugly ducking to Muscat a Petit Grains, is rife here with its grapey, floral aromas, naturally high sugar and delicate nature. Jorge Ordonez has a range of 4 in total, all made in a naturally sweet style from over-ripe grapes, increasing in sugar level and flavour intensity. We went for number 2, Victoria 2015 which is a lovely, softly honeyed wine with a very approachable 10% ABV and a lovely light, delicately floral character. Of all the wines poured over the evening, this probably lasted the least amount of time in the glass!

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Perelada Garntaxa de 12 Anys: Our first meeting with a fortified wine and we went for a sweet Grenache from the Emporda, a region in the very north of Catalunya bordering France. In fact, this proximity to France goes some way to explain the style of this wine, made as it is in a Solera system. The south of France, Roussilon in particular, is home to a great deal of appellations famous for producing sweet wine and the effects are felt in the north of Catalunya, where many of these old constructions still exist and are making top quality wine to this day. This is actually my favourite style of sweet wine from Catalunya, combining the lovely dried red fruit character of the Grenache with the long, slow 12-year ageing process of the Solera system to provide a complex, sweet and very endearing wine as a result. Perelada are a big company producing a lot of very good, and some decidedly average, wine, but I’d be happy to have a few bottles of this lying around at any given time!

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Castaño Dulce 2013 – We headed down to the Levant for wine number 4 and a chance to try perhaps the least obviously sweet wine of the day. I say this because the sweet Monastrell, made from grapes dried in the sun and often fermented in open wooded vats, is more akin to a structured red wine with a lot of sugar than a traditional sweet wine. The Castaño family have been revolutionary in DO Yecla, from helping win the DO regulatory system to investing heavily into opening international markets for the region and with the quality of the wine they’re producing now, I can safely say that it’s been a successful drive for a still relatively unknown area. Bold, bright and tannic, this would be a delicious pairing for medium-strength cheeses, light chocolate desserts and almost anything with red fruit in it.

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Don PX Toro de Albala Gran Reserva 1986 – It wouldn’t be a sweet wine tasting if we didn’t dip our toe into the sweetest of them all; Pedro Ximenez, made in DO Montilla-Moriles with almost 380 grams of sugar a litre. Pedro Ximenez is one of the worlds naturally sweetest grape varieties, accumulating sugar rapidly, encouraged by exceptionally late harvesting when they’re essentially raisins on the vine. These dry grapes are then picked, pressed and fermented to a few degrees of alcohol before being fortified to retain this incredible level of sugar. PX, as it’s more commonly known, is still used to sweeten certain wines, often Sherry destined for ‘Cream’ status of some sort, but more often is aged in a Solera system for an incredibly long time, becoming deeply oxidised, concentrated and dark in the process. There are also single vintage PX wines like the above, aged in oak barrels for a staggering 28 years before commercial release. My personal preference is to drizzle this over vanilla ice-cream with walnuts and almonds, but a small glass is also a hedonistic pleasure from time to time!

This was certainly not a tasting for the faint of heart, but a real treat to try so many sweet wines from across the country. The general feeling before the tasting was one of “I don’t really drink sweet wines, so I’m interested to see how they fare.’ Based on the evidence, I hope we’ve converted a few more lovers of dessert wines, the industry certainly needs a few more! If you’d like to learn more about Spanish wine and attend a tasting in Barcelona, make sure to check out the options here, from private tastings to our weekly published tastings. Until then, salut!

Thoughts on: The WSET Diploma

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If you follow me on social media, you’ll see that every now and again I spend some time in London tasting wine, sitting exams and taking advantage of the broad selection of available, most of which we certainly can’t find in Barcelona. One day I’d like to be able to nip across to London every now and again without worrying about the cost of it, although the weak pound made the last trip surprisingly bearable, but the reason I’m spending a lot of time in London is due to the WSET Diploma; a course I’m studying through at the WSET HQ in Bermondsey.

The WSET is the ‘Wine and Spirit Education Trust’, created in 1969 as a charitable organisation to cater for the educational needs of the UK wine industry. Today the WSET is the leader in wine education, with courses available in over 70 countries worldwide. The whole system is based on an easy to understand level system, running from 1-4 with optional side-courses such as Sake and Spirits as separate study options. I personally entered the system at level 3, bypassing 1 and 2 more for financial reasons than anything else, and I credit that course with globalising my perspective on wine, which up until that point had been very Spain-focused. A few months after passing the level 3, I decided to enroll for the level 4 program, the WSET’s flagship qualification and a necessary stepping stone for those seeking to become Masters of Wine.

Since beginning the course in February 2016, my education has been accelerated to a rapid pace due to the quality of the teaching and the pressure of the exams, which are certainly no walk in the park, and I’m now 50% through with only 3 exams to go in March and June next year. The WSET Diploma is designed to give an incredibly solid understanding and knowledge of every major aspect of the wine industry and I have to say, thus far it has met this lofty goal. Even for the smaller units, you have to learn every facet of that unit as you simply don’t know how the examiners will set the questions.

The major issue of the course is the cost of it; if you want to actually have any class time then the costs are currently £1800 pounds a semester (I saved about 350 euros by booking my second semester post-Brexit!), plus the cost of the flights to London, accomodation, food, travel and of course the books and wine that you need to expand your knowledge throughout the course; my overall costs will be close to €10,000 by the time I’m finished. It’s tough, it’s time-consuming and it’s expensive but ultimately is it worth it? For me, absolutely. I’m having a wonderful time and I can’t wait to get back to the school in January for another week of learning, always taught by Masters of Wine and industry experts. The WSET gets its fair share of criticism and I’ve had issues with the organisation itself (having to bring tasting glasses from Barcelona to London for classes is beyond absurd) but I can’t imagine I would have had my mind opened to the industry in the way it has been, were it not for my interaction with the course material, my teachers and the wonderful people I’ve met along the way.

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Below is the break-down of the course but if you’re living in Barcelona and want to get started with some WSET education, check out the lovely Sharon Levey at Wine Courses BCN.

The course itself is broken down into 6 distinct parts:

Unit 1 – The Global Business of Wine

What is it? All the nuts and bolts of the wine industry; why do wines from New Zealand always cost so much? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a family-ran business in the wine industry? Does the bulk transportation of wine risk the quality of the final product and what are the economic advantages?

Exams: 1x 2500-3000 word essay done in your own time, and 1x 75 minute case study done under exam conditions in an essay format.

Unit 2 – Viticulture and Vinfication:

What is it? The foundation of the entire wine industry; the biology of growing the grapes and the chemistry of turning them into wine. This has been my favourite unit thus far and digging into the details that deeply has given me a wonderful context for the industry as a whole. Which combination of root-stock types would you use for areas suffering from drought? What are the disadvantages of using bentonite as a fining agent? What are the side effects of potassium deficiencies in your soil?

Exams: 1x 90 minute exam with 100 multiple-choice questions. The easiest exam of the course by some distance.

Unit 3 – Light Wines of the World

What is it? ‘The Big One’ as it’s often referred to, is by far the most intimidating and difficult exam of the course which I will be taking next June. Essentially, every single wine that isn’t sparkling or fortified could come up here, with an indepth knowledge of every major wine region in the world required to pass. What steps can the South of Italy take to catch up to the more illustrious regions of the North? To what extent has Australia adopted itself to climate change and what is the future of this approach? Describe the 5 major grape varieties of Greece and their role in the wine industry, both local and exported. Tough stuff.

Exams: 1x 2 hour blind tasting of 12 wines.1x 2 hour exam with 4 essay questions to be answered on practically anything you can think of. Extensive knowledge of all other units needed here, which is why it is often the final exam.

Unit 4 – Spirits of the World

What is it? Exactly what it says on the tin; a comprehensive look at the world of spirits from both a production and industry point of view. Why have MaCallan changed their age-referenced labels in favour of Amber, Sienna and Ruby? What is the future for the Tequila industry? Explain the differences between the major styles of Rum from around the world.

Exams: 1x 30 minute blind tasting of 3 spirits and 1x 30 minute exam with 3 mini-essay questions.

Unit 5 – Sparkling Wines of the World

What is it? If it has bubbles inside it, it’s going to be contained in this unit! From Prosecco to Franciacorta, from Cava to Champange and from Moscato D’Asti to Lambrusco, and every stripe of New World sparkling wine as well. What are the major processes for producing sparkling wine and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Explain the domination of Prosecco on export markets. Disgorgement – explain.

Exams: 1x 30 minute blind tasting of 3 sparkling wines and 1x 30 minute exam with 3 mini-essay questions.

Unit 6 – Fortified Wines of the World

What is it? Port, Sherry, Madeira, Vin Doux Naturels, Rutherglen Muscat and practically anything from the south of Spain is included here. The exam has been slimmed down over the years as the market for fortified wine slows down globally, but it was still detailed enough to give us all a headache! Describe the major shippers in Madeira, describe the processes used for the different styles of Vin Doux Naturels, Pale Cream Sherry.

Exams: 1x 30 minute blind tasting of 3 fortified wines and 1x 30 minute exam with 3 mini-essay questions.

The above is the layout of the WSET Diploma, the most demanding and high level course available through this institution. Fear not, for not all courses are this rigorous so don’t be put off if you want to get started, you absolutely should! For more information on the WSET in general, this is their global site.