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Thoughts on: Judging with the IWC

Last week I took a break from my relentless studies and headed to London for my first ever experience of judging a wine competition, in this case with the International Wine Challenge, or IWC. A friend of mine had done it previously and highly recommended the experience, both from a learning and networking point of view, and with my final exam around the corner, the opportunity to taste 150+ wines in expert company was obviously quite appealing. I was booked onto Tranche 1 as an ‘Associate Judge’, the lowest rank, and scheduled to judge on both Thursday and Friday.

Before I go any further, I suppose this is a good opportunity to look at the concept of a wine competition. When you go into a store and see medals pinned to bottles, or shiny stickers extolling how well these wines scored, chances are they were placed into a wine competition of some sort. On a commercial level, this sort of stuff genuinely helps to sell wines so wine competitions are still important to producers who want to stand out in an increasingly crowded market-place.

The general idea is that a producer will pay a set amount of money to enter their wine into a competition, and supply around 4 bottles of that wine to be tasted and judged. This is where everything deviates depending on the organisation in question, as some are very professionally ran, with all wines tasted blind by a large number of professionals from different backgrounds and some.. well… let’s just say that some local fairs are a little less discerning. I’ve heard stories of a 4 man judging panel where every judge had a conflict of interest in some way with the wines they were scoring, including making the wine themselves!

Fortunately, the IWC is one of the former and I was quite blown away with the level of professionalism and organisation on display, with over 160 different judges all tasting the wines blind, with the same wines often being judged by different tables throughout the course of the week. At the beginning of each day, the judges are organised into groups of 5 with one ‘Panel Chair’ who leads the group, one ‘Senior Judge’, two ‘Judges’ and a single associate. They meet together a few minutes before starting and the Panel Chair, typically a MW/MS or equivalent in the industry, and go over the ground rules for the day. The general idea is this:

Each group spends the day at a big table divided into two parts. In each part is a themed flight of wine, all presented blind with minimal information about them, such as Country/Region, Vintage and grape varieties.

The group as a whole then tastes these wines blind, scoring them using the 100 point scale. Bronze medals are awarded to wines who score 85-89, Silver from 90-94 and anything 95 or above is awarded a gold medal.

At the end of each flight, the Panel Chair goes around the group asking for a score on each wine. If the scores are mostly aligned, say everyone thinks it’s a bronze, then a bronze it is. If there is any level of discrepancy, then everyone has to justify their position on the wine including a tasting note. Ultimately the Panel Chair makes the final decision, but every voice is heard and I was delighted to find that being an associate judge didn’t make a difference when we got to debating; of more importance was your justification for the score you gave. Balance, length, intensity, concentration, finish, finesse.. the criteria for what makes a great wine tends to be almost universally accepted, and these were the yardsticks by which we measured every wine.

In this way, we tasted our way through 75-85 wines per day with a break for lunch in the middle. As soon as you’ve tasted the flight on one half of the table and moved across to the other, one of the IWC staff whizzes away your dirty glasses, bottles and brings a whole new blind flight to that side of the table. In this way, you spend your entire day moving from side to side, tasting and scoring with very little wasted time.

As the wines being judged are all entered by companies at their own discretion, the variety is about as broad as you can expect. I tasted a lot of wines with styles I was familiar with, but also wines from grapes I’d never heard of (mainly Italian) and countries I have little experience with. In a single day we might go from vintage Champagne to Italian white wines, then across to Turkey for some red blends, Argentinian Cabernet Franc, Galician reds, German and Alsatian Riesling, Ukranian white wines, mixed wines from Hungary and so on. Absolutely anything and everything is tasted, with widely varying quality levels. We dismissed a lot of wine from the competition entirely for simply not being close to a medal level, with a lot of high scoring surprises along the way.

On both the days that I judged, I had the pleasure of two excellent Panel Chairs guiding me through the process, Natasha Hughes MW and Anne Krebiehl MW. The Senior Judges were both gentlemen who’d spent well over 20 years in the industry, and the judges ranged from MW students to professionals working in laboratories for wine analysis, senior retail staff, sommeliers and a smattering of highly qualified persons not working directly in the industry. This probably all sounds very intimidating but the atmosphere was warm, friendly and inviting and I had no problem getting into the swing of things. Once you get going it’s quite a fast-paced day and you’re standing up for the entire duration, so don’t be surprised if you feel quite sore at the end of it all; I certainly did after day 1!

The IWC runs these events twice a year, ensuring that bottles are tasted once they’ve had a period of time to rest and taking into account the variation in harvests between regions on different sides of the hemisphere. When you ascend the ranking hierarchy and make the trip a few times, it’s common to receive some sort of financial reimbursement for your time and your travel costs. As an associate and a first-timer, this clearly wasn’t the case for me, but rarely has money been better spent. To taste such a gamut of wines across different quality levels, whilst surrounded by industry experts, your peers, and to talk about those wines for the entire day? Priceless. It’s also a fantastic way to keep in touch with what’s going on in the industry, as you’re tasting wine you wouldn’t necessarily buy yourself.

I shall be back as often as time and money allows. Here are a few of my highlights both in terms of wine, and general observations:

A general reaffirmation that people who choose to work in the wine industry are some of the nicest, friendliest people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Looking at some of the names around the room I was expecting a few clashes of ego, yet the atmosphere never deviated from an inclusive one.

The wines I tasted from Spain were such a mixed bag, it’s hard to draw conclusions. There were some delicious Albarino’s, one of the Mencia wines from Bierzo was so pure and crisp I was convinced it was from Ribeira Sacra, and even the chunkier ones showed well. However the Rioja wines were universally poor, including a few outright faults and poor quality wine-making. A shame.

Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough doesn’t necessarily have to be tropical and over-blown; the Awatere Valley sub-region produced some elegant, mineral styles including a gold medal winner, with some of the purest fruit I’ve tasted from the country.

There is a lot of very average wine out there. Don’t be afraid to call it out. As Natasha Hughes MW told me “If you wouldn’t be happy serving this to your friends at home, it shouldn’t be receiving a medal”.

It really does pay to be in good physical condition for these events. 9 hours of standing and shuffling around takes its toll, as does the huge amount of wines tasted. I’m reasonably fit, but I think a slight increase in my work-outs won’t do me any harm!

Despite people having very different preferred styles of wines, a group can quickly calibrate when tasting together for a short period of time if they’re all speaking the same language. The WSET system put me in very good stead for this, whereas some struggled to understand why the wines they loved were scoring quite poorly.

Should Tim Atkin MW ever want a career outside of the wine industry, he wouldn’t make a bad DJ for parties and weddings. He was responsible for the music over the week and aside from some very questionable country music, did a pretty good job at varying the music over the day: relaxing and soothing in the morning, upbeat and energetic towards the end when we’re all flagging and looking forward to a cold beer!

Thoughts on: Wine Communication

Wine communication is getting harder and harder to define as, like so many other industries, the mediums responsible for talking about it are changing year by year. Cellartracker, Instagram, Twitter, Vivino… the list goes on, and the one pattern is that interactions are getting shorter, with less information shared in each new platform. At the risk of sounding snobbish, I can understand this strategy for a lot of industries. Take fashion for example; the most important thing about it is how it looks, right? I don’t have many friends who work directly in the business, but I’ve yet to meet someone who’s interested in the soil types where the cotton was grown, or the manner in which it was picked and for a few reasons, let’s not get into where it’s made and who’s making it. I’m sure you can dig deeply into fashion, but it seems that brief messages and pictures of emaciated people wearing clothes is still broadly accepted as the best way to talk about it. (Believe it or not I’ve actually, unwillingly, been to a fashion show or two. I didn’t hear any in-depth talk about fashion but I’ve been put off the word ‘fabulous’ for life).

Is that really true for wine, though? Whilst I think wine can, and to a certain extent should, be enjoyed simply as a beverage, for anyone who seeks to truly understand why it tastes the way it does, there’s a never-ending rabbit-hole of knowledge to invest decades in before you get there. Obviously, that’s only for those of us who forgot to get jobs in banking in our early 20’s, and a little knowledge will go an awfully long way in developing your appreciation of wine. So what’s the best way to do that? I’m a big advocate of formal study but I do recognise that it only goes so far, and isn’t ideal for anyone who doesn’t want to invest large amounts of time and money into it.

Which brings me to the humble blog. I know, I’ve heard it too; blogging is dead and only fools would bother continuing with it in the wine industry. Which is fantastic, as those fools tend to be the most interesting, dedicated people I’ve met with real passion and knowledge to share; why else would they persist? Whether it’s through a video platform of some description, podcasts or the old-fashioned internet blog, I still believe one of the very best ways to learn about wine is to pick a blog or two and follow them closely. Ideally, choose someone with a diverse and educated view of the world of wine and read everything they write. If you have time and/or masochistic tendencies, follow a few.

Wine is a delicious drink but there’s no short-cut to learning about it in detail. A picture can paint a thousand words but all I usually learn from wine-related instagram posts is that everyone seems to have more money, time and friends than I do. Good quality wine information that isn’t behind a paywall is getting harder to come by, so I’ve updated my ‘Recommended Reading’ page linked here, to help you get a head start on some of the best on the internet. Happy reading!

PS. If you’re a fan of the long-format of instagram posts concerning wine, have a quick look at my account here. It takes my fat fingers a good 10 minutes to type each one up, and I usually get angry at my phone at least once whilst doing it. If that doesn’t add to your reading pleasure, I’m not sure what will.

Wine Cuentista Newsletter – Edition 23 – November 2017

Maestrazgo Wine Club Newsletter – Edition 23 – November 2017

November: This is typically the last month of the harvest for most wine-makers and indeed, practically all the white grapes and most of the reds will have been picked, pressed and begun fermentation already, with the exception of some late-ripening varieties or those small pockets of grapes in particular micro-climates. The big task in November is making the wine; with winery space at a premium and stainless steel tanks, barrels and concrete eggs all full of fermenting wine that has to be monitored constantly in order to make sure the temperatures, nutrient levels and volatile components are all in check. It can be a pretty stressful place to be! Now the time in the vineyard is more or less over, biology takes a back-seat to chemistry as science and artistry vie for control of the process. If the harvest was good and a good crop of healthy grapes was brought in, the sky is the limit for a skilled wine-maker. If the yield was low and/or poor quality due to rots, fungi, weather conditions or unforeseen circumstances then the wine-maker will have a challenge on their hands to turn it into a good quality wine that can return the investment of the year.

Hello Wine Lovers! It’s been a long month for everyone in Barcelona, politically and socially, and I’m glad that Autumn seems to be finally rolling in with cooler weather and, hopefully, cooler heads! From a wine perspective it’s perfect drinking weather, with red wines drinking beautifully at room temperature and bigger white wines starting to appear on dinner tables around the country, perfect for the bolder fare of the colder months. Due to a convoluted schedule and a brilliant opportunity to start learning how to judge at wine competitions with the IWC, I’m afraid we can only present a single tasting this month. However, it’s a great one and a good opportunity to look at some high quality, contemporary wines from a country we haven’t looked at in a while… Spain! Entitled “The New Spain’ in tribute to the late John Radford, a Spanish wine expert who last wrote the complete book about Spanish wine under the same name, it’s not to be missed! As always, to contact me and book a spot, get in touch here.

Events: Maestrazgo Wine Club:

23rd November – The New Spain – 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. ‘Whatever…it’s rosé’ by The Sediment Blog. Getting excited about rosé as a wine professional can be tricky as it’s so often a wishy-washy wine. Exciting on the nose and then utterly disappointing on the palate. Or a deeper, structured wine that makes you wonder… why didn’t I just get a glass of red instead? Whilst top quality rosé wines certainly do exist, I still enjoyed this little bit from the hilarious CJ and PK over at the Sediment Blog.

  1. ’10 Smart Rioja Buys’ by Amaya Cervera. One reason I’m excited about getting the WSET Diploma out of the way in January is that I can start focusing a lot more on Spanish wines again. Here, Amaya Cervera of Spanish Wine Lover creates a list of 10 different wines from DOC Rioja to sample. Split into three major parts and likely to start focusing on wines from individual villages and vineyards, Rioja is an exciting place to be at the moment. For all the attention lauded (rightly so) on the new wave wines from Galicia, there are quite a few wines in this list I wouldn’t mind getting hold of!

  1. ‘Lady-strangler News’ by Miquel Hudin. No, really. That’s the title. Miquel looks at a provocatively entitled grape variety native to DOQ Priorat and an exciting new discovery. The wine referenced is also one of the most delicious white wines from Priorat and should anyone be visiting, I heartily recommend a visit to Marc Ripoll Sans, as his 100% Carignan is also superb.

Wine of the Month: I’m constantly on the look-out for wines of real quality and value; you’ll find me mostly drinking in the 6-25 euro range.

Chave Seleccions ‘Offerus’ 2013 Every month this seems to get tougher and tougher, but this excellent St.Joseph stood out for its purity of fruit and sheer drinkability; a gem of a wine made from the least considered region in the Northern Rhone. The easterly facing vineyards get 1-2 hours less vital sunlight than their neighbours and as a result, most of the Syrah here struggles to ripen fully, particularly in cooler years. Louis J Chave, the iconic producer of Hermitage, recognises this and produces a crisp, pure wine with a gorgeous core of fruit and a clean herbal edge. Who says that negociant wines can’t be great? Certainly not the cheapest wine at 26 euros a bottle through but a genuinely delicious drink. It’d have to be to beat the competition this month!

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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 I can’t wait to see you all soon for more wine, food and good company.

Fintan Kerr

Barcelona Wine Tasting: The Loire Valley

With it being such an unseasonably warm Autumn, it made sense to explore a region better known for producing refreshing, crisp and often subtle wines, before the colder weather does finally creep in. So, we’re heading to one of the most famous cool climate wine regions in the world; The Loire Valley. The Loire Valley in France is named the countries most famous river, as well as being the third largest producing region in the country, sitting on more or less the same latitude as Burgundy but on the much cooler west coast. Today, with the exception of England’s growing wine industry, it is the furthest north-western limit of quality viticulture, remarkable in itself but particularly so when you consider the variety and breadth of wine here.

By the time the Romans had left France, viticulture was certainly well established here, surviving the invading Visigoth hordes and forging a reputation for quality wines over the next few centuries. By the 11th century AD, wines from the Loire were shipped across France and as far as England and Belgium. Today, it’s Paris that is most important to the Loire Valley wine trade, with a large percentage of wines here sold to Parisians visiting the region for the weekend. In fact, it’s surprisingly difficult to find wines outside of France with only a recent fashion-swing to lighter, more delicate wines helping to expose the regions of Chinon, Vouvray and co. to the broader wine drinking world.

Geographically, the Loire Valley is a long, meandering region so trying to be specific about the climate as a whole is difficult. However, regardless of where the vineyards are based, the style of wine is likely to be very different from anything in southern Europe, with both Winter and Spring frosts a very real danger. The closest region to the ocean, Muscadet, benefits from warming currents from The Gulf Stream, whereas further inland to continental Touraine and Sancerre, extreme weather patterns become more common.

Due to these changes in conditions and to a certain extent, soil types, the Loire Valley is likely the most diverse French wine producing region. A great deal of indigenous grape varieties are grown and vinified here, and in almost every style. The one over-riding stylistic similarity of the wines here is the freshness of the wines; whether it’s a lean, mean Cabernet Franc in a particularly cool year, or an unctuous sweet Vouvray, there’s a streak of acidity running through the wines that always seems to lift them up and makes them very food friendly.

As our tastings focus around 6 wines, the choice was difficult but by focusing on regions in all 3 major parts of the Loire, we were able to cover the more famous appellations and sneak an indigenous grape or two in for good measure as well! From the eternally unappreciated Muscadet, to Sancerre, Vouvray, Chinon, Bourgeil and a sneaky appearance from a little known grape that goes by Grolleau Noir, there’s something for everyone.

Domaine Landron Le Fief du Breil 2013
Muscadet-Sevre et Maine is the most significant appellation of Nantes, close to the mouth of the Loire. It’s here that you’ll find Domaine Landron, a small, biodynamic operation ran by Jo Landron, an effusive character and a big believer in single vineyard bottlings. Le Fief bu Breil is just that; a textured, salty white wine that’s spent 20 months ageing on its lees, giving it it’s weight and formidable ageing potential. Green apple and citrus fruits dominate on the nose, with a hint of sweet brioche, tarragon and wet stones. Fresh and softly textured, this is, to steal a phrase, ‘the little black dress’ of white wine. We’re drinking this at 4 years of age, but well made Muscadet has something of a cult following that prefers to wait for at least 10 years before opening their bottles, when the wine will have a more pronounced saline and nutty character.

Domaine Vacheron Sancerre 2016
Sancerre is unquestionably the most famous appellation of the Loire Valley, particularly in the UK where it has become something of a benchmark for dry, white wine. Whilst some red wine is made, the vast majority is a crisp, mineral white wine made from Sauvignon Blanc grown on 3 differing soil types. Domaine Vacheron are probably the most famous producer in the region with over 47 hectares planted and a history dating back to the very beginning of the 20th century. Their Sancerre is archetypal; pale in colour but with real interest on the nose. Lime peel, green apples, gooseberries, nettles and a distinct, flinty note are married with a zesty acidity and a subtlety not often found in its New World counterparts. Best drank young and ideally, paired with some delicious goats cheese!

Huet Vouvray Clos de Bourg Demi-Sec 2010
Whilst Sancerre may be the most well known appellation of the Loire Valley, in Touraine it’s Vouvray that’s king. Fashioned in a variety of styles from Chenin Blanc, these are long-lived wines with a strong local following. The soil here, Tuffeau, defines the region and partly due to the drainage from these soils and the unique Atlantic-meets-continental climate here, harvests can last well into November. Huet is the standard bearer for the region, its reputation created by the tireless Gaston Huet and only recently changing hands due to his death in 2002. Clos de Bourg Demi-Sec is made from the oldest site in the appellation of Vouvray and has all the Chenin funk you could desire. A medium gold colour at 7 years of age, with pronounced aromas of ripe, dried orchard fruits, orange, quince and wet wool yet still full of vibrant acidity. Rich and delicious with a long, slightly sweet finish.

Domaine Andree Grolleau Noir 2013
Grolleau Noir is the indigenous variety I’m excited to present, created by Stephane Erisse of Saumur. Grolleau Noir is one of the grapes you read about in formal texts that are often disregarded as having limited potential, but as with everything in the wine world, there will be an exception. Domaine Andree is a tiny project of around 3 hectares, focusing on Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc and of course, Grolleau Noir. Pale in colour and very delicate on the nose; very Loire Valley in style! Fresh cherries and raspberries compete with subtle aromas of violets and rose petals, with a touch of something herbal and an earthy aroma underpinning it all. Fresh and surprisingly firm on the palate, this is really refreshing stuff. 12% alcohol and yet packs a punch, an excellent example of a well made varietal that so few vignerons give a chance!

Roches Neuves Franc du Pied 2012
To finish our tasting, another Cabernet Franc from neighbouring Saumur-Champigny, on the same side of the Loire as Chinon. Thierry Germain is the master-mind behind Roches Neuves, one of the most famous biodynamic estates in France, having learnt his trade at Clos Rougeard. ‘Franc du Pied’ is a young, vibrant expression of Cabernet Franc, the signature grape of his production, aged in large oak foudres for 10 months. A more delicate expression of Cabernet Franc, without any noticeable oak, with notes of ripe cherry and bramble, black pepper, toast, violets and green bell pepper, with a superb delineation between flavours. Structured and fresh with a long, clean finish.

Domaine Pallus Chinon 2012
So, to my favourite grape variety of the Loire Valley; Cabernet Franc. Grown throughout the region but predominantly in the centre around the regions of Chinon, Bourgeuil and Saumur, the cool, crunchy and herbal style of Cabernet Franc here has won many fans over the years. Chinon in particular has created a name for itself as a top quality appellation for age-worthy expressions of the grape, and Domaine Pallus as a high quality producer with huge potential. Their flagship wine, Grand Vin de Pallus, is a wonderful example of Cabernet Franc with ripe cherry aromas, light vanilla and toast, green bell pepper and compost. Firm and crunchy on the palate with the same fresh but ripe flavours and a touch of spice. Classic Chinon.

Barcelona Wine Tasting: International Blind Tasting

Every month or two we try to organise a blind tasting in Barcelona, typically focusing on wines from around the world. Last night was our first after the summer break and we tasted our way around 6 different, mono-varietal wines from around the world of wine with two whites and 4 reds. It’s not a completely 100% blind experience so for each wine there was a choice of 3, each with tasting notes, with only one being correct. As always, it was a lot of fun and a great way to not only try different wines, but learn a bit about how they’re structured, how they taste and what really defines them in comparison with other wines from around the world. Below is the descriptions that were handed out, as well as the revealing of which wine was which!

Wine 1 is a:

Albariño from Rias Baixas, Spain: The quintessential Galician white wine, particularly where Paella is involved! Albariño tends to be pale to medium lemon in colour and very aromatic, with notes of ripe citrus fruits, peach, white flowers and often sweet herbs or even a touch of honey. Acidity is high, especially in the leaner expressions to the north, and the flavour on the palate leans more towards citrus zest and sweet herbs.

Grand Cru Riesling from Alsace, France: Renowned for their dry Rieslings, Alsace has a continental climate and long ripening season that allows for intense versions of this grape to be grown. Typically pale to medium coloured, these wines are typically aromatic with notes of ripe citrus fruits, green fruits and often a touch of smoke or wet stone sensation, although not usually from oak contact. High acidity is a given and alcohol levels can also reach 14% quite often. Grand Cru Riesling will be tight and unyielding in youth, yet full of energy and will still be aromatic,

Chardonnay from Chablis (1er cru), France: Chablis is a distinctive style of Chardonnay, coming from the cool climates of northern France. Pale to medium in colour, these wines can differ slightly, mostly depending on whether they’re oaked or unoaked. Regardless, the notes will often resemble lemon and lime zest, green fruits and a flinty, smoky note when young which will soften with age. Acidity is extremely high and there’ll be a sharp, steely sensation on the palate which may be softened by malolactic fermentation.

Conclusion: It was indeed a Chablis from France that kicked off our evening, correctly chosen by 5/10 of the attendees. All the options were high acid varieties, so the trick was to define the texture on the palate and see if wine-making or a tell-tale aroma would give the game away. The real defining factor was the presence of tightly-grained, smoky French oak which this Chablis had aged in for 12 months. Highly unlikely in both the case of Albariño and Riesling, but very common for good quality Chablis from the Premier Cru level and upwards. Delicious wine as it happens, as is so often the case with Drouhin, and as I always say; everything in life is better with a glass of Chablis!

Wine 2 is a:

Verdejo from Rueda, Spain: One of the most famous white wines from Spain, hailing from Rueda, and made in a few different styles. Most Verdejo tends to be unoaked, with a pale colour and aromas of citrus fruits, green fruits and something herbaceous, almost laurel-like. Acidity ranges from medium to high but alcohol is usually kept in check, and the wines can be soft and very appealing.

Semillon from Hunter Valley, Australia: One of Bordeaux’s great white grapes has a very different expression in Australia. When it’s young, Semillon has a lean, mean structure and flavour with noticeable lime zest, smoke and masses of acidity, accurately described by the top wine-maker in the region as ‘Battery acid’. With age, these flavours broaden into honey, toast and roasted nuts.

Pinot Gris from Marlborough, New Zealand: Pinot Gris is still best known for its simple, homogenous expressions from the north of Italy. In New Zealand, however, a riper style is aimed for. Notes of citrus, green fruits and riper notes of melon and peach are usually expressed here, somethings with some soft herbal notes and an almost ‘beery’ character to the wine. Alcohol levels are typically over 13% and there is often a bitter sensation on the finish.

Conclusion: Not one of the best known wines in the world, but 8/10 correctly guessed this to be a Pinot Gris from New Zealand! Loveblock is the same organic producer whose Pinot Noir I recently presented at our New World Wine Tasting and their Pinot Gris is on an equal footing; soft, slightly spicy and utterly delicious. Everyone ruled out Semillon due to the lower acidity and lack of a smoky, nutty aroma, whilst two detected the soft herbal notes of the wine and confused it with a well made Verdejo. However, the round, glycerol-heavy nature of the wine, the stone-fruit dominated flavours and slight, cleansing bitterness on the finish led most people to the right path. Nicely done!

Wine 3 is a:

Gamay from Cru Beaujolais, France: Another pale coloured wine, Gamay wines tend to be restrained on the nose with aromas of fresh red fruits, violets and sometimes very light hints of oak. Alcohol tends to be no higher than 13.5% and tannins are noticeably low, although the fresh acidity makes for a refreshing beverage.

Cabernet Franc from Chinon, France: Cabernet Franc is a red variety that ripens in cooler conditions, making it a favourite in the Loire Valley of France where it produces incredibly characteristic wines. Pale ruby colours and fresh, tangy red fruit flavours are common, as are herbaceous, stalky aromas of leaves and undergrowth. Tannins are usually quite firm but not overpowering and acidity is high, making for a light, refreshing style of wine that rarely exceeds 13% alcohol.

Dolcetto from Piedmont, Italy: Quite literally ‘little sweet one’ due to the its low acidity and bright fruit flavours, Dolcetto is usually a simple, very quaffable style of wine grown in several appellations in northern Italy. Despite the medium levels of alcohol and acidity, tannins can occasionally be quite prominent and compete with the fruit. At its best, these wines are best drank young and tend to be simple and uncomplicated.

Conclusion: For our first red of the evening, I wanted to choose something aromatically distinctive and 7/10 correctly noted that this was a Cabernet Franc from Chinon. Whilst the structure could be of help, this was more related to flavour profile and the cool climate of the Loire and its effect on Cabernet Franc. Fresh red fruits, a touch of graphite, violets and a strong, herbaceous character led the majority here, to a delicious bottle of Les Petites Roches 2011 by Charles Joguet, an iconic producer of Chinon.


Wine 4 is a Pinot Noir. Where’s it from?

Pinot Noir from Baden, Germany: Germany is now the third largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world, known locally as Spätburgunder. Baden is the warmest region in the country and so accounts for the majority of plantings of red grapes. Stylistically, German Pinot Noir is traditionally very pale, yet sometimes over-oaked. Ripe red fruits married to touches of vanilla and toast whilst maintaining low alcohol is common, with earthy, undergrowth aromas coming through with age.

Pinot Noir from Central Otago, New Zealand: Not quite as pale as traditional Burgundy or German Pinot Noir but still lightly coloured. Pinot Noir from Central Otago is often very aromatic, with notes of candied fruits, light oak and often hints of leather and undergrowth. Look out for bright, persistent flavours on the palate and occasionally hints of reduction, which can smell a little rubbery. The bright fruit flavours are a good sign of New World Pinot Noir and these wines from New Zealand are often very perfumed.

Pinot Noir from Oregon, USA: Pinot Noir in Oregon is still establishing itself as a style, with top producers like Drouhin and Bergstrom now producing wines of class and style. Slightly darker and riper in colour than the majority of traditional cool-climate European Pinot Noir, Bright, ripe cherry fruit dominates, with noticeable oak influences and often noticeably high alcohol levels. Likely to be more structured and firm in comparison to a Pinot Noir from New Zealand.

Conclusion: As soon as I read out the name of the winery, heads dropped. Only 1/10 correctly identified the origins of the wine, which I think is partly due to no-one having tried a good quality Pinot Noir from Germany before. The clue was in both the structure and the profile; Baden produces much lighter, classic Pinot Noir than the two, New-World options. At 12.5% alcohol and full of just-ripe red fruit and undergrowth with a touch (20%) of new oak, this is classic Spätburgunder. Ziereisen are one of the better producers in a region dominated by the grape variety, and manage to walk the line between over-extraction and oaking  with remarkable ease.

Wine 5 is a:

Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina: The ambassador grape of Argentina, Malbec is noted for its soft fruit flavours, soft tannins and an easy-drinking style. Sometimes criticised for being a little simple, it often tastes of plums, damsons, and dark chocolate with hints of violets. Whilst top quality examples do exist with a more complex array of flavours, they are sadly rarely seen outside Argentina itself. The classic Argentinian Malbec is often incredibly dark, with purple hints but younger examples can be lighter in profile.

Pinotage from Stellenbosch, South Africa: Pinotage is a love it or hate it kind of grape, as it really smells and tastes unlike any other grapes in the world. Almost exclusively grown in South Africa, the wines tend to be deeply coloured with aromas of blackberries, mulberry and often a smoky, dark aroma, with hints of coffee often strongly related to the oak regime used in wineries within South Africa. Occasionally volatile aromas can taint the wine and the tannins can often be quite aggressive.

Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero, Spain: Ordinarily a medium-bodied grape, the continental climate of Ribera del Duero and consumer demand leads to darkly coloured, rich wines that are often alcoholic, powerful and heavily structured. Often blended together with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and/or Malbec, these are often heavily oaked wines designed for early drinking pleasure, although the very best can age for decades. Aromas of dark fruit, noticeable oak (French and/or American), leather and tobacco are common.

Conclusion: A classically styled Ribera del Duero went down a treat, and was also correctly identified by 6/10 as the wine in their glass. Pinotage is the first to be discounted, owing to the difference in structure and also flavour profile, but differentiating Malbec and Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero isn’t as easy as it sounds. A key difference is that, with age, Tempranillo develops a beautiful array of leather and dried tobacco aromas not often emulated in Malbec, whereas Malbec tends to have a softer, riper tannin profile. Bohorquez are an old-fashioned producer, making wines in the style of Alejandro Pesquera minus the brett! A lovely wine just hitting its stride at 10 years old.


Wine Number 6 is a ….Wildcard entry! No clues for this one:

For the final wine of the evening, there were no clues or help, just a glass of wine in front of everyone. It was a pale, garnet colour with a very pronounced nose of dried cherries, rose petals, violets, smoke, toast and wet earth. Highly acidic and with plenty of ripe, firm tannins and a wonderful flavour intensity, this took most people to one place; Northern Italy. I wasn’t expecting anyone to know the exact region, but the fact that most people went for Nebbiolo from Piedmont, or in one case a remarkably astute guess of Lombardy, is fantastic! It is indeed Nebbiolo from the north of Italy, in fact in the extreme reaches of Lombardy, in the Valtellina region. Lacking the weight and gravitas of some of its more famous cousins in Barbaresco and Barolo, the wines here tend to be leaner, more floral and incredibly refreshing. Ar.Pe.Pe are the most famous producer, having built a reputation for their long-lived, regionally defined expressions of Nebbiolo. A great way to finish a wonderful evening of tasting!


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