Thoughts on: Reflections and Planning for 2018

Bodega Catena Wine Tasting

Taking time to reflect is an important part of any development, both personal and professional. Actually having the time to do it, however, is a very different matter! After 2.5 years of almost constant studying, I’ve finally finished the last of my exams with the WSET. Between that, Christmas, New Years and taking care of my young family, I’ve barely had the chance to write over the last few months. Last week I sat down to the WSET Unit 3 exam, a 5 hour marathon of blind tasting and essay-based theory questions. Whilst I won’t know for certain how I’ve done until early April (the WSET take around 3 months to mark these papers), I have a reason to be confident as I was able to answer everything in some detail and I had a strong blind tasting.

So the question is; what next? I’ve written about the value of wine education a few times, and now I suddenly find myself without a structured course to work through. I’m not yet financially capable of starting the MW course, and likely not quite ready yet either, and there’s nothing beyond the WSET Diploma in terms of official qualifications that will help me. Which is quite exciting in itself, because it means the next year or two is entirely down to me. On that note, I sat down over the weekend with a bit of time to myself for the first time in months, opened a lovely bottle of wine and got thinking about what the next couple of years holds for me.

Get a job in the industry. This might sound odd considering I already work organising wine tastings in and around Barcelona, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that I need to work a little more centrally in the industry. Currently I have to work incredibly hard and spend most of the money I make pursuing wine education, as I don’t have access to the information and opportunities that arise from working directly for a winery, retail outlet, distribution centre etc. When it comes to getting the inside scoop, tasting and travel opportunities and learning how the industry works, there’s no alternative. (Assuming you’re not fabulously wealthy. Spoiler: I’m not)

Every time I meet someone who’s a Master of Wine or is currently studying towards it, I ask for 5-10 minutes of their time to ask their advice, both on attempting the exams and the industry generally. The most common piece of advice I receive is exactly this; get a job within the industry. Add this to the fact that a large chunk of my work is becoming increasingly less wine focused (walking tours) and it’s something I now need to put in motion. There’s no great rush and fear not, I won’t stop organising tastings as a result!

Wine Science. The thing that most people seem to struggle with the most in wine, is the science of it. Perhaps it diminishes the romanticism of wine in their eyes, but if you want to understand why your wine tastes the way that it does, a basic understanding of wine science is essential. I intend to take my own understanding to another level, with a good amount of time studying and importantly, talking to wine-makers pointedly about it. Why add SO2 at this stage and not earlier/later? Why this sort of barrel and toasting? What would the flavour impact be if you harvested a week earlier? Sorry wine-makers; there’s a lot of very annoying questions coming your way!

Read broadly. This is a no-brainer really. I love reading and learning about wine, and now my exams are over I can spend a lot more time digging into interesting corners or going off in a completely different direction on a whim. I’ve already made a sizable order for some books I’ve been dying to read but couldn’t fit into my study plans.

Write, write, write. Considering how little I’ve written here over the last couple of months, it’d be easy to believe I don’t enjoy writing but it’s actually one of my greatest pleasures. Word Press reliably informs me that my content is nigh-on unreadable, and that only 30 or so people visit my site daily but I really don’t mind. In fact, I want to write a lot more than I have been, including more in-depth wine reviews, thoughts on certain parts of the industry and just general ramblings as they come. Writing helps me process information and as someone who reads incessantly, it’s also a personal pleasure to be able to create content of some sort. Hopefully it will be of use to someone, somewhere!

Taste. A lot of people don’t believe me when I tell them I’ve been working with/learning about wine for less than three years, because I went from knowing absolutely nothing to being reasonably knowledgeable in a short space of time. A lot of that is down to investing a lot of time and money into tasting wine. Every wine I taste, I dig into. I find out about the winery, their other products, what makes them different. Why did this wine taste the way that it did? If it’s a lovely wine and not outrageously priced, I’ll try to fit it into a tasting so that other people can share the experience first-hand. I have to keep working at tasting as broadly as possible, something that should be enhanced now that I’ve been promoted to Judge with the IWC. (Hurrah!)

Personal health and well-being. Lastly, there’s the one I tend to forget about; being a little nicer to myself. The last couple of years have been a lot of work and at times I’ve forgotten to cut myself enough slack – if you’re working 25-28 nights a month, studying full time, taking care of a newborn and trying to have a semblance of a life on top of it, it’ll catch up with you. I have no exam pressure now and whilst I tend to jump head first into things I’m passionate about, I do also need to take some time away from it all. My fiance certainly does! A little less waking up with my face attached to the World Atlas of Wine, and a little more walking around this beautiful city I live in. That’ll work for me.

That’s it. Some general guidelines to guide me through the coming year, with only one or two sizeable changes. I’ll still be available to organise private tastings and Maestrazgo Wine Club events, just hopefully with a little less of what I’ve been told is ‘La cara de papa’. Otherwise known as ‘The father’s face’ which is a lovely Spanish way of saying ‘You look tired’! Stay tuned for more ramblings, tastings and events. Happy 2018, everyone.

Special moments and special bottles: Trimbach Frederic Emile Riesling, VT, 2001

I grew up playing and watching sports, and although I stopped playing anything competitively a few years ago (rugby), I remain a fan and will tune in to watch my favourite athletes and teams compete whenever possible. When I was very young, the athletes I admired became sources of inspiration to me. I would wake up in the morning to work-out as a young rugby player and try to emulate Johnny Wilkinson’s determination and structured approach, as well as his commitment to laying his body on the line. Training to join the military when I was in my late teens, I would think about the athletes who never gave up despite the odds and always pushed through to the bitter end, often victorious by virtue of grinding their opponents down.

As a man in my late 20’s and having been through the stage of life where you realise that you’re now older than many of the sporting stars you admire, I draw inspiration in a slightly different way. My work-outs are now more aimed at staying fit and healthy than packing on muscle or stripping fat, I’m more interested in setting achievable targets, hitting them and moving on rather than trying to be the absolute strongest, fastest and fittest guy in the gym. The inspiration I draw now, is more about how athletes conduct themselves professionally in times of stress and defeat, and there is no-one I admire more in this regard than Roger Federer.

I first discovered tennis in 2003, watching Mark Philippoussis and his enormous serve throughout Wimbledon; the beauty of school holidays meant I could watch the entire tournament from my own living room. He made it all the way to the final where he was beaten, to my great disappointment, by a young Swiss guy by the name of Roger Federer. It wasn’t even that close, finishing in 3 sets with two tie-breaks and Roger played him off Centre Court that day, the court that has largely gone on to define his career. Over the next 14 years, Roger has had the most accomplished career of any male tennis player to date and is, to my mind, the single greatest tennis player the world has ever seen.

What’s understated, however, is the endless hours of training, practice and effort he puts in. Commentators make a big fuss about the work-rate of Murray, Nadal and Djokovic and yet Federer has a professional career spanning 19 years, winning tournaments both large and small, charity events and also suffering some crushing losses on the way. I’ve suffered through so many of his defeats, often on clay to Rafael Nadal, and yet he never gave up. He’s never once retired during a game in over 1000 matches, an outrageous statistic that speaks to the courage of the man. Even more than that, regardless of how tough his opponent was, how crushing the defeats and the niggling injuries along the way, he always composed himself with dignity and humility, winning the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award 12 times.

Watching Federer come back from a serious injury and winning not only the Australian Open but then Wimbledon this year has been awe inspiring from a sports fans point of view, thrilling from the viewpoint of a Roger Federer fan and deeply satisfying for myself on a very personal level. Last Sunday I watched Federer dominate Centre Court once again for an unprecedented 8th Wimbledon title, cheered on by his wife and 4 children, 95% of the crowd and millions around the world. It feels like a full circle experience, casting me back the days of being a child in a mans body and wanting to push it to the limit, watching Federer win his first ever Major.

Even though I’m never going to be a professional athlete, or anywhere close to it, I will be a sports fan for my entire life. Whilst the motivation I used to draw from my heroes gave me the strength to get up at 5am and run like the wind, or commit myself to a painful tackle or lift more and more weight, I now hope it gives me the strength to tackle some of lifes more mundane challenges. How to achieve my personal ambitions whilst giving time back to my family, how to cope with the endless set backs and frustrations that come with modern life, how to see the world from my own point of view and how to accept it all with grace and a smile, especially in moments of defeat.

To pair with the momentous occasion of Federer’s 8th Wimbledon title, I watched the whole match with a stunning bottle of Trimbach Frederic Emile Riesling VT 2001.

This was a bottle I'd been holding onto for a while; Cuvee Frederic Emile Vendage Tardive 2001. Produced by Trimbach, one of the greatest Alsatian producers with a history going back to 1626, this is likely the best bottle of Riesling I've ever had. You can see the dramatic amber colour from the picture but the stunning aromas of orange marmalade, honeyed orchard fruits, cinnamon, marzipan and slate can only be imagined. Rich, not sweet, and unbelievably fresh! Drank over the two hours it took Roger Federer to win his 8th Wimbledon title; check out for a full write-up! @trimbach #wine #france #riesling #alsace #lateharvest #instagood #instadaily #photo #wimbledon #federer #pairing #wineoclock #wineoftheday #delicious #dramatic #amber #2001 #best #history #travel

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Trimbach Frederic Emile Riesling VT 2001

Trimbach are one of the great producers in Alsace, France, with a wine-making history stretching back to 1626 when Jean Trimbach registered as a citizen of the region. Fast forward almost 400 years and the winery is a thriving, quality based operation producing somewhere in the region of 1.2 million bottles a year, the majority of which is affordable, good quality varietal wines, the sort of thing that is perfect for introducing students and wine lovers to the region.

Whilst Trimbach produce a broad range of different varietal wines, their speciality is without a doubt Riesling, typified by Clos St. Hune, their flagship wine produced from the Rosacker vineyard. At €150-300 a pop, vintage dependent, it’s not exactly the most accessible of their wines but fortunately, their other highly acclaimed Riesling is. I picked up two bottles of Trimbach Frederic Emile Riesling VT 2001 for a song at Monvinic Store in 2016, one which was opened as part of my new years resolution and the other to be opened on a special occasion; thanks for providing that, Roger! The Frederic Emile Cuvee is only made in certain years from the Osterberg and Geisberg vineyards, with vines averaging 45 years of age and to find bottles of Vendange Tardive (late harvest) Frederic Emile, from an outstanding harvest, well, some people get all the luck!

The wine had a gorgeous, dramatic amber colour flecked with gold and you could almost smell the aromas wafting out of the glass. Ripe citrus fruits, orange marmalade and a whole series of honeyed stone-fruits, cinnamon and even a touch of marzipan. Trimbach are famously classic in their approach to Riesling, opting for concentration and verve over power, shown beautifully in this wine. Despite being 12.5% alcohol and late-harvest, the residual sugar is more a suggestion of sweetness than anything else, balanced with a lovely, refreshing acidity that propels the rich flavours into a very, very long finish. The energy and drive from a 16 year old wine was phenomenal and if I had more bottles, I may have considered leaving them for another 10 years or so! Probably the single best bottle of Riesling I’ve so far had the pleasure of trying and a great way to round off a special day. Life has its moments!

Wine and Health – Part I

Wine and health has been pretty well documented recently with the industry starting to realise the long term potential issues surrounding the lifestyle of a wine professional. As a relative newcomer and someone still in his late 20’s, I can’t speak for the long term effects of anything but I have noticed some short term effects over the last 6 months, notably weight gain. Now, this isn’t an inevitable part of working within the wine industry but the last 18 months of my life have been largely spent studying for various exams, working with few breaks and more recently becoming a father, most of which isn’t conducive to physical fitness. The birth of my son in particular seems to have tipped the balance somewhat, resulting in something like a 4-5kg gain over the past couple of months and sending out a signal that I should probably tackle the issue before it becomes a problem.

So, I will! I’ve got 6 months until the final exam of the WSET Diploma and that’s going to require a few things:

  1. A lot of studying. For me that means a lot of sitting down and poring over textbooks, maps and articles until my head hurts. I do supplement this with a daily walk of around an hour whilst listening to Levi Dalton’s podcasts, but the rest is hunch-back time and this can be up to 3 hours a day.

  2. A lot of tasting. I still try to get to Monvinic on a weekly or bi-monthly basis to do blind tasting, but there’s a lot of wines that I prefer to purchase a bottle of and get to know over a day or three. I would say my monthly consumption of wine is somewhere in the 10-15 bottles range, and this isn’t likely to go down anytime soon!

  3. A lot of energy. With the large commitments to studying and tasting on top of working and my new found friend, sleep deprivation, energy is vital. Being in good shape is a pretty solid approach to having more energy and it makes a big difference when the going gets tough.

Now I’ve always kept myself in some sort of reasonable shape by going on occasional jogs and supplementing that with press-ups, bodyweight squats and other various calisthenics. It’s been over 2 years since I’ve set foot in a gym but I need a bit of extra firepower for this, so I’ve signed up for a 2 month trial at Anytime Fitness, a franchise of which is conveniently around 100m away from where I live. The idea is to get into a rhythm of exercise that allows me to continue tasting and drinking as I learn my way around the wine world without compromising my health at the same time.

Ideally, I’d like this to become a sort of monthly update to show that it is possible to be heavily invested into the wine industry whilst still being physically fit and healthy. It’s about 3 and a half weeks until the beginning of August, when I tend to drink a little less anyway due to the heat and stifling humidity of Barcelona, so I’ll probably wait until the beginning of September to post the first update. That gives me 8 weeks to get the ball rolling and have some results to show for it. Off we go!

Special moments and special bottles: La Rioja Alta 890 Gran Reserva 2001

It seems odd to post about special bottles in back to back entries, but it just so happened that everything came together at once this month. Two years ago I bought two very special bottles of Rioja from my favourite Bodega in the region, La Rioja Alta. The wines are the 890 Gran Reserva range from 2001, the pinnacle of the winery and benchmark wines for the whole region. The reason behind purchasing them was a bit whimsical; myself and my girlfriend had decided to start a family and I wanted to put something away to celebrate when the time came. The idea was to purchase two wines, one that I could open when my first child was born and the second on their 18th birthday and share with them. This requires a few criteria in order to work properly:

1. A wine that is approachable with a certain level of maturity yet that can continue to age and evolve gracefully for at least 2 decades.

2. Something that should stand out in the memory for its style, quality and, frankly, how delicous it is.

3. Ideally it shouldn’t bankrupt me!

La Rioja Alta have been my favourite produce in DOC Rioja for a long time now and in fact were the first taste of what I consider ‘real’ Rioja to be. I suppose I should explain that. When I first started taking an interest in wine, there was a strong anti-Rioja sentiment in Barcelona and that was a formative part of my first interactions with wine. With context, I can see that it wasn’t a dig at the quality of Rioja wines but more of a push for local Catalan wines to take prominence in the local wine scene, which makes a lot of sense in itself. This was, for myself at least, compounded by the fact the first Rioja wines I tried were…well… terrible. Cheap and flimsy wines bought from supermarkets and corner shops made it easy to write Rioja off, especially considering I was drinking good Catalan wines, wines from Ribera del Duero and Jumilla at the same time. With all the confidence that only comes from knowing absolutely nothing about what you’re talking about, I was able to proclaim ‘Oh yes, I don’t drink a lot of Rioja. Far too thin and oaky for me.” Enter: La Rioja Alta.

Founded in 1890 as a joint effort between 5 wine-making families, La Rioja Alta has gone on to become one of the most famous bodegas in DOC Rioja. Fiercely traditional and unwavering in style over the years, it has remained a relatively moderate size and focuses heavily on quality, opening newer bodegas in Rioja, Rias Baixas and Ribera del Duero to expand rather than risk any change in the original production. All wines produced here are red, aged for extended periods in American oak and the vast majority of grapes are produced on land owned by the winery itself. My first experience was the 904 Gran Reserva range, a single step below the 890, from 2001. The complexity of the nose and palate blew me away, and having been introduced through wines that were pushing 15% alcohol, the cooler profile and smoother tannic texture was a lovely surprise as well. I immediately went out to purchase more of their wines and became a fan by the end of the week. Their 890 Gran Reserva range is only made in certain vintages and sits as their flagship wine, the crème de la crème of traditional Rioja.

La Rioja Alta 890 Gran Reserva, 2001

Beautiful brick-red colour with an orange hue at the rim and an absolutely overwhelming nose; dried, brambly red and black fruits, sandalwood, dill, vanilla, baking spices, tobacco, caramel and some savoury, leafy aromas. Very heady and concentrated if still quite young. Masses of flavour intensity, acidity and a long, long finish with already quite integrated and smooth tannins. Probably the best Rioja I’ve ever tried, beating both the 1995 and 1998 vintages I tried over the last year hands down. Not a cheap wine but worth the money and a real indication of just how remarkable good Rioja can be.

Of course, the entire reason I opened the bottle was to celebrate the birth of my son, Dante. I’m not going to go into any detail about the wonders of becoming a father, as I’ll probably never stop, other than to say my heart has never been quite so full of love. I bought these bottles with the intention of celebrating the birth of my first child, and so I have, but for all the beauty and magic in the glass, nothing quite compares to seeing his lovely little face in the morning. It’s 18 years until we open the second bottle; I can only hope he’s found a taste for good wine by then, as it should be in a glorious place. Here’s to the future, my son, and everything it brings.

Special moments and special bottles; Sassicaia 2001

I still remember my first real moment of joy with wine, the feeling of this enormous world opening in front of me, the history, the culture and the sheer complexity and scope of it all. I’ve had this same feeling since, but the first experience I had of it was in a classroom on an uncharacteristically warm Monday morning in London, preparing to start my intensive WSET Level 3 course. As I’d chosen to bypass the first two levels of the WSET, I found myself very much the odd one out; not only had I not brought a spittoon but I hadn’t ever considered spitting wine out before in my life. I didn’t know the basics of wine production, let alone the nuances of different countries, regions and producers, nor had I tasted anything outside of Spain before. It was truly a baptism of fire and yet the only thing I recall was how much fun I had. It was a life-changing week for me and everything since has been inspired by what I learnt there.

I’m still relatively new to the wine industry, as that week was only just over 2 years ago now. Even so, everything has changed as I’ve spent the time between constantly studying, working and trying to improve my understanding of wine. The wines I’ve tasted can now be counted in the thousands rather than the hundreds. I’ve gorged myself on study guides, books, podcasts, blogs and trips to wineries. I’ve worked a harvest and seen some very exciting and very boring sides of the industry. I’m 5/6s of the way through the WSET Diploma and have organised hundreds of tastings in Barcelona. Despite being a newcomer, I can no longer be blown away quite in the same way that I was at the beginning, as it is with all things. However, ‘Ah ha!’ moments still come quite frequently as I have so much still to learn, yet they tend to come as individual pieces of the puzzle, rather than someone drawing back a curtain and showcasing the finished article.

Often these moments come when several disconnected facts find common ground and helps explain a concept you’ve been struggling to get your head around. In tasting, they’re even more common-place as you slowly learn how your palate responds to acidity, tannins, alcohol and the other components of wine. Probably my all time favourite, though, is trying a wine you know all about theoretically, have spoken about and yet have never had the opportunity to taste. A wine that has some sort of historical relevance to a region, a grape or a style. Usually these wines come with pretty hefty price tags and a fair amount of fame, so actually getting hold of them is easier said than done but when it does come along, it’s all the sweeter for it. Last week I had the distinct pleasure of one of these rare ‘Ah ha!’ moments in the shape of the famous ‘Super Tuscan’, Sassicaia.

Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 2001

A lot has been written about Sassicaia, arguably Italy’s most famous wine, so I won’t add a great deal of detail, other than to say it was a relevatory experience for me. As I was learning about appellation laws in Europe, I also learnt about the concept of ‘Super Tuscans’, a term coined largely by the US and UK wine trade to describe wines that were made within Tuscany, often using a blend of international varieties in spite of local regulations. Sassicaia was one of the very first, a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc, and has gone on to create a legendary reputation largely due to the craft and skill of consultant Giacomo Tachis, as well as the vision and drive of the owner of the estate, Mario Incisa. The resulting success of these wines, originally designated as Italian Table Wine or “Vino da Tavola” forced the Italian authorities to create a separate designation known as ‘IGT’ to accommodate wine-makers who wanted to be more creative with their production, without conforming to DOC and DOCG regulations. Such was the success of Sassicaia in particular, that it now has it’s own DOC within Bolgheri DOCG, making it the only wine in Italy to enjoy this distinction.

For a wine that’s moving onto it’s 16th birthday it was still remarkably youthful in both appearance and profile; a lovely deep ruby colour with only a slight bricking towards the rim. Beautifully aromatic with lots of blackberry, damson and plum fruit, along with the tell-tale roasted green bell-pepper and slightly minty note. This wine is in an excellent place with lots of leather, tobacco and earthy, savoury elements layered behind, but the freshness and life is the most remarkable thing about it. This will happily age for another 10 years although I was delighted to have caught it now, when the finely grained tannins had their last shred of grip and texture before becoming completely integrated. A very moving bottle of wine.

I drank the wine catching up with a friend over a long and very enjoyable lunch at Monvinic wine bar in Barcelona. Did it cost a lot? It certainly did, €137 to be precise, and that was just for the wine. Would I do it again? In a heart-beat. I’ll probably never experience the same mind-blowing revelations that I did when I first started to learn about wine and that’s ok. As long as I find and occasionally splash out on wines that give me these ‘Ah ha!’ moments, that connect the dots between hundreds of hours of studying, I’ll be more than content. The rest of learning about wine is a slow collection of knowledge and practicing continuously, all made worthwhile by these occasional, brilliant bottles. If they can be shared in good company again, well, I’d say that would make me a very happy man indeed!

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