Thoughts on: The WSET Diploma

wset

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.

wset-tasting-group-workshop

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.

Thoughts on: The Real Cost of Wine Education – Wine!

expensive-wine

So, yesterday I was working the morning in Montsant, helping a friend pick a 0.3 hectare field of Carignan that was ready for harvest. During our time picking, we chatted about a lot of things and I asked the same question I ask to a lot of experienced individuals in the wine industry; how do you get access to the fine wines of the world for the purposes of education without bankrupting yourself? The reason I ask is that over the last 10 years, prices for the ‘classics’ of the wine industry have sky-rocketed, to the point that many of these wines are essentially unobtainable for the majority of us, including those studying the industry through some form of formalised route such as the WSET or Court of Master Sommeliers. Whilst the vexing problem of not being able to drink hundreds of euros of wine may seem something of a particularly obnoxious ‘First World Problem’, the truth is that if you want to identify these wines blind and come to a conclusion of quality and style, something that is required for the purposes of passing the top exams in the industry (MW/MS) you need to have had some experience tasting them first.

Whilst the course costs of the various education bodies are sometimes quite high themselves, the wines tend to be far and away the most expensive part of this process. Anecdotal tales of students studying for the infamous Masters of Wine exams have told stories of students spending anywhere from $20-50k over the course of their adventure, simply on travelling to wineries and conferences, trying different wines and slowly building up their tasting experience with the wines of the world. Whilst finding access to commercially available wines for most countries is not overly expensive, good luck finding Grand Cru Burgundy for less than $100 a bottle. Cult Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? $150 and upwards. Don’t even get me started on First Growth Bordeaux, with prices en primeur starting from $400 and then climbing towards the sky, which of course is not counting the 15+ years it then takes for these wines to become approachable. So, what’s a student to do? As far as I can tell, these are the most realistic routes open to me whilst I am based in Barcelona:

sommeliers

Work in fine dining as a sommelier: A popular route, as working as a sommelier in a formal setting grants you access to essentially any wine you will be required to serve to your guests. As part of the ritual of serving a fine bottle of wine, often a tiny sip must be tasted in order to confirm there are no faults or flaws with the bottle before serving it to your guests; a fine reason to up-sell to Chateau Margaux if there ever was one! This is a solid approach, although this is Barcelona and not London, so the amount of fine-dining restaurants with the international wines of the world on them are relatively few and far between. I’m already having nightmares of crashing around the floor of a Michelin starred restaurant; I’ll definitely need to work on formal service a little if this becomes a reality.

Find a scaleable way to make considerably more money within my current business: Sounds blindingly obvious, I know. My current income is mainly based around wine tastings. When I do a wine tasting, I make a profit. Naturally this isn’t scaleable unless I wanted to invest into building a company and hire people to do tastings (I don’t, incidentally, as I feel I’d lose the intimacy of the tastings I currently offer) so there would have to be another approach here. Write a book? Start selling wine? Try and start getting my writing published in formal publications? There are certainly possibilities here worth exploring and whilst none are guaranteed any level of success, it would be another chapter in the adventure regardless!

Find a way to make money outside of the wine industry: Sounds simple doesn’t it? Just make your money some other way and then study for wine. Unfortunately, as show-cased by the large number of ‘how to get rich quick’ schemes floating around, it’s not a simple case of just making money; if it were, everyone would be doing it. Add to that the fact that both building wealth and studying require enormous commitments of time, focus and effort and..well, I don’t see this one happening anytime soon. I know some individuals who have done very well from this approach and good luck to them, but unless something falls into my lap this is unlikely to be an option for me.

Work for a company willing to pay the course costs: Interesting one. If I worked for a company that was willing to invest in my education for their future gain, the course costs (5-6k euros per year for the MW course) could be deducted and that same money could be siphoned into the study budget. The unfortunate reality however, is that the Spanish wine industry is struggling to sell any bottle above 7 euros a bottle and even the major cities of the country are hardly awash with fine wine. There are 358 Masters of Wine in the world and only one of them lives in Spain; overseeing the winery he owns and runs rather than being involved in any existing operation. Needless to say, this is probably an indication that there won’t be many companies lining up to throw money at a level of education that is arguably unnecessary in the Spanish market. Still, you never know, someone may share my passion to change and improve existing Spanish wine culture and see an investment of this kind as being a shrewd move!

As it currently stands I’ve finally finished paying the last of my WSET Diploma, including the flights, hotels/hostels, reading material and course costs (Close to 8,000 euros in total, not counting any wine!). I have access to both Monvinic in Barcelona for international tasting options and a great group of friends working in the industry to split costs with and practice blind tasting on a regular basis. In short, I’m in a very good place and looking forward to my next exams and the second half of my education in 2017. If I want to go any further after that and try to scale the MW mountain I will need to find a solution to the cost issues detailed above, but I’m quietly confident that I’ll figure it out; I have a lot of faith in the Fintan of the future; that guy will figure it out for sure! As my mother always used to say, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Thoughts on: Wine Education

wine-education

This is something I get asked a fair bit about, and although I’m currently studying my Diploma with the WSET I’d like this to be about wine education in general, as I intend to cover those topics in more depth another time. The real questions are, I suppose, what is wine education all about? Is it as much fun as it sounds? How do I go about it?

There’s a couple of ways to look at this, and I’ll get the first one out of the way quickly: If you want to be professionally involved with wine, you should, of course, invest in wine based education. Gone are the days of casually working your days in a wine shop and winding up as a senior buyer for a major wine company; the industry is now both more visible, more competitive and the world of wine has grown enormously. This subject came up a few months ago, when Matt Kramer, part of the Wine Spectator team, wrote a scathing article about this ‘new wave’ of wine professionals who were placing too much faith in qualifications and not enough on experience. Easy to say if you were fortunate enough to get a job with no experience/education and even easier to say if you were wealthy enough to have access to the worlds best wine from a young age (This was more a product of the times – wine simply used to be a lot more affordable!). For the rest of us though, we’ll simply have to spend our time and money investing in education.

With that aside, this post is really for people who have little to no professional interest in wine but want to know more about it, which I believe accounts for the vast, vast majority of wine consumers. Is wine education a worthwhile expenditure for you? I believe so, and here’s a few reasons why:

  1. Base knowledge – This is the big one for me. The world of wine is a vast, complicated subject that is absolutely rife with subjective opinion, interpretation and personal preference. All well and good but in order to get to grips with the enormity of the subject, it pays to have a framework to work from, a foundation if you like. Once you understand the basics of Viticulture (growing the grapes), Vinification (Making the wine), market influences, wine service and consumer habits, there isn’t too much you can’t quickly grasp from that point onwards. This is where good wine education comes into play, as it covers these bases in adequate detail and builds everything upwards from that point.

  2. Tasting skills – Whether or not you like a wine is a matter of personal preference. As I mentioned in this previous post, the concept of having ‘good taste’ is nonsense and should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. However, in terms of improving your ability to taste wine, break in down and understand the different components, a systematic approach to tasting is invaluable. The lexicon of wine language is just that, a language and in order to use it, you have to learn it. This is where tasting practices come in, and having a benchmark to work from is the real advantage here. When I first took my level 3 course with the WSET, I saw red wines under 14% alcohol as being quite light, because my only experience up until this point had been with big, beefy Spanish reds. I quickly discovered that 14% is considered pretty powerful for a lot of the world! Conversely, we had a German student who was so used to drinking Mosel Riesling that the concept of ‘High acidity’ was lost on her for all but the most gripping of wines.

  3. Experience – As Mr Kramer points out, nothing is a substitute for experience. When I first starting studying wine, Spain was my only real experience. In a week in London I got to try 112 wines from all over the world; Californian Chardonnay, Burgundian Pinot Noir, Canadian Riesling, Italian Nebbiolo, Australian Cabernet Sauvignon…. it was a truly eye-opening experience for me. Whilst it takes a while for such an intense amount of information to settle in, it completely changed my approach to wine and I saw a thousand doors open in front of me. I’ve been excited and curious ever since, constantly searching for new wines, new grapes, new regions and a better understanding.

    wine-map-of-spain-and-portugal

  4. Context – Like all good education, the learning process should be less about what to know, and more about how to think. With the foundation above, I have discovered that learning how to think and analyse wine and the world around is has greatly improved my analytical skill-set in general. To paraphrase Ian Cauble MS from the documentary SOMM; how often do we really take the time to sit, analyse and think about something? We mostly live our lives at a very fast pace and that is something that is simply not possible with wine, it has to be broken down and dissected in order to really answer that golden question; ‘Why does this wine taste the way that it does?’. In particular I have found that my appreciation of food, coffee, cocktails and basically anything that can be appreciated on the nose and/or palate has greatly improved since I started to focus on wine.

  5. Fun – I suppose it goes without saying that wine education tends to be a lot of fun! I have yet to meet anyone who spent time and money with an institution like the WSET and regretted it, as pass or fail you always gain something from it. With that comes new friends, new contacts and definitely new holiday destinations! It’s hard to learn about the natural beauty of Piedmont in Northern Italy without wanting to travel there immediately; wine, after all, is very rarely made outside of beautiful areas.

So, there you have it, I am greatly, greatly in favour of wine education, although I suppose that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In the future I intend to look at some institutions in a little more depth in terms of what they can offer. However, for now, if you live in Barcelona and wanted to take a look at enhancing your wine education, I’d like to introduce my friend Sharon Levey, who offers WSET courses levels 1 and 2 for the most affordable price in the entire city, as well as being generally lovely and a fantastic teacher. Next month I am hoping to introduce her to Maestrazgo Wine Club with a special tasting event but for now check out her website for more information. (Today is the last day to book a course for September! Next ones are in November)

Thoughts on: Having “Good Taste’ in Wine

Thoughts on wine 1

I’d like to venture a potentially controversial opinion: There is no such thing as having bad taste in wine. I’ve said this a few times now and met with mixed reactions, most commonly disbelief but occasionally a little hostility. It’s something I believe to be true, though, and I’ve decided to have a ramble about it.

As wine means so many things to so many different people, it’s hard to write an article about ‘taste’ without upsetting someone. The thing is, wine has a tendency to divide people between those who believe they don’t know very much about it, to those who believe they know quite a lot about it. Note that key word, ‘believe’, here, as you’ll find a lot of people speaking with confidence about wine, regardless of how much they actually understand the industry. You’re probably thinking I mean that in a negative way but actually, the whole point of this post is to encourage people to speak more openly about wine, without fear of somehow being ‘wrong’. If we all waited until we had impressive initials after our names or decades working with wine before daring to venture an opinion, the world would be an incredibly boring place and I think the same could be said for a great many pursuits.

This is a bit of a funny one. On one hand I believe very strongly that wine can be analysed to a high level objectively, ie: a wine can be analysed to a great level of detail in terms of structure, flavour/aroma components and inherent quality. On the other hand, I also believe that this has very little meaning to 95% of wine consumers in the world and that the ‘quality’ I spoke of is far less important to most consumers than the style of the wine. What do I mean by that? Well, think of it this way: You can take a beautiful bottle of Montrachet (White, Grand Cru Burgundy made from the Chardonnay grape) for several hundred euros, and a simple bottle of Argentinian Malbec for less than 10 euros, and serve them to the same person. I would bet that, 9 times out of 10, if that person generally prefers red wine to white wine, he/she will choose the Malbec over the Montrachet, regardless of the fact that the Montrachet Grand Cru is renowned for routinely producing some of the worlds most stunning and complex white wines.

Take it a step further. If one person prefers soft, plummy red wines over acidic, high toned and vibrant wines then they are still likely to prefer that 10 euro bottle of Malbec over, say, a 150 euro bottle of Barolo from a world class producer, and you know what? That doesn’t mean that person has bad taste. It just means that they have a stylistic preference at this particular point in their life and that should be respected. Over time, if they continue to drink, their horizons will broaden and their tastes will change. Mine did and I bet yours has as well.

As you learn more about the industry, how grapes are grown, wine is made, marketed, sold, consumed and everything that goes with it, you’ll find your appreciation grows and therefore your chances of trying new regions, grapes and even countries. I’ve heard some pretty sweeping statements in my relatively short time studying wine that I expect those same people would wince to hear if it is brought up 5 years down the line. I started my experience with wine by drinking a lot of heavy, oaky extracted wines made from cheap blends that I can’t finish a glass of now. In 5 years no doubt I will be drinking wines that, right now, aren’t my preferred choice. At what point do I have ‘Good taste’? Will I ever? Who cares. The more I learn about wine the more I see ‘good taste’ as a mark of snobbishness, of a dangerous blend of knowledge and ego.

sideways-merlot-no

I believe this last part is particularly key to the future of the industry. There is often a lot of thought about how to make wine more accessible. How to make it less scary. How to engage new customers without resorting to extreme measures; I’m looking at you, blue wine. I believe it starts with how we approach the stuff, and that follows through to how we talk about it, whether it be formally as part of a profession or casually with our friends. If I give a tasting, a class or just talk about wine at a party and I somehow make other people feel that their choices in wine are somehow lesser than mine, I do one of two things:

  1. I alienate that person and make them less interested in learning about wine in general. I certainly wouldn’t be as interested in scuba diving if the first time I had an issue with my tank and had to come up for air, my instructor made me feel small about it. We all start somewhere.

  2. I’ll still alienate that person and make them want to know more, just so they aren’t in that situation again. Effectively, I’m breeding future snobbishness as I’ve now turned knowledge about wine into a competition of some sort (a particularly Western trait).

If we can encourage people to drink more wine, it’s very likely that they will fall in love with it the same way so many of us have. People do get curious after a while and try new things and there is an awful lot of material out there, whether it be printed or online, to pique curiosity and offer new suggestions. That doesn’t mean we have to go to the other extreme, the now more common ‘Get it down yer’ neck!’ style of approach that simply treats wine as a way to get pissed and looks upon any sort of understanding or pursuit of knowledge as inherently elitist and unnecessary. It’s about taking people from point A to point B, to nurture curiosity and introduce concepts and information without making it intimidating.

The key for anyone in a customer-facing role is to facilitate that change, not block it and that starts by acknowledging that we all work in a very subjective industry, where quality is supremely hard to define. If we can offer support and encouragement, teach without condescension and make wine fun instead of snobbish, well, I believe that’s the key to unlocking future growth and changing the image of wine, from an elitist pursuit to what I believe it to be; the most delicious, interesting and refreshing beverage on the planet.

Barcelona Blind Wine Tasting – Part I

Red Wine

If you’ve come across this post whilst looking for wine tasting options within Barcelona, please have a look at this page here.

In my previous post I talked about blind tasting and why I see it as a valuable tool to improve your palate, knowledge of wine and have a good time in the process. I tend to do a fair bit of blind tasting, either by myself in an international wine bar such as Monvinic, or with friends who are also working/studying in the industry. Last week we met after a three week break to have another late-night session with our usual format: everyone brings a bottle of wine to the tasting with the bottle covered up, or often in a different container altogether. We all pour each other a glass of wine one at a time, analyse the wine and then go round, talk about our analysis and put our cards on the table as to what we think the wine is, where did it come from, which grapes were used and which vintage were the grapes picked in. The below are the results of my analysis/conclusions:

Wine 1: Pale lemon-green wine with a quite low intensity of green apples, green pears, nettles, peach and some vegetal notes. Fresh but not aromatically complex. Lots of acidity on the palate and a little spritz, medium alcohol, a nice intensity and lots of fresh fruit.
Guess: Gruner Veltiner, Austria, Wachau, 2015
Reality: Gruner Veltiner, Austria, Weinviertel, 2015

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Conclusion: I’ll take that! This was a bit of a ‘fist-pump’ moment for me as GV has been a wine I’ve always struggle to identify blind in the past. I’ve had so many mis-calls with Gruner Veltliner when I started blind tasting and I finally feel that I can recognise it versus say, a Pinot Grigio or an Albarino. A nice wine and a good way to start the tasting. Other guesses from around the table included Albarino, Pinot Grigio and Torrontes.

Wine 2: A pale lemon-green wine with simple aromas of green apple, green pear, light white flowers, peach and slate. Young and fresh but nothing really going on here. Nice level of acidity, medium everything else.
Guess: Pinot Grigio, Italy, Veneto, 2015
Reality: Sauvignon Blanc, France, Pouilly-Fume, 2015

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Conclusion: This was our ‘dud’ bottle – the person who brought it was also very confused as apparently it had been singing when he opened it 2 hours prior at home! Other guesses included Pinot Grigio and Aligote, such was the neutrality of the wine. Not much to read into here, sadly.

Wine 3: The wine has a medium lemon colour and nice aromas of ripe lemon, peach, apricot, green apple and some obvious yeasty notes. There’s a little florality here and some toasted oak character as well. A taste of bitter phenolics on the finish.
Guess: Viura, Rioja, Spain, 2014
Reality: Godello, Valdeorras, Spain, 2011

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Conclusion: Swing and a miss; I missed this wine on two counts. One was the oak character and bitter phenolics; there was neither, it is apparently a signature of the grape when grown on particularly slatey soils. The other was misreading the acidity which would have led me away from an oak-aged Viura as it was just too high. Not a million miles away, though. Other guesses included Xarello from Penedes, Chardonnay from around the world and Albarino from Spain.

Wine 4: Medium, ruby coloured wine with a medium- intensity of red berry fruits, some stalky , tobacco leaf and slight touches of pepper and toast. The wine is dry with very light, soft tannins, medium+ acidity and medium+ alcohol. Quite simple
Guess: Gamay, Cru Beaujolais, France, 2014
Reality: Grenache, Spain, Priorat, 2014

ZakTK1IxTf6CccbB8TgH7A_375x500Conclusion: Terrible tasting from myself here. Missed the alcohol, flavour profile and more or less everything associated with Grenache from Priorat. Nodding off a little. Other guesses included Grenache from Montsant, Syrah from the Southern Rhone and Merlot from somewhere warm.

Wine 5: The wine had a dark, purple colour with a medium+ intensity of ripe dark fruits, burnt rubber, smoke, pepper, leather, licorice and spice. Powerful, earthy and full of alcohol, glycerol and spice. This week we were doing mono-varietal but this was mentioned to be a dual-variety.
Guess: Carignan/Grenache blend from Spain, Priorat, 2011
Reality: Carignan/Grenache blend from Spain, Priorat, 2011

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Conclusion: After two bad misses, nice to completely nail a wine. Priorat smells an awful lot like Priorat, which is something that confused me about the preceding wine. The huge levels of alcohol, smoky character and purple colour led me to a traditional style of wine produced with a majority of Carignan – it’s nice to be right! Other guesses included Bordeaux blends, Syrah from the Northern Rhone and Merlot.

A nice evening with lots of lessons learnt. A shame about the dud bottle but I’ll take 2/4 as a relatively successful tasting. Next one will be the 1st September when hopefully the weather has cooled off just a touch, and the week after I’ll be recommencing my weekly tastings at Monvinic. Onwards and upwards!

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