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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.

Wine Cuentista Newsletter – Edition 25 – January 2018

January: The vines start the New Year in much the same condition as the rest of us; fast asleep. The leaves have long since gone, and the green canes that grew in the summer before will have lignified; that is, turned brown and woody. Any extra carbohydrates will be stored deep in the trunk of the vine and this is a sign that winter pruning can begin. Traditionally pruning starts on the 22nd January or the feast of the patron saint of vignerons, St. Vincent, although for practical reasons it tends to begin a lot sooner. Winter pruning is an arduous but necessary task as it determines the numer of buds left on the vine for this years growing season and subsequent harvest. Not the most thrilling of jobs in the cold winter but there’s little rest when it comes to the production of good quality wine!

Hello Wine Lovers! Happy New Year to you all! 2017 was a challenging year for reasons both economical, political and even geographical, as the world had more than its fair share of natural disasters and adverse weather conditions. This doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon, so it’s good that we can still get together on a regular basis, drink some top quality wine and forget all about it for a couple of hours! This year sees the end of my gruelling exam schedule of the last few years, and I’m very much looking forward to spending more time writing articles, organising tastings and seeking out yet more wine to try, drink and share. We’ll kick off 2018 with two tastings, one exploring our often forgotten neighbour Portugal on the 11th January, followed by an international blind tasting on the 25th. I’m hoping to broaden the scope a little bit this year, with a more detailed newsletter, different tasting formats and brand new wines from all over the world. I hope you’re reading this with a clear(ish) head after the nights festivities, and I look forward to seeing you all over the coming months. Happy 2018, everyone!

Events: Maestrazgo Wine Club:

11th January– International Wine Tasting: The Wines of Portugal- 30 euros p/p
25th January – International Blind Tasting – 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. ‘The Devastator: Phylloxera Vastatrix’ by Kelli White. Everything I’ve read in the past year by Kelli White makes me think she may just be one of the future greats of wine writing. Everything is clear, concise and immaculately researched. Case in point – this detailed look at the most devastating pest ever to come into contact with vines. Phylloxera is well understood, but Kelli takes it further by looking at the human element and errors that resulted in further loss of industry, as well as how it affected different parts of the world. A longish read, but well worth your time. https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/features/b/kelli-white/posts/phylloxera-vastatrix

2. ‘The future of the wine industry’ by Robert Joseph. Around this time every year, the wine trade starts to make predictions about trends, regions-to-watch and general thoughts about the coming year. The one I always read comes from Meininger, for the simple reason that they canvass a broad spectrum of professionals across the industry and categorise the responses. As a result, this is basically an article about how the industry feels about its existence at the moment, and where it thinks the driver factors for change will come from. Always an interesting read and more than a few interesting responses! https://www.meininger.de/en/wine-business-international/future-of-wine-industry

3. ‘Cava’s Sweet Spot’ by Miquel Hudin. I’ve seen Miquel write about this a couple of times but it feels like screaming into the wind a little, as bulk, generic Cava still makes up an overwhelming quantity of everything produced in the country. Going super-premium isn’t necessary, but over 10 euros, Cava does start to get a lot more interesting. The Cava profiled was a pleasant surprise for me earlier in the year, and I have another bottle to taste in the near future – I’d recommend it to anyone, along with the general message of trading up above the 5-9 euro range that seems so prevalent! https://wineonsix.com/cavas-actual-entry-point/

Wine of the Month: I’m constantly on the look-out for wines of real quality and value; here is my favourite wine of the month:

Henri Boillot Corton-Charlemagne 2007: The wine of the month at this time of the year is always something a bit special, as December always feels like the right time to open the really good stuff! Grand Cru Burgundy from top producers is so outrageously overpriced at the moment, I feel very fortunate that I bought two bottles of this wine on sale at the beginning of last year. Henri Boillot is a Meursault based grower and negociant, producing his own wines from small plots of premier and grand cru vineyards around the Cote d’Or. Corton-Charlemagne is a famous grand cru on the hill of Corton, drenched in sun and often responsible for some of the most powerful white Burgundies. This 10 year old example certainly lived up to that reputation, with beautiful aromas of ripe stone fruits, lemon-curd, honey, smoke and cream. Despite the huge concentration of flavour and 14% ABV, this was so fresh and light on its feet, full of energy and verve. The finish was outstanding – I was tasting this minutes after every sip.
I wish Burgundy prices weren’t so mad, because there’s nothing quite like these wines at their best. This was one of the best wines I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking, just gorgeous. Double-decanting it was a good idea, as it really opened up with some air!

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

Facebook: Wine Cuentista
Twitter: @Wine_Cuentista
Instagram: wine_cuentista

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

Fintan Kerr

Wine Cuentista Newsletter – Edition 24 – December 2017

Wine Cuentista Newsletter – Edition 24 – December 2017

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

Hello Wine Lovers! Here we are, in that most festive time of the year and gearing up for what is hopefully a stress-free and wonderful holiday for everyone. I’ll be working and studying all through the month, but we’ve still got enough time for at least one more tasting before we say goodbye to 2017 completely. As it’s the last tasting of the year, it feels like a good opportunity to revisit ‘Fintan’s Fridge’ and pull out some special bottles. I suspect spots will disappear quite quickly so for anyone I don’t see over the coming month, happy holidays and I look forward to catching up over a glass in the new year!

Events: Maestrazgo Wine Club:

14th December – Fintan’s Fridge– 40 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. ‘Where Burgundy meets New Zealand’ by Elaine Chukan Brown. The term ‘Burgundian’ is thrown around a lot in the wine world, far too often in my own opinion, and is a constant reminder of just how well thought of Burgundy is in the industry. However, I was delighted to discover that a region as Pinot-obsessed as Burgundy actually had a strong connection, even more so when I discovered it was one of my favourite wine regions in the world; Central Otago. Burgundy isn’t a place renowned for opening its doors and sharing its knowledge, so this came as a truly pleasant surprise and I suspect both regions will gain a lot from the association! https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/where-burgundy-meets-new-zealand

2. ‘WWC’ 5 by Pierazzo da Faltre. As there’s not been a huge amount of stand-out wine-writing this November, a throw-back to one of my favourite articles from 2016! One of the most charming pieces of writing I’ve read for a long time. A wine-writing competition was launched by Jancis Robinson MW and some of the resulting pieces are now being published on her website, including this gem. A rambling, delicate piece about the simplicity of wine, local food and wine culture in an almost Hemingway-esque style. If you read anything, read this. http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/wwc-5-pierazzo-da-feltre

Wine of the Month: I’m constantly on the look-out for wines of real quality and value; here is my favourite wine of the month:

Algueira Pizarra 2014: Every month I find this decision becoming harder and harder; a sure sign that I’m spoilt when it comes to the amount of excellent wine that I get to try! Beating out a superb Syrah from A.Clape and some top contenders from the rest of Spain comes this pure, wonderful Mencia from one of Ribeira Sacra’s top producers; Algueira.

Adega Algueira is a top quality estate ran by Fernando and Ana, two of the grass-root growers who’ve since decided to go it alone and with spectacular results. A mere 11ha of land makes up their estate, focusing primarily on Mencia and Godello, with small bottlings of Merenzao, Caino and Souson to boot. Their ‘Pizarra’ bottling is their flagship wine, coming from the Carballocovo vineyard with vines over 80 years old. Whole bunch fermentation, vinified in large oak and then aged in 600l barrels for 11-14 months, this is serious stuff.

It’s also right up there with the best wines from Ribeira Sacra. A medium ruby colour and wow, what a nose! Bright, red cherries, violets, wild herbs, black pepper and smoked meat – this is a beautiful middle-ground between Burgundy and the Northern Rhone. Fresh and bright on the palate with real tension to the wine and a long finish; superb. Already complex and will drink beautifully over the next 5 years. Ribeira Sacra really is going from strength to strength!

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

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

Fintan Kerr

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.

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