TUMLA and other abbreviations…..

A few years back I saw an invitation in my Majestic wine mailing for an evening learning about wine. At the time I was sitting my WSET Advanced certificate and so already had a bit of a head start but, eager to fill in any blanks, get a different perspective and never one to turn down a free tasting, I signed up.

It was an intimate affair – only 8 of us together for 90 minutes, which naturally enabled a little bonding and chatting with the other people on the course. What sticks in my mind was being able fill in a few blanks for one of the ladies there who was confused with her French white wines, particularly Chablis and Sancerre. To enable her to recall with ease the character of each wine I passed on something that I’d learned – The CH at the start of Chablis means it is the CHardonnay grape that you are drinking, The SA at the beginning of Sancerre meant it was SAuvignon Blanc.

At the entry level stages of wine appreciation you don’t need to necessarily know whether it’s a Burgundy or Loire you are drinking, and all that entails in terms of latitude, grower differentials and the rest. It is more about rationalising why you like what you like, and it does help those awkward social moments when you meet someone who says that they don’t drink Chardonnay, but will happily glug a Chablis. The lady at the tasting was genuinely amazed at that titbit of knowledge in an easy to remember way, and I have never forgotten the importance of using abbreviations when trying to recall detail.

This visual/mnemonic link has been well utilised when trying to learn languages and, as a student working to complete his WSET Diploma, this is an essential exercise. The sheer amount of countries, regions, grapes soil types, weather influences, vintner influences you have to recall and reason is truly mind boggling.

These abbreviations have been particularly useful to me when recalling the wine regions of both South Africa and Italy. For South Africa I always now think of music – not the vibrant local offerings, but of my CDs and the PRS (Performing Rights Society). Whenever I see a blank map of the south western tip of Africa, I can see CDs working their way up the western coast (Constantia, Durbanville, Swartland), and the PRS (Paarl, Robertson, Stellenbosch) in a little clockwise circle just to the east of PRS. For me, being interested in music, abbreviations like PRS are familiar but they could also work equally well for someone interested in, for example, the Physiotherapy Research Society.

Italy, with its 20 regions all producing wine of various levels and volume is another one I needed to recall. The country covers some 10 degrees of latitude and is split for the wine world in to the north, the central and the south regions. North for me is PLV LEFT, an easy way to recall Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto in the centre, followed by Liguria, Emilia Romagna, Friuli, Trentino/Alto Adige forming an anti-clockwise semi-circle around them. Valle D’Aosta gets an honorary mention in the top North West (not a major region and not on syllabus I believe). For the central regions I recall TUMLA (Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Lazio, Abruzzo), and the south is CCSSBP (or 2xC, 2xS, British Petroleum) for Campania, Calabria, Sicily, Sardinia, Basilicata and Puglia (again, Molise gets an honorary mention, but there’s not too much wine activity there).

Whilst you obviously still need to put in time learning the details for each one of these regions/countries to fulfil the recall, and these abbreviations certainly don’t cover all the important regions in many areas, using abbreviations is definitely a learning technique that I would recommend.  Tailoring them to something that means something to yourself personally is the key and will help you out of a potentially tight restaurant spot, or under exam conditions.  At the very least, it will also improve your geography.

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Oldies and Goldies

The world of wine moves fast.

Sure, there’s nothing ground-breaking about that statement, but just recently I’ve reached the point where I’ve started re-buying books for my wine library. Books I kind of already own. Even many published as recently as the 1990’s are now only useful when drawing historical companions, or accessing information that gets dropped from newer texts.   Grape varieties mentioned have long since been pulled to the whims of fashion, and locations and even countries not talked about, are now merrily creating great wines.

It was whilst reading a book on the USA, studying up for an article, that I finally took pause for thought. The book was a weighty tome, ‘fully revised’, but authored in the late 1980’s, so wasn’t new, but still within the lifetime of someone yet to reach 30. Whilst delving through a wealth of detailed statistics, it dawned on me that I was, basically, wasting my time. The USA to all intents and purposes went through a wine reboot in the early 1990’s when Phylloxera came back for another crack. Plantings on a compromised rootstock (AxR1) left them susceptible to a new strain of the killer louse, and what came after – the grape varieties, the vine densities, the sites – were now being started from scratch. I’d need to buy a newer book.

At around the same time, I managed to pick up the first edition of the leading UK wine magazine Decanter. Although the cover price was a mere 40p, I managed to purchase it for just £4 thanks to a leading online auction site – Inflation aside, that’s less than the cover price of an issue today. For a publication first hitting the shelves in 1975, I was expecting to view the 40-year old content with a mild curiosity. What struck me was that a number of things still remained true to this day. Articles answering the question “How can I drink good Bordeaux without paying too much per bottle”? Wine loving celebrities (in this case, Michael Caine) putting their money in to wine futures. Regional profiles, the latest auction news. Even Hugh Johnson was there! Aside of the current vogue for extensive tasting notes, scoring systems, and good deals for weekday wine drinking (did such a concept exist in the 1970’s?) the spread of articles was very similar to today. Maybe not so much has changed after all?

To tie these two anecdotes together, I’ll move on to the Decanter Book review page – another publication stalwart. Within the titles listed one stood out, mainly as it had a half page and picture devoted to it. The book – ‘The Great Wine Blight’, the subject – Phylloxera. Using my internet purchasing skills again it wasn’t long before a cheaply purchased copy came through the letterbox, and a thoroughly enjoyable read it was too, sparking all sorts of ideas on a future article on Phylloxera. For all the bad that it has done, costing vast sums of monies to prevent and putting smaller growers out of business, surely it must achieved some good things too? Vignerons were no longer tied to the crops that they had, and could potentially turn to fashionable grape varieties. Replanting could also take in some of the newer ideas such as density planting, vine training, and site/aspect location.

It was pleasing to me that a publication from 1975 was still bringing new knowledge and insight to this reader some 40 years later. The final irony is that I have since had to buy a newer book on Phylloxera, as the older one didn’t have the details of the 1990’s invasion. I’d need to buy a newer book.

n.b. An abridged version of this post was published in Decanter magazine in September 2014

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It’s all in the detail: Dom Pérignon

It’s tempting to believe that within the vast world known as cyber space, all information exists….somewhere, and it is simply a case of search hard enough and ye shall find. This was certainly the view that I held following the purchase of my first bottle of Dom Pérignon (at an airport shopping outlet, the 1995 if you’re interested). Though I’d never tasted it, I knew the name Dom Pérignon, but little more than it was a mythical, iconic brand – something too good to put a price on. And yet here it was – a bottle for £70 (which seems an absolute steal now). Of course, a major part of the brands’ makeup is the alchemic origins of Champagne, and the myth that makes it a romantic purchase. To know the finer details would spoil the allure and aspiration of drinking the stuff.

And yet I wanted to know.

I wasn’t after top-level or company sensitive things like celebrity endorsements or sales figures (Dom Pérignon is well known to have massive production runs far larger than many other Prestige Cuvées). I was more interested in things like what previous vintages had there been? When they had been declared for release? Historic pricing, label and packaging changes, corking and capsule variations. The details required by a fan. It was these things that the Internet failed me on, and so I set about finding out for myself, in the best way that you can when facing a task such as this – I went out and purchased a LOT of Dom Pérignon.

Was that the cheapest way to do it? Well, no…quite clearly. I did actually write to Moét once requesting information, but what I received back was very rough. I even tried using the AQA service (a UK Mobile Phone based ‘Any Question Answered!’ service, where they will text you the answer to ‘any’ question), but this confirmed what I suspected – they just got their information from the internet (I had already visited and knew well the pages they had farmed the detail from to ‘answer’ my tough questions).

What will follow in the coming weeks/months will be my findings from my tastings – not mere tasting notes (these are widely available from far more experienced palates than myself), but the minutiae details that, thus far as far as I can tell, the internet has not seen fit to publish. So if you wanted to know like I did, stay tuned, and I can save you a lot of money finding out!

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