Member 1,555 – A variety of varieties – #MWWC20

The following essay is my submission for this months Wine Writing Challenge.

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Just over a year ago, whilst idly browsing wine sites on the internet, I saw something that made me bristle with excitement – ‘The Wine Century Club’ (http://www.winecentury.com).  Listed as a fun and adventurous approach to trying new wines and creating a record of your vinious experiences, the club was set up by Steve De Long of the De Long winery, and was open to anyone who has tried at least 100 different grape varieties.  As I write this essay, it has over 1,600 members worldwide.

Researching what it was all about and when it was set up, my enthusiasm was slightly dulled by reading comments from people who didn’t seem to understand why you would participate.  They were eager to point out that there was little reason as you didn’t really learn anything from the process and that there was no way that you could recall every variety that you had ever tried.  They went on, stating that even if you took the most meticulous of tasting notes, the fancier or rarer varieties were likely to be miniscule parts of a blend and therefore unable to be singled out as having been ‘tasted’.  Whilst these are valid points, I stuck to my reasoning that it encourages you to broaden your palate, actively search for something new to try, and I made a vow to actively study up on any new ‘finds’ that I may make in the process.  In addition, aside of it being another way to make wine drinking fun, it was a challenge, and challenges are meant to be met.

I set about starting my list.

There are multiple tiers of membership (up to 500 varieties tried!), but when you go for your first 100 varieties you don’t need to list the specific bottle you have tried.  Indeed the whole structure of the club is based on the honour system, in that you’re only fooling yourself if you cheat.  May the wrath of Bacchus curse your palate, as the entry form states.

I went through the provided list of varieties, checking off the ones that there was no doubt that I’d drunk at some point – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Pinot, Riesling etc.  When switching between bottles in regular drinking it probably feels like you are trying a lot more different varieties than you actually are, and my list petered out at somewhere around 40 different types.  Where could I go next?

Thankfully as a diploma student of the WSET (Wines & Spirits Education Trust) I had spent multiple weeks in a classroom environment trying flight after flight of wine, and part of the whole point was to ensure that you were well acquainted with a wide variety of styles and tastes.  To further aid the learning process you were expected to take detailed notes and thankfully I still had mine.  Scores more varieties hit my list and took me well over my 100 variety target, and I was able to start fleshing out my lists with the actual producers and vintage details which added more legitimacy to my application.  Even allowing for things like disputes from synonyms (Zinfandel and Primitivo, for example) I had enough to join the club, and so I sent off my form.  A good month later (the club is based in the US and I am in the UK) I was the proud recipient of a splendid certificate, and happy in the knowledge that I was only one of 30 people in the UK (who have participated, obviously) to have reached the 100 mark.  Well, I was happy for a second, and then I was already working out how to reach the next rung up.

Trying 200 different varieties was a daunting thing, but this made me think all the harder about the task at hand.  I dusted off the tasting notes from my wine club purchases which added a few more ‘off the beaten track’ varieties to the list, but it was time to up my game.  In a moment of serendipitous timing, wine magazine Decanter announced that they would be hosting their first ever Mediterranean Wine Encounter, bringing together producers from stalwarts France, Italy and Spain, as well as up and coming countries like Israel, Croatia, Turkey and Slovenia.  Looking through the event catalogue my eyes were alight at the number of varieties that were featured that I had never even heard of – Pavlos, Goustolidi, Callet, Krassato – and needless to say, I booked my ticket there and then.

I was now up to about 170 varieties when I hit upon the fact that, whilst exploring these far flung places making wine, there were plenty of English (aka Germanic) varieties that I hadn’t even tried.  I set about scheduling up visits to numerous UK wineries (which you can read about in some of my earlier blogs).  This added a few more obscure ones to the list – Rondo, Kerner and Huxelrebe to name just three, and my list now stands tantalizingly close to the all-important figure of 200 varieties tasted.  I now actively (and excitedly) scan the supermarket shelves and wine lists online or in restaurants, looking to add to my expanding collection.

As Christmas approaches, wine season kicks in to gear here in the UK and I have several tasting events lined up over the coming weeks.  Here’s hoping that they have a few new varieties to try alongside the usual suspects!  The whole experience has been tremendous fun for me – why not give it a try for yourself?

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WSET Diploma: The theory of everything

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This week saw me sitting my final exam for the Wines & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Level 4 Diploma. After 3 years and 7 exams, I’m within touching distance of completing this notoriously hard course. The exam that I sat was the feared Unit 3 ‘Light Wines of the World’ Theory exam. The description ‘Light wines of the world’ means the exam can be about any aspect of winemaking in the vineyard or in the winery, of any number of different wine styles, produced anywhere in the world.

Ergo, it’s HUGE.

There’s several textbooks (not least the massive Oxford Companion to Wine which runs to nearly 800 pages), but not only that, when you dip in to these textbooks it also tells you to check out a further selection of other books. And then to go online. And don’t forget to keep up with the trade magazines.

I will admit that this isn’t my first time sitting the exam (it is my 3rd attempt) but unlike, say, a driving test where people are fairly protective of whether they passed first time, there’s no shame in admitting that you didn’t pass this one. Indeed, many of the people I spoke to on exam day were re-sit students. On the first attempt of this final exam you are expected to do a 3 hour written exam straight after a 2.5 hour tasting exam. No small task in itself.  Frustratingly my first re-sit came mere points away from a pass and, because of a silly misunderstanding when reading the question which cost me the pass, I will never ever think of New Zealand Pinot Noir in the same way again!

Anyway, here I was, giving it what I currently view as perhaps my last shot at this final test. They only do one sitting of the exam every six months, and so attempting it just 3 times can eat up nearly 2 years of your life (it takes 10 weeks for the final results to come through).  You’re given seven questions, of which you must answer five of them. A standard pass for each question requires you to write circa 3 sides of A4 of concise information, in just half an hour, and of course you have no idea which questions will come up.  Questions this time ranged from comparing three different wines from France in respect of the difference in grapes, styles, quality and price, to being able to articulate the advantages and disadvantages of making bulk and premium wine in South Africa.

Time will tell how well I’ve done, so roll on August.

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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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