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Training Your Palate

Posted by Neil McGregor on

Training Your Palate

It’s easy to fall into a narrow view of the world of wine, particularly as a producer.  You get so wrapped up in what you do and how you do it on a daily/weekly/monthly horizon that you sometimes miss the broader context.  With this in mind, I recently completed a WSET Level 2 Wine and Spirit course to broaden my wine knowledge.  You could also say I was trying keep up with my wife, who recently excelled at the AWRI’s Advanced Wine Assessment Course in Adelaide (it doesn’t come much more advanced than this in Australia – training for wine judges) and was invited to be an associate judge at the International Riesling Challenge.

The Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) was founded in 1969 to provide high quality education and training in wine and spirits, and is based in the UK.  If you’re in the trade, for example a sommelier or wine merchant, then these are the sought of qualifications that really help you out.  WSET courses are run locally by the Sydney Wine Academy (www.sydneywineacademy.com.au), and I was lucky enough to have the Director of the Academy, Clive Hartley, as our course tutor.  I was also lucky enough to attend the course at the beautifully located Podfood in Pialligo (now closed, but try John's food at The Boathouse).  Thanks to John Leverink and his team for REAL coffees made to order on arrival and catering that was well beyond the usual fare for a training course.

Level 2 is challenging enough for the average wine buff, but not so challenging as to lose sleep over.  There’s three days of workshops over five weeks, and an expectation that you will study for a further maybe 10+ hours, then sit a closed book exam.  No blind tastings in the assessment – that (big) step comes in at Level 3 and just gets more challenging as you head to the Diploma level.  To give you an idea, here’s a Level 2 practice exam question:

“Pale lemon colour, with citrus and tropical fruit aromas; off dry, with high acidity and medium body” best describes…  pick one of four multiple choices [answer = South African Chenin Blanc].

I found the course interesting, educational and fun – what more could you ask for?  Challenging to start the first tasting at around 10 in the morning (with a predictable joke as to whether this was or was not your first drink of the day) but we tasted many wines that I would only occasionally encounter in everyday life.  Some interesting examples:

  • 2007 Poderi Colla Barollo “Bussia” – 100% Nebbiolo grapes, grown in the Dardi di Bussia area of Piedmonte, north western Italy.  Still a young wine for this style, my tasting notes (a combination of what I tasted and what was agreed by the class, led by Clive) say “clear, medium garnet colour, nose of medium intensity with earthy, leather, vegetal, cedar notes and a palate displaying mid-high acidity, high tannins, medium bodied with a long finish.  Overall conclusion: rated good to very good.”  My informal conclusion – Nebbiolo is an intriguing variety and hard to understand when you’re accustomed to much fruitier wines, but I’d like to know more.  Very tannic but alluring all the same.  [Note to self - can I grow some in Murrumbateman?]
  • 2010 Roland Tissier Sancerre – 100% Sauvignon Blanc grapes, from the upper Loire (formally Central Vineyards of the Loire region) “Light lemon in colour, nose of medium intensity with an apple/citrus nose, palate of high acidity, mineral characters, green apple and some herbaceousness, medium length.  Overall conclusion – acceptable.  Plenty of time left in the bottle, an ideal accompaniment to salad items and plain white fish or oysters.”

There were lots more – Vouvray (Chenin Blanc), Melon/Muscadet from Loire, Soave from Veneto in northern Italy, Spanish Mencia, Barossa Shiraz, Sonoma Zinfandel, Premier Cru Chablis, Chilean Chardonnay from their central valley, Cabernet blends from Medoc (Bordeaux) and Western Australia, sherries, ports, etc, etc.  Overall we tasted 22 wines from 22 regions of France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Hungary, South Africa, Chile and of course Australia - does tend to put things into perspective.  Did you know that while there are over 1,500 wine producers in Australia, there are about 22,000 wine producers in Bordeaux, making about 50% of Australia’s total production, and that’s just one region of France?!  This fact alone either intrigues you to learn more, or prompts you to put the genie back in the bottle and quietly walk away.  I think I fall into the former category….

As well as the tastings, you spend plenty of time working through the theory – wine regions (lots of macro and micro geography and geology here), grape varieties, viticulture (I should have nailed that part of the exam!), winemaking, as well as some discussion on spirits and their making.  Oh, did I mention we tasted some whiskey, brandy and tequila too?

All in all, the course has broadened my wine horizons and, importantly for someone in the industry, provided a great opportunity to educate and benchmark my palate beyond the national context, at least at a basic level.  It also gives you a formal framework to assess wines, another important tool to have in your toolbox.  Overall conclusion - highly recommended.

NM


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