Going to wine school often leaves me open to teasing, when I started a new job recently and said I needed to leave early for wine school, it raised a few smiles – apparently if I have wine school then they can have ‘Jäger-bomb school’, ‘Martini-school’ and ‘cider studies’ etc.
Even my husband started to question whether the two cases of fortified wines from the Wine Society, supplemented by a couple of bottles from Ocado, Tesco and Soho Wines – were all really for study purposes.
I love studying for my WSET Wine & Spirits Diploma although to be fair I’ve probably spent way more time revising for my fortified wine tasting exam so far then say, my case study where the research is not exactly liquid-based, but am dedicating my Sunday to cracking it.
So tonight, I open, erm, seven different bottles of fortified wine. If it is revision like this, I like to taste each of them one at a time and build a clear idea of the wine in my head and then employ the services of my beautiful husband to help me with a blind tasting.
The first wine he passes me has the unmistakable tang of biological ageing that aldehyde bite and a yeasty, bready savouriness – it is definitely Sherry and I hazard a guess at Manzanilla due to the hint of camomile and saltiness, which doesn’t come from its proximity to the sea. Super excited to have got this one right, good start.
Next up is a delicate fruity number with an abundance of peach melba, grape and orange blossom, it is sweet, ‘low’ in alcohol and has a good length. This stands out as a Muscat-based Vins Deux Naturels (VdN) but there are two on the table and I guess at the wrong one, the Muscat de Rivesaltes instead of the Muscat de St-Jean-de-Minervois
So what is the difference between the two?
Both are Vins deux Naturels, which translates as ‘naturally sweet wine’, but in actual fact this style is not naturally sweet. VdNs are made sweet by a process called ‘mutage’, where the fermentation is stopped at 6% abv by the addition of a 95% neutral grape spirit in the same way as Port (although Port uses an 77% aguardente), the final abv will be around the 15% mark (and Port nearer 20% abv).
Muscat de Rivesaltes AOC is one of two VdN appellations in Roussillon, the other is Rivesaltes AOC.
Muscat de Rivesaltes AOC is France’s biggest Muscat appellation and represents around 70% of France’s total production of Muscat. Wines are made from a blend of Muscat of Alexandria and some Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, they can be quite average. This particular wine (Mu: Muscat de Rivesaltes, Ocado £7.99 37.5ml) is pretty good and a 50:50 mix of these two varietals.
VdNs from Muscat de St-Jean-de-Minervois are made exclusively from the most renowned variety of Muscat, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains.
The altitude (St-Jean’s vineyards are set 200m above sea level and ripen around three weeks later than vineyards nearer the coast) and changeable weather can impact on both quality and yields, but wines from lower yielding vines tend to display more delicacy and orange blossom flavours. Tasting back again, the Muscat Saint-Jean-de-Minervois, omaine de Barroubio, 2010 (Wine Society £12.50) is definitely more delicate.
The White Port stood out like a sore thumb due to the high alcohol content it was 19%. The Pale Cream was distinctly Sherry-like on the nose, the biological ageing is very apparent, and when it hits your palate it is sweet or sweeter than a bone dry Fino or Manzanilla would ever be, so I’m confident I could pick this out in an exam.
We try a few more and I guess right, so I’m starting to feel okay about this exam, it is the second blind tasting in two weeks where I seems to be on track.
I’m still struggling a little to place the level of sweetness sometimes, I get the bone dry and sweet, but not quite got clear in my head what off dry, medium dry so more tasting required!
Before I embarked on tonight’s tasting I reviewed my notes from class and thought I’d share a few pointers that might be useful to help bag a few marks in the exam. Also, do check out the advice from Jeremy Rockett of Gonzalez Byass, he made it all make sense for me.
- First of all for the Fortified wine exam, you’ll need to re-calibrate your palates so you are comparing to other fortified wines rather than all wines – Fino is therefore light in comparison to fortified wines
- All Sherry is sold fully developed, not youthful or developing. It can’t improve in bottle
- The only Port that is not fully developed and has potential for ageing is a Vintage Port
- In terms of alcohol levels, they are looking for you to apply knowledge, so Vins Deux Naturels (VdNs), Finos, Manzanilla and Pale Cream will be the lower end of the spectrum in terms of level of alcohol. Young Olorosos and Amontillados will be medium alcohol, and pretty much all Port will be high alcohol, sweet Madeira and aged amontillado and Olorosos will be high alcohol too
Do share any tips you have and good luck if you are sitting an exam anytime soon.