Last week the Master’s Exam in Aspen concluded after four days with five individuals named as new Master Sommeliers. Before going further, I want to congratulate them: Alexander LaPratt of Atrium in Brooklyn, Pascaline Lepeltier of Rouge Tomate in New York, Andrew Meyers of CityZen in Washington D.C., Jared Slipp of RDV Vineyards in Virginia, and Lindsey Whipple of Vegas Wine in Las Vegas. Some in the group had taken the exam as many as six times before finally passing. Their hard work and long journey are to be admired and commended.
Two of the four days in Aspen were tasting exam days. Unfortunately, this was not a good tasting year with a small percentage of students passing this portion of the exam. Over the course of the two days, I took copious notes in the form of what would become feedback for the students. Here are some of those notes. They will serve as useful advice for any student preparing for the tasting exam at the Advanced or Master’s levels.
Primary colors: the color in a glass of wine should build instant expectations in terms of age, storage conditions, and even winemaking and grape variety. This is especially true of red wines in terms of zeroing in on thinner vs. thicker skinned grapes. Your universe should get much smaller within a second or two of looking at a glass of red wine. If it doesn’t, that’s a clue as well.
Whites: know the difference between straw, yellow and gold. Work with pantone panels or paint strips if you have to. Make the colors bright, intense, and huge in your head so they’re easy to recognize. Reds: ditto with purple, red, and garnet.
Secondary colors: in whites, note the difference between green, silver, and gold. Look for them actively after identifying the primary color. Again, make these colors huge and bright in your mind’s eye so you easily remember them. With reds, do the same with purple, pink, and salmon.
Rim variation: pay special attention to rim variation in reds to get an initial idea of a wine’s age.
Staining of the tears: important to note it as it speaks to the concentration and density of a red wine.
Fruit: be precise and don’t give a dozen fruits for a single wine. If you do, your friendly examiners will think you’re hallucinating or trying to use a shotgun approach to score some points. Ahem. However, be thorough in using all the fruit groups for both whites and reds as a check list. I’ll say this several times throughout this post: ask yourself what’s really in the glass, then find it, and say it.
Quality of the fruit: almost as important as the fruit itself. Is the fruit fresh, tart, ripe, over-ripe, stewed, or dried?
Important! The quality of the fruit will practically always match up to the color in terms of fresh fruit and youthful color vs. dried fruit and more developed color. Practice making that connection in your head—with and without wine in hand.
Non-fruit: huge in my book. Non-fruit and structure are the two major keys to identifying wine. As with the fruit, use the entire check list for non-fruit including flowers, herbs/vegetal, spice (pepper spice and hard brown or baking spices), leather, and the rest. Smell the wine again, use the check list, and find what’s in the glass. And don’t invent things.
Earth and mineral: important for determining old vs. new world style in wines. Further, look for inorganic vs. organic earth in every wine. Translated: look for rocks AND dirt in every wine. Practice by using extreme examples. Do what I call the Rombauer check: with any white wine, put up an enormous Rombauer Chardonnay label in your mind’s eye and next to it place a Raveneau Chablis label. Ask yourself which one. The answer should be instantaneous--and easy.
Oak: note if oak is there to begin with. From there, ask if it’s new barrique or older, larger cooperage. In whites, look for cheese rind or a slightly musty quality for older wood. Remember that in most cases, wines with oak will offer more than one aromatic. Not sure if there’s oak’s in the wine? Do the Rombauer label thing again and this time put a Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc label next to it. Ask yourself which one. The answer again will be quick and obvious.
The following can be problem children for some students in terms of recognition. If any of them are blind spots you’ll absolutely need to address them by installing memories for them. Otherwise, recognizing certain grapes or entire groups of grapes will be inconsistent at best.
Pyrazines: the chemical compounds that smell like green bell pepper, jalapeño, and strong herbal-vegetal notes. If you find them in a red wine, you’re in Cabernet family land. If you find them in a white you’re dealing with Sauvignon Blanc.
Terpenes: as in pronounced floral or sweet citrus qualities in aromatic grapes like Gewürztraminer, Muscat, and Torrontés. Terpenes are anything but subtle and important keys for identifying certain grapes.
SO2: there are certain wines I can’t conjure up in my mind without some form of sulfur or even reduction as in mercaptan; think White Burgundy, German Riesling, and Loire Chenin Blanc. Make sure you have this one down; you need to.
Lees contact: look for it in semi-aromatic grapes (especially Melon, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay in the form of Chablis) where there may not be much else on the nose or even palate. It’s a huge clue to the wine in terms of winemaking and/or general style.
Rotundone: as in the white pepper in Grüner Veltliner or the black pepper in Syrah or Zinfandel. If you don’t have it install it. I wrote a post about installing an olfactory memory and the steps to do just that can be found at the link below:
Diacetyl: this one you’ll need for identifying winemaking (from malolactic fermentation/conversion) in terms of Chardonnay from any number of places.
Mint and eucalyptus: a strong aromatic found in some new world reds, especially those from Australia. If either or both are a problem, then Coonawarra Cabernet or Barossa Shiraz will forever be a challenge to identify. Use the method in the link above to install the memory. A jar of Vick’s VapoRub might also do the trick.
In tasting the wine, you’re trying to accomplish several things: first, to confirm what you’ve already smelled in the glass and to also note if the quality of the fruit or other aromatics in the wine have changed. Second, you need to calibrate the structure of the wine as precisely as you can.
Dryness-sweetness: determine how much, if any, residual sugar is in the wine. To do so, taste the wine and then wait at least 3-5 seconds before formulating an answer. Pay close attention to any R.S. on the finish of the wine. That’s the true measure.
Confirming the Nose
Fruit: same as the nose? Different? Important: does the quality of the fruit change from nose to palate? It often does. A good example is the ripe/over ripe fruit on the nose of a Zinfandel becoming more tart red fruit on the plate.
Non-fruit: as with the fruit, confirm what you’ve smelled in the glass. Some aromatics may be stronger on the palate vs. the nose or vice versa.
Mineral and earth: confirm what you’ve smelled, but once again check to see if the palate is different from the nose. There could be more minerality on the palate of a Graves Rouge vs. the earth/truffle/mushroom on the nose.
Oak: check for barrique vs. older, larger wood. Be especially careful with semi-aromatic whites that see time in large cooperage; look for the rounded texture and the cheese rind thing.
Hugely important. The two problem grape families—semi-aromatic whites and thinner skinned reds—can offer very similar fruit profiles. But put the wines next to each other and the structures for each will be different—sometimes radically different.
Calibrate precisely! Use visual confirmation as in a internal scale or dial or whatever system is easiest and most consistent for you. Install it by first calibrating with extremes at “low” and “high.” Then find the middle and then work towards medium-plus and medium-minus. Practice without wine. A lot.
Don’t Rush the Structure! All too often I witness a student in a tasting practice or an exam blurt out the structure (alcohol, acid, tannin, finish) in milliseconds with half of their answers completely off. Tasting for structure is one of those rare times during the four minutes of tasting a wine when you do something and then stop for a few seconds to see what you have. Re-taste the wine, wait 3-5 seconds, calibrate precisely, and then give your answer.
Palate: Special Notes
Phenolic bitterness vs. tannin: note the difference between the almond skin bitterness on the finish of a Gewürztraminer, Viognier, or even a Alto Adige Pinot Grigio versus a wine that has oak. Both may taste bitter and feel astringent on the palate, but oak will practically always be accompanied by any number of other aromas and flavors.
Earth vs. no earth: practice with extremes; the Rombauer Chardonnay/Chablis comparison is a good one as is a Chianti Classico next to a Napa Merlot.
Oak vs. no oak: the Rombauer Chardonnay/Chablis thing is perfect.
Making the Conclusion
It’s important to remember that by the time you’ve reached the exam you’ve tasted a lot of wines--as in a LOT of wines. Be confident that you’ve tasted every wine that could possibly be on the exam, and probably multiple times. At some point, all of them were recognizable to you.
Listen to yourself: easily said but hard to do. Listen to everything you’ve said over the course of looking at, smelling, and tasting wine; then use the ENTIRE grid to make your conclusion. Above all, avoid making your conclusion on a single thing you’ve seen, smelled. or tasted. Personally, the non-fruit and the structure of the wine have to match up for me to be convinced of a grape variety or wine.
Vintages: this is all about theory and knowing vintages and vintage quality for major producing regions. Beyond that, connect the color to the condition of fruit and structure of the wine (especially the acidity and alcohol) to come up with what makes the best sense for age and vintage. Watch out for Southern Hemisphere wines!
Dealing with the nagging internal voice: for many students, there’s an internal voice as in a part of them that desperately wants to get the wine right. At some point in tasting the wine (usually early on), the voice may whisper, bark, or scream the name of a grape or wine. At that point, it’s best to thank the voice and park the information somewhere in your internal field. Then promise that part of you that you’ll taste through the wine and get back to that piece of information when you start making the conclusion. Remember that the voice is only trying to help you succeed. Don’t abuse it or tell it to shut up—it will only get louder. And remember, only one voice in your head at a time or it will get confusing, if not loud.
Mental rehearsal: my best advice on conclusions is to practice making them without wine in hand. Use the best possible examples of each grape and wine you’ve ever tasted as models. For me, thinking about making a conclusion has a direction and a feeling. Note what it feels like when you make a right conclusion versus a wrong one. How does it feel? If you keep mistaking one grape for another mentally, practice making the right conclusion with the same sensory information over and over. There’s definitely a direction and feeling to making decisions.
Tasting reds before whites: used and taught by some Masters. If you’re set on using it, be sure it actually works for you. I personally can’t do it.
Tasting vertically: don’t go into an exam looking for certain grapes, certain wines, or a specific number of wines from a given country within the flight. It may sound clever but can only lead to disaster. Taste what’s in the glass! Taste each wine as a unique entity unto itself. Do the best job you can with it and then move on.
Clearing the mechanism: again, taste each wine individually, vertically. Regardless of how you think or feel about the conclusion of the wine you’ve just tasted, once you finish with it clear your head, reset, and move on to the next wine. Use the entire grid the same way every time with each wine. You’ll be glad you did.