Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Passing the MW Exam - Lessons Learned

Susan Lin Celebrate
Celebrating passing the MW exam!

Two years ago, I passed the Stage 1 exam of the Masters of Wine study program. That meant I would be eligible to sit the Stage 2 full MW exam the following year. The significant increase in exam length, the heightened bar to pass, and what preparing for this stage of the exam entailed proved infinitely more challenging than I had anticipated. 

Last year, I took the weeklong exam and fell flat on my face! Imagine the cartoon two-ton weight crashing down on me. Not only did I not pass, my grades for the Practical (tasting papers) portion were downright ugly. I was at a loss; I’d given it my all and felt gassed out. What else could I do? I was down and out. 

It turns out that failing the MW exam the first time around was the kick in the rear I needed to really get my act together. My experience showed me how difficult it is to actually make it through the exam without flaming out: The exam itself is a marathon. The long days of intense concentration with tasting in the mornings and theory in the afternoons, day after day, was draining and headache-inducing. Sleep did not come easily at night, if at all. Nothing -- not even all the mock tasting exams I had sat nearly every Sunday with my tasting study group -- could have prepared me for what the actual exam would be like. 

I was also shocked by how high the bar is for not only the breadth of knowledge required, but the depth of understanding across all aspects of the industry: all disciplines, markets, categories, and so on. Granted, I knew that the bar was extremely high -- otherwise there would be more MWs in the world -- but that high?! It was a rude awakening.

I won’t lie; I was in pain for good while after receiving my dismal results following the agonizing three-month long wait. I asked myself if this was the right path for me. 

Eventually I decided that I had to try again. I knew that in doing so, I would learn much more about the fascinating world of wine. That is the reason why I applied for the program in the first place: to keep learning. And, real learning does not come easily.

I’ll be square about the fact that the MW study program is not for everyone. And that is a  good thing! No need to suffer pointlessly if it is not right for you. Everyone is unique, and there are happily many ways to grow and to take flight in life. 

The first thing I had to come to grips with was that what I had done before had not worked for me, and I had to figure out how to approach my studies anew. What truly impressed this upon me was a quote by the popular painter Bob Ross, from a book I happened upon not long after I found out I’d failed the exam:  

“If it’s not what you want, stop and change it. Don’t just keep going and expect it to get better.” 

** Brain explodes **

I could never have imagined how much I could learn when I began to apply myself again. It took a long process of repeated trial and error and the trying of many different styles of study, most of which did not work for me. Each time I forced myself to change my approach, it was painful, like shedding one’s skin. 

After having received some brutal feedback on practice theory essays only one month before the exam this year, I went into a few days of despair that was frightening. I am normally a very optimistic person, very glass half-full in my outlook. But at this point, I felt pretty crushed. Less than one month remained before showtime. I thought, “If I suck this much, why am I even trying? Why am I even doing this?” 

However, I’d already committed to (and, more to the point, paid for) the exam, so come hell or high water, I was going to sit the darn thing and give it my best. 

After several days of feeling dismally low, I wrenched out my negative thoughts and redirected them into energy towards gleaning what I could use from the tough feedback to help me improve. Once I defined and reframed the feedback in a way that felt good and actionable to me, I decided to own that feedback and I applied myself full-bore right up to the exam … and through the exam. I told myself to make every moment count, and to make every sentence I wrote count. 

Susan Phone Screenshot - Yundi
Phone screenshot while
walking to Day 1 of the exam
One aspect that was important to my psyche going into the exam was listening to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 “The Emperor”, 3rd Movement (scroll to 29:15 for Yundi Li's spectacular performance of the 3rd Movement), every morning as I walked the 15 minutes from my hotel to the exam site. The music is so joyous and triumphant. It was my “victory” music. If Beethoven could make such incredible music despite all that he suffered -- he was purportedly quite deaf by the time he composed this concerto -- then I could at least make it through a weeklong wine exam, even if I was only a fraction as talented as he.    

After all was said and done and everything was out of my hands, I knew I had done better than the year before. I felt better about my performance. But would it be good enough? I told myself that I had done the best I could, and the extent to which I had learned in the last 8-10 months was worth a great deal. At least that is what I told myself, as a sort of comfort. Of course I wanted to pass! I was hoping to pass Theory this time. I was pretty sure I had shot my chances of passing the tasting portion due to my feeling quite shaky on the very first tasting paper, the white wine paper (“Paper 1” as it is known). 

As the day of results notifications approached nearly three months after the exam, I asked myself the dreaded question: what if I had failed both parts of the exam, all over again? I knew this kind of result would inevitably throw me into an existential crisis. (Let’s face it, when you put so much of your life force into something, the results matter deeply!) 

I eventually came to the conclusion that if I had failed everything again, I would be all right with taking a break to seriously reconsider whether this program was the right path for me. I made an uneasy peace with myself, still remaining in dread of the impending results.

The night before Labor Day, I lay awake in dread and anxiety. When I finally fell asleep, I had a nightmare about receiving a call early in the morning -- could it be the Institute calling me to congratulate me on a pass, even a partial pass for Theory? (I had been told that in previous years if a student passed one or both parts of the exam, they received a call from the Institute in London.) No, it was a misdirected call. Argh, stupid nightmare!

I willed myself to breathe, and I resolutely did reach for my phone. I dozed fitfully until the sky turned light. Finally I took a deep breath and fetched my phone. There was a text from a study mate; the results had indeed come in. How did you do? he asked. I saw I had no missed calls. I had an email notification from the Institute titled “MW Exam Results”. 

My heart dropped into my stomach. No call, just the email. I had failed everything all over again. Still, my fingers tapped into the notification, and the email opened. 

“Dear Susan Lin, 
2019 Masters of Wine examination results 
[Candidate number …] Thank you for sitting the 2019 Masters of Wine examination.”  

My eyes glazed over. This looked exactly like the email I had received last year. I scanned for my grades; if you do not pass, they indicate your grades so you can see for which topics or sections your performance was the most painfully inadequate. 

Then I read, “I am delighted to report …” 

Wait. Whaaaaat?!?! 

“I am delighted to report that you have passed both the practical and theory elements of the examination.” 

** Brain explodes **

I rubbed my eyes, I zoomed in on the text, just to make sure I hadn’t misread the message. I clapped both hands over my mouth and made a squeaky noise. I think I began hyperventilating.

But wait, I had not received a call from the Institute! What if this was a mistake? Noooooo!!

I emailed the Institute’s North American administrator, Nancy, who is our tireless supporter and is incredibly sweet. I felt terrible for bothering her on Labor Day, but I had to know: Was it a mistake? 

About half an hour later, my phone rang. It was Nancy. She said she wasn’t sure what the Institute’s policy is on calls are due to new leadership, but, “This is your call! Not a mistake! You did it!” 

Susan Lin YAY!
YAY! The morning I received my results
I couldn’t believe it. It was so amazing to hear the good news straight from Nancy, as she was one of the first people I had met once I was accepted into the study program. I am so appreciative that she called me. 

As you can imagine, I am extremely happy that I didn’t have to face the existential crisis I had been dreading. I am now on to the third and final stage of the program: the Research Paper. (It has been interesting having to tell people that I am not done yet!)

While I quickly went from complete shock to euphoria to relief, I am now stressing out about my research topic. Of course, I am thrilled to have reached the point of even thinking seriously about conducting research! 

I will gather some more specific thoughts about what I came to learn in my studying this past year versus the year before, in the hopes that it might be useful to anyone who is studying for the exam or simply curious. 

The path to Master of Wine is a deeply personal voyage. I look forward to what I can learn and contribute to the community during Stage 3 of my journey. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Stage 1 Masters of Wine Exam: Done

Before pouring the wines for a mock Practical exam
Since being accepted as a student of the Institute of the Masters of Wine last September (see my previous post from nearly a year ago), I had been head-down studying for the Stage 1 Masters of Wine exam. I sat the exam in early June this year, which consisted of a 12 wine blind Practical paper and Theory papers drawing from any topic pertaining to the wine world.

What is the Stage 1 Masters of Wine exam?
The Stage 1 exam is the first of three major milestones towards achieving the title of Master of Wine. (Actually, I consider there to be a “Stage 0”: application to and acceptance by the Institute’s Study Programme, which is not known for high acceptance rates.) The Stage 1 exam tests candidates to see if they have the mettle and promise to take on the multi-day Stage 2 exam, the “official” and full Master of Wine exam. If felt exhausted after the Stage 1 exam, the next stage requires several days in a row of the same demanding conditions each day. If you make it past that exam you then reach Stage 3, the Research Paper (essentially, a dissertation).   

My goal for Stage 1 was to finish the exam. There’s nothing worse than feeling like I’m running out of time while there are still more questions to address. While this was not an issue for me at the WSET Diploma level, finishing Practical blind tasting papers and Theory essays at the caliber of a Master of Wine exam has been -- and is -- a real challenge. Thank goodness I met that goal when I sat the exam this past June. A challenging time limit has forced me to better focus, prioritize, and cut unnecessary thinking and writing. I’m still learning how to do this more effectively.  

Happily, I found out that I passed the Stage 1 exam! My studying since last September has paid off. I am so relieved.

Up Next: The Stage 2 “Full” Masters of Wine Exam
I’ve been asked what’s next for me in the Study Programme. In a nutshell: nearly a week’s worth of exam-taking next June. The mornings will consist of a Practical Paper, followed by Theory Papers in the afternoon.

After timed tasting practice writing notes only, at home
The Practical Paper: You are given 2 hours and 15 minutes to complete each paper, consisting of 12 wines and accompanying questions.
  • Paper 1 (Still White)
  • Paper 2 (Still Red)
  • Paper 3 (Mixed Bag - anything goes - sparkling, still, sweet, fortified, any style)

The Theory Paper: You are given 1 to 1.5 hours, depending on the paper, for each essay, of which you write 2-3 per Paper on any topic within a certain area of the wine industry.
  • Paper 1 - Viticulture
  • Paper 2 - Vinification and Pre-Bottling Procedures
  • Paper 3 - Handling of Wine (this means QA/QC, packaging, supply chain logistics, bottling, etc.)
  • Paper 4 - The Business of Wine (financial, commercial, marketing aspects)
  • Paper 5 - Contemporary Issues (candidates need to know what’s going on in the wine world, what’s at stake for all parties involved, and be able to take a stance if asked)

Time is already running out as I study for the Stage 2 full Master of Wine exam next June. I now need to focus and prioritize like I never have before. My studies since last September have greatly (re)shaped my knowledge and understanding of various aspects of the wine world, but that was just the start of my journey. There are many gaps in my knowledge that I need to address before I can even begin to demonstrate the “mastery” needed to pass Stage 2.   

Demonstrating “Mastery”
Through the Study Programme, I’m learning that the ability to demonstrate “mastery” of a subject is about *all* of the following:
  1. Having breadth and depth of knowledge
  2. The ability to synthesize the disparate aspects of that knowledge and understand how they impact each other
  3. The ability to apply this knowledge to any area of the wine industry and beyond

What does this mean for the exam?
Practical Papers: You can get every wine on the Practical (blind tasting) exam correct and completely fail it because you didn’t back up your case like a lawyer - you must prove that the wine is what you say it is in a cogent and logical manner, based on what is in the glass. The Masters of Wine who mark the exams know when you’re making stuff up. Conversely, even if you don’t get every wine correct, you can still rack up enough points to pass if you made a really sound argument, again based solely on evidence in the glass. The caveat: you’ll still fail a Practical Paper if you miss truly “classic” wines like Burgundy or Bordeaux.

Theory Papers: You will fail if you simply regurgitate everything you know about a particular subject (e.g. pH, oxygen, water management, bulk wine supply chain logistics, etc.). You have to define your parameters, state your definitions, lay out why the subject at hand matters and when it matters, when it doesn’t matter and for whom, with varied, global, and specific examples for each aspect you write about. You have to be able to organize your essay, write it, and tie it up neatly in a bow within 1 hour or 1.5 hours, depending on the paper topic.

Yes, I did celebrate after passing the Stage 1 exam!
I’m still struggling greatly with this, my biggest problem being knowledge gaps. I can’t write about what I don’t know! I’d rather have the reverse problem of having too much to write about, and being forced to define parameters for the essay to best answer the question. I have my work cut out for me.  

The Long View
Statistically speaking, virtually no one passes both components of the Stage 2 exam on the first try. We’re talking about really focused, intelligent, driven individuals, too. I’m trying not to let this get to me, and I am working on re-structuring my study plan so that I stay focused on the learning process. I need to hone my ability to take what I learn and connect the dots between them, and to be able to write and speak cogently and logically about all these engrossing topics.  

That, after all, is the reason I am continuing to step up my wine studies. I have already gained so much from Stage 1 of the program, and no matter the stress and frustration I have yet to encounter in this next leg of the journey, I know I am meeting my goals. I also take comfort in knowing that in the process, there will always be the ineffable fascination and joy of greater understanding.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

WSET Diploma Earned - Onto a Brave New World

WSET Diploma certificate and pin arrived!
In December 2013 I earned my Advanced Certificate from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Two years, six exams, and 2 papers later, I have officially earned my Diploma in Wines and Spirits!

Most important is all that I have learned in the process, which has been both humbling and inspiring. I never wish to stop challenging myself, and I want to keep learning. That said, it is a wonderful feeling to have officially achieved such a milestone as earning the WSET Diploma.

The Diploma program represents the highest level (4) that the WSET offers. As I neared the end of my journey - my last exam having been Fortified Wines - I was continually asked, "So, what's next?"

Well, most (sane) people are justifiably content with their Diploma, as earning it is quite an ordeal. For those who truly wish to go farther in their studies, there is the Master of Wine, arguably one of the highest qualifications of professional knowledge of wine - the other being the Master Sommelier qualification, which is focused on the service industry and equally mind-blowing in its own way.   

But ... pursuing the Master of Wine? That's just crazy. It would be insanity to embark on this path, the equivalent of working towards a Ph.D. of wine. Years of struggle to pass multiple stages of exams and a dissertation - if one even makes it that far.

Then again, isn't it the journey, the promise and joy of discovery and learning, that started me down the path to wine studies in the first place? I knew already, deep within me, that no matter what happened, I would always find ways to expand my world through academic study and lived experience.

The Diploma or equivalent is the base prerequisite for qualification for application to the Master of Wine Study Program. The day after I took my Fortified Wines exam, I finally looked up the application information on the Institute of Masters of Wine site. My pulse raced as I saw that the deadline was only 1 month away, at the end of July. I had to decide very quickly if I wanted a year to consider it, or to go for it now.

I knew the answer in my heart at once.

So, while cramming for the French Wine Scholar Exam (see that story) I raced against time to apply for the Master of Wine Study Program. The application process was akin to applying for university or to graduate school, requiring a recommendation letter, essays, and multiple entrance exams covering theory and practical (tasting) knowledge.

After a very fraught and stressful month of work around the clock, my application was complete, the exams taken. I had only to wait. I knew that regardless of the outcome, I would be content that I had tried and done my best under the circumstances. If I wasn't deemed ready, at least I would know, and I could work towards better preparation.

Last month on a gray weekday, I woke up to the best email I could imagine starting my day off with: I'd been accepted as a student of the Institute of Masters of Wine!

I learned that the acceptance rate was less than 50%. I was deemed worthy of the challenge. 

When my Diploma study partners, who have become dear friends, learned of my acceptance and saw how incredulous I was, they laughed. "They'd be mad not to accept you!" I really appreciate their support and vote of confidence, because I certainly hadn't felt the same about myself.

For some time (days!) I was in a shell-shocked state, until the real terror of what I was getting into began to set in. But, those moments were sweet, indeed.

A few of the exam wines, after the fact

I now look forward to a new adventure, a very difficult one, that will challenge and frustrate me in ways I cannot imagine in this moment. Despite the trepidation, I feel an amazing sense of commitment. I confess unabashedly that I am thrilled and ready to work harder than I ever have. It is time for me to embark on the MW journey.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

French Wine Scholar

Sporting the French Wine Scholar pin
Right after taking my last exam for the WSET Diploma - Fortified Wines - I crammed for and sat the French Wine Scholar (FWS) exam, offered by the Wine Scholar Guild. I always seek to delve deeper into France, as Burgundy is my first (wine) love. I'd signed up for the exam nearly a year ago and hadn't thought about it as I continued to prepare for my Sparkling and Fortified wine exams for Diploma. Somehow I had the wherewithal to realize, in late June, that I'd have to take the exam asap or pay the fee all over again. Of course, I discovered this about 10 days before the one possible exam date before my 1 year deadline. In a typical fit of motivation driven by a challenge, I decided to take the exam.

Technically, I'd been preparing for this exam indirectly through my WSET Diploma studies and through my work in the industry. That said, the FWS exam definitely requires one to know more in breadth and depth. The ensuing week witnessed nonstop cramming, so much that I even studied in my sleep! Unfortunately this meant I wasn't very well rested, but at least I was productive. This happens to me every so often before exams, but this time I literally tested myself systematically through Southwest France (FYI, Iroulegay is the only Basque appellation!). However, I knew I was really going nuts when I found myself randomly reciting the red grape name Fer Servadou in a jingle-like manner: "Fer Servadou, don't mind if I do!" 

Possibly the most memorable part about studying for the FWS exam was discovering a passage in the text that likened the creation of the trench-like geography of Alsace to the rising and falling of a soufflé, but caused by pressure instead of by heat. Only the French would find a perfect connection between a prehistoric geographical phenomenon and the creation of a culinary treat! I call it "The Alsace Soufflé." C'est merveilleux! 

I am happy to report that I passed the French Wine Scholar Exam, with highest honors. I am relieved! The Wine Scholar Guild asked me to answer some interview questions, and posted my informal essay on their site as a feature about recent top scorers. I am humbled to be honored thusly. Writing this essay was a wonderful way for me to think about why I pursue my wine studies, and about what I have gained in the journey thus far. I invite you to catch a glimpse of the motivation below, or on the Wine Scholar Guild site.

Congratulations to Susan R Lin, FWS for passing the French Wine Scholar exam with the highest honors! 
About Susan:
I previously worked in high tech, much of it at Google, managing international search and maps quality programs. I'd been fascinated with wines and their study ever since I saw the beautiful labels on bottles of Bordeaux and Napa Cabernet on my grandfather’s shelf as a child, and took my research further on my own since then. I eventually decided to enroll in formal study through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), to give myself an academic framework through which I could focus my efforts. After I achieved WSET Advanced certification, I was recruited by an esteemed study partner. I am thrilled to be in the wine industry!
My joy is to bring people the wines that they love, and even more so, to get people to try wines that I believe will delight them, but which they hadn’t previously heard of or thought to try. It’s about creating a wonderful experience for people through wine, and I believe that is best accomplished through deep academic learning and lived experience. By taking what I’ve learned via my studies with FWS and WSET to my own explorations and sharing and learning from others, I hope to build upon my base of knowledge to bring more delight to my customers, partners, and friends.

I recently earned my WSET Level 4 Diploma after a two year journey since obtaining the WSET Level 3 Advanced certification. My studies in WSET provided me a very strong academic base of knowledge in viticulture, the vinification process, and of all the different wines around the world. What led me to the FWS program is that while I enjoy exploring all wines, my heart lies with wines in France ­ Burgundy being my first and greatest love! I knew that the more I learned, the more I would be able to appreciate the important and subtle nuances that make French wines unique in each their own way.

I personally am most happy about the breadth and depth of the materials in the FWS program. As the program is focused specifically on France, I was able to concentrate on information not necessarily covered in other programs, for example the geological events that led to the land formations of each wine region that influence the terroir, and aspects of socio­economic and cultural history that contribute to the style of the wines today. The focus on every wine region and on the specific appellation requirements have given me an enormously deeper knowledge and appreciation of France’s wine heritage and modern wine industry.
The more I learn, the more questions I have and the more I want to continue learning! The FWS program has added more fuel to my desire to further my wine studies. I look forward to the possibilities, including those afforded by the Wine Scholar Guild. For example, I could benefit from the Italy and Spain programs, or I could delve even deeper into the French wine regions through the Master­ Level programs. I will always seek to learn, whether through self study or through institutional programs.

What I have gained through the FWS program complements my WSET studies extremely well. Focusing more deeply on France has built upon and expanded the knowledge I have accumulated through my WSET Diploma studies as well as my experiences in the industry.

I have recently been accepted into the Master of Wine Study Programme and am excited to embark on this journey. The FWS program has undoubtedly helped to prepare me for this new level of study.
The FWS program has already allowed me to further my passion for wine tremendously, just through studying for the exam. Even though it was stressful at times to remember all the important pieces of information such as different grape varieties (and synonyms!), soils, and regulations for each appellation, I was thrilled every day because of what I was learning. Wines that used to merely be names to me have come alive. What I enjoy in the glass is enhanced remarkably by the knowledge of its heritage, place, and history. In preparing for the FWS exam, I have learned much about the character of French wines. This, to me, is invaluable. This is what I seek to share with everyone who has any interest in wine: The story and the experience, brought to life in beautiful liquid.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Bordeaux 2015 En Primeur - Summary

I've often been asked: How would you summarize the 2015 Bordeaux vintage?

2015 Bordeaux Vintage Overall

Beautiful depth and color of Pontet Canet 2015
Drinkable and Structured: These wines are, on the whole, very approachable and yet possessing of great depth. I was surprised by how many of wines are drinkable even now, and we're talking pretty substantial wines here! This makes it all the more challenging to hold onto them to witness their evolution as they mature and develop more smoothness and complexity in the bottle. That said, some wines, like Lafite Rothschild (Pauillac), Palmer (Margaux) and Suduiraut (Sauternes), are beautifully made and will only truly blossom in years to come - they will be worth the wait!

Full and Generous: There was a lot of heat during the growing season, and many of the wines are full-bodied, with significant tannins. Don't let this put you off! The well-made wines (see my previous reports in the Blog Archive for April and May for recommended selections) are wonderfully balanced by generous fruit and the right amount of acidity to lend them a dazzling fresh quality. We're not talking big, sappy fruit bombs; rather, we have wines with heft, lifted fragrance and concentration. 

At the gate of Château Margaux
Alcohol levels are higher than usual for Bordeaux, but again, the excellent wines are so well balanced (fruit concentration, acidity, tannins) that they don't feel "hot" at all. And believe me, I've tasted 11% alcohol wines that set my face on fire, because they lacked the other elements in balance. 

For those who know their vintages: 2015 has the structure of 2005 and the fruit concentration of 2009. This makes for an approachable wine like 2012, but with even longer potential for aging and development of complexity in the bottle. This also makes for a distinctively sunny, yet poised character for 2015. 

Not All Are Created Equal: That said, take care: Wines that didn't show as well exhibited imbalances. What I noticed most in these wines were what I call the "whale tannins" - outsized tannins that surged up like a whale beneath a ship and nearly knocked me over (and left me with numb, fuzzy lips). I realize that this is a strange analogy, but that is exactly the imagery that came to mind during tastings!

Great for Fans of California Reds: As I tasted during En Primeur week in Bordeaux, I realized increasingly that 2015 is possibly the perfect vintage to share Bordeaux wines with folks who love California red wines! Their generosity and approachability are surprising and delightful for such baby wines, and the best will mature with plenty more rewards to come. 

The Top 10

Naturally, the other question I'm being asked is: What are your Top 10 wines for Bordeaux 2015? This is difficult, not only because there are many wonderfully well-made wines, but also because the châteaux have different styles. 

My criterion: Does the wine embody the château's signature style, while expressing the very best of their land, their grapes, and the vintage conditions? 

When a wine demonstrates this simple and challenging ask, and one is left with that distinct, ineffable imprint that indicates a superbly made wine - regardless whether the wine is to one's own personal taste - it is starred for "Outstanding" on my list. 

The incredibly smooth, fragrant La Violette 2015
Without further ado, in no particular order:

  • Pontet Canet (Pauillac)
  • Ducru-Beaucaillou (Pauillac)
  • Lynch-Bages (St-Julien)
  • Pichon Lalande (St-Julien)
  • Léoville-Poyferré (St-Julien)
  • Margaux (Margaux)
  • Haut-Brion (Pessac-Léognan)
  • Pavie (St-Emilion)
  • L'Evangile (Pomerol)
  • La Violette (Pomerol)

That was tough! There are so many excellent wines for Bordeaux 2015. Again, please see my previous reports (April and May in the Blog Archive to the right) for all my selections for Standouts and Excellent wines, along with tasting notes. 

At work (Belmont Wine Exchange), I'm working hard to get allocations for my selections of wines. Their futures are being released by the châteaux, one by one, day by day. (I have an elaborate spreadsheet that is gaining more columns every day as I track the campaign.) It is incredibly exciting to be able to secure some of the best wines of the vintage. I look forward to sharing and enjoying these wines with you, in the future! 

Thank you again, as always, for joining me in my journeys. There will be more adventures!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Bordeaux 2015 En Primeur - Sauternes & Barsac

2015 Château d'Yquem in the glass
What better way to cap off the Bordeaux En Primeur tour than with the famed sweet white wines (vins liquoreux) of Sauternes and Barsac? For the most part, the wines showed extremely well with each château having drawn out various tantalizing aromatic flavors from grapes affected by noble rot.

Yes, fungus does play a role in the creation of these beautiful, unique wines, and it is only under the most specific conditions that this strain - Botrytis cinerea - can cause the Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes to shrivel, leading the sugars to concentrate and the flavor compounds to intensify. The result: lusciously flavorful juice! When out of hand, however, the strain causes grey rot and the crop is no good for wine at all. How lucky for us that the villages of Sauternes and Barsac sit at the intersection of rivers that allow for just the right conditions for these sweet wines to be made!

The best wines I tasted possess an exquisite balance of complex fruit concentration and fresh acidity, so there is never a sense of syrupy heaviness. One is left utterly refreshed, with the lingering perfume of tantalizing fruits.

Standout Wines
2015 Château d'Yquem bottles on ice

d'Yquem: This goes without saying, but there is a reason that Chateau d'Yquem is the one wine with the classification "Premier Cru Superieur" ("First Great Growth") in the 1855 Classification of Sauternes and Barsac, commanding prices to match. 2015 boasts aromas of toasted almonds, hazelnuts, brioche, and an assortment of tropical and stone fruits: mango, kiwi, stewed peaches, apricots. Let's not leave out the floral notes of honeysuckle and jasmine. The unctuous initial palate bursts with pineapple, mango, fresh white apricot and resolves beautifully into an absolutely clean, smooth finish. Mango and apricot linger, with a hint of exciting mineral. This wine is at once extremely vibrant and concentrated, while incredibly poised and elegant.

Rieussec: Lush and rich with mango, honeycomb, and toasted almond with bracing acidity that at once makes you sit upright even as you luxuriate in all the luscious flavors. A finish redolent of mangoes stayed with me for so long that I had to walk around for awhile before I could try another wine.

With David Ornon of Château Guiraud
Guiraud: Beautifully rich butterscotch, marmalade, toasted almonds and hazelnuts, with apricots and peaches floating atop it all. There is a bit of almond skin on the end for a bit of a kick, which resolves into a satisfying smoothness. The acidity is just right to make Guiraud incredibly fresh. The flavors are generous and concentrated; it will last years, if you can wait that long before enjoying it!

Suduiraut: This beauty will take some time to bloom, but it's all in there: a subtle nuttiness, delicate citrus, apricots and pineapple, with showers of white and orange blossoms. 2015 Suduiraut has a strong, powerful body and structure that speaks to its longevity and potential for an outstanding wine. We only have to wait for it ...

La Tour Blanche: This is unabashedly full and rich, offering concentrated mango and pineapple with a peppery finish. For those who want a big, generous, yet complex and incredibly smooth Sauternes, this is the one!
2015 La Tour Blanche

Excellent Wines

de Fargues: Subtle white blossom, white apricot, stewed pears on the nose leads to a fresh palate that finishes with the fragrance of jasmine.

Clos Haut-Peyraguey: Demure, with light tropical fruits of mango, pineapple, and guava, and a hint of fresh apricot. Very smooth finish.

Doisy-Védrines: Very flirtatious yet poised with lifted citron, subtle orange peel, orange blossom, and apricot. This is perfect for a dainty, delightful sweet pick-me-up at any time.

Many of the 2015 Sauternes wines were well made, and the selections I've shared went well above and beyond. Each of these châteaux expresses itself in its own unique style, making the tasting journey all the more dynamic and rewarding. It is incredible how many different ways it is possible to create a quality Sauternes wine - never did one taste like the other.

After such a palatable tour, I have come to appreciate even more the value of these sweet wines. Some are perfect for drinking in the near term, and others can be kept for quite awhile. Luckily, they come in a range of price points, too, so you don't necessarily have to break your bank to enjoy them! We can be sure that whatever the occasion, every single sip is to be savored.