Monday, May 30, 2011

Riesling Shootout -- Clare Valley versus Mosel

The Diploma level of WSET and the Master of Wine tests all require me to identify wine with no information other than the glass in front of me.  By the time I reach that level of study, I should be able to detect the varietal without problem.  What I need to start building, however, is a library of more subtle indicators that give me a sense of place.  A simple example -- Chardonnay from Chablis is usually steely and fresh whereas if it was made in Montrachet, it'll be dripping with oak and malolactic descriptors.

Okay, that's an easy one, but I'll need a mental library for the difference between St. Aubin and Corton; and I'll need to integrate those two with the difference between mountain Napa and valley floor Napa and Russian River and so forth.

Last night's tasting was adding to my library.  I tasted three Mosel Valley Rieslings, and three from the Clare Valley of Australia.

Will Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett 2009
Dr. Thanisch Classic Mosel 2009
A.J. Adam Hofberg Kabinett 2009

Leasingham Bin 7 2007
Koonowla 2008
Grosset Polish Hill 2010

All of the German wines were Kabinett level, which means they have the lowest ripeness (sweetness) level of the Prädikatswein pyramid.  I didn't want to be confused by the sugar level of the Spätlese pictured, so I drank it with some friends and a wonderful thyme-infused strawberry shortcake.  But even at the Kabinett level, German Rieslings can vary to a large degree in residual sugar, from bone dry to not-quite dessert levels.  For this reason, it was important to use the same vintage year.  According to David Schildknecht, who writes for the Wine Advocate, despite some difficulty during flowering, 2009 was a fantastic vintage for the Mosel.  Great density and creaminess went with excellent acidity.

That assessment was certainly born out by the tasting.  Noses were quite floral, especially with orange blossom, accompanied by lemon and ripe apple.  I went looking for notes of tar and petrol, and while present, the wine was generally too young to show much.  That's an aroma which develops with age. 
The wines tasted were really well integrated, with bright fresh acidity and medium-plus finishes.  All were off-dry.

As an aside, Michele Chapoutier has made fascinating and controversial comments to Decanter online that petrol aromas in Riesling should be considered a flaw.

The Clare Valley Rieslings differed in age, but were all freshly sealed under screwcaps, so I wasn't too worried.  Clare bottles sell quickly and it I combed all of DC and its surroundings to find just two.  The Grosset was mail order, and I was worried about bottle shock; but it showed very well.

While the Mosel lies on the northern limit of successful cultivation and often struggles for ripeness, the Clare is warm.  Shiraz grows alongside the Riesling, after all, enjoying almost 9 hours of daily sunlight during the summer.  In general, that extra time was evident in the wines tasted.  The aromas were all gorgeously complex, with lemon, lemon verbena, tar, petrol, ginger, and asparagus.  Upon tasting, however, acid was found wanting and the results were a bit flabby.  Only the Grosset, from a cooler spot on Polish Hill, kept enough to be in balance.  It was my favorite of the tasting, though the others I was tasting with liked the Dr. Paul most.

Puck was the big loser of the evening, as screwcaps were the rule and no corks were to be had.  Poor guy.  Lucky for him I made pork rack, so there were bones.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

WSET Tasting Regime

Every so often, a famous wine professional will be embarrassed in the news for, say, giving top marks to vodka-spiked grape juice, while at the same time panning a $100 Burgundy.  It's funny, I admit, and there are a lot of pompous blowhards in the profession who could use an occasional humbling.  But an equally valid takeaway is that tasting is hard!

Wine contains hundred of aromatic compounds in thousands of combinations and are affected by, like, everything.  For example, I can pick a benchmark pinot noir out of a lineup at ten paces.  But if you take those same expensive grapes, macerate them for thirty days prior to fermentation and then age them in new oak for three years, I'm probably going to think the result is a crappy merlot. 

So all is confusing and murky, but the challenge of thinking of wine in a logical and categorical way is a valuable thing to try.  With so many different flavors, so delicious, so many options, it just begs to be put in order.

Enter the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.  They are trying hard to quantize the objective and categorize the subjective into some sort of taxonomy.  It may be arbitrary, but it's not capricious.  The advanced tasting card I will be using for the next several months is on their website.  Here is a sample note:

Château Clerc Milon 2004
AOC Paulliac

Appearance is clear with medium intensity and garnet color with only slight color shift at the rim to brick.  Legs and tears are noted.  The nose is clean.  It has medium-plus intensity and is developing, with primary fruits dominant.  Aromas of blackcurrant, redcurrant, smoke, and tobacco are noted.  The wine is dry, with medium acidity, and medium-plus tannins that are ripe and integrate nicely with the fruit.  The alcohol is medium, while the flavor intensity and length are medium-plus.  Again, blackcurrant, redcurrant, smoke, and tobacco are the main flavor descriptors.  It is a very good wine, in a premium price category, that is ready to drink, but will improve with age.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Hi!  My name is Nick Stengel, and I am coming to the end of the beginning of my quest to become a Master of Wine.  I live in Washington DC with my wife, Wendy and our dog, Puck.  I used to be in governmental affairs, but grew heartsick over the way Washington worked.  So I went to Brasserie Les Halles and begged the chef to teach me how to be a professional cook.

Now I am the chef of Willow Restaurant in Arlington , VA, and I am slowly getting ready for a shift into the wine trade.  I asked a chefly friend of mine what happens to cooks who don't want to open their own restaurant.  "Oh," she said, "you don't want to go $3 million in debt and have 50 people depending on you for their livelyhood?  Well when you get too old to cook and your knees give out, you can be a greeter at Wallmart!"

Hrm.  Not appealing.  Winning Powerball?  The odds are way better that I'll get hit by lightning.

But I do have another interest, wine.  I love it.  I love talking about it, reading, sipping, geeking, everything.  I've got a 500 bottle cellar, friends in the field, and my dog can detect TCA taint!  And so my journey begins.  You, dear reader, are joining me near the end of the beginning.  I recently completed the French Wine Society class and am studying to take the French Wine Scholar exam.  I got my Intermediate Certificate from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust a couple of months ago and am now taking the advanced class at the Capital Wine School  with Jay Youmans, the District's only MW.

In this blog, I hope to recount my quest to be a Master of Wine.  It will take years of tasting notes, photos, ruminations on statistics and economics, travelogs, and of course, many photos of Puck chewing on corks.  Enjoy and please comment often!