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Midwest Wine School Experience – WSET Intermediate Level – Class 8

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Midwest Wine School Experience

The final class of the WSET Intermediate Level course was this past Wednesday.  After a short review of the past seven week’s, Jessica Bell led a lively discussion on the topic of fortified wines and spirits.

Fortified wines and spirits represent an extremely wide range of products so we could only cover a very small subset of this genre.  Jessica put together a variety of sherries, ports and spirits, including a French Armagnac and a Scottish whiskey to give us a broad base for comparison.

Fortified wines like sherries and ports are made by adding neutral grape spirits to the wine either before or after the wines fermentation is complete.  In the case of sherry, grape spirits are added after fermentation as stopped, so the wines are usually dry, but there are also numerous sweet versions.  Ports, on the other hand, are always sweet because the fermentation process is stopped before all of the sugar is converted to alcohol.  The grape spirits kill the yeast and boost the alcohol to around 20%.

Sherries are produced in the Spain, primarily in the regions of Jerez de la Frontera and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.  The processes used to create this wines are deliberately oxidative, exposing the wine to air, giving the wines are wonderful nutty character.

Traditionally and legally, Ports must come from Portugal, around the city of Oporto.  However there are numerous examples being produced around the world in a similar manner.  Many of these fortified wines are called “port” so it can be a little confusing when navigating through your local wine shop.  To make matters more confusing, there are numerous types of port raging from ruby to tawny, vintage to late bottled vintage (LBV), traditional late bottled vintage to modern late bottled vintage.  Each of these wines has a very different flavor profile and should be served differently.

Spirits are completely different than fortified wines and are made in most parts of the world.  They are distilled rather than fermented and can be made from almost anything that contains sugar, so grapes are not necessary (except in the case of grape-based spirits like Cognac and Armagnac, to name a few).  Spirits have a higher alcohol content, usually in the range of 40%.  There are so many types of spirits that it would be impossible to list or discuss them all here.  The Armagnac that Jessica selected was a good example of a grape-based spirit from France made from grape varieties like ugni blanc, colombard, folle blanche, and baco.  The single malt scotch whiskey was an excellent example of a grain-based (barley) spirit from the Scottish highlands of Speyside.

Admittedly this was a very short introduction to fortified wines and spirits, but it gave us a good foundation for future study.

This brings us to the end of this course.  It was a great experience that reinforced many of the things I already new, but opened my eyes to how much more there is to learn!  If you want to learn about wine and and taste many examples from around the world, I would definitely recommend this course.  Our final exam is next week.  I’ll let you know how it turns out!

Wines and Spirits Tasted (Class 8):

  1. Pedro Romero Fino Sherry (Jerez, Spain)
  2. Lustau Dry Amontillado Sherry (Jerez, Spain)
  3. Smith Woodhouse 10-Year Tawny Port (Oporto, Portugal)
  4. Yalumba Museum Reserve Muscat (Southeast Australia)
  5. Château du Tariquet VSOP Armagnac (Armagnac, France)
  6. Balvenie Doublewood 12-Year Single Malt Scotch (Speyside, Highlands)

Midwest Wine School Experience – WSET Intermediate Level – Class 7

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Midwest Wine School Experience

Rendell Thomas led the seventh class of the WSET Intermediate Level course,   The topic for this session – Sparkling wines and sweet dessert wines!  Admittedly, I have a weak spot for Champagne and sparkling wine so this was a particularly fun class for me.  The addition of the sweet dessert wines made for a fun night!

Rendell started the evening with a brief rundown on the history of sparkling wine and its origin, now believed to be from southern France (What? It wasn’t invented in Champagne?!). We also received a primer on the proper terminology with regards to sparkling wine and its production.

Many times we hear the terms Champagne and sparkling wine used interchangeably.  This has always been a point of contention, especially for the French who guard the term Champagne like it was their first born child, and rightfully so.  For centuries, France has pioneered and perfected the methods used to make Champagne.  From the vineyard to the cellar, painstaking and labor intensive process are used to make the so called “drink of kings.” They have the right to protect what they have worked so hard for.  Just to be clear, if it’s not from the Champagne region of France it is a sparkling wine.  There are many alternate terms used around the world.  In Spain, they call it Cava.  In Germany they call it Deutscher Sekt (or just plain Sekt in rest of the European Union).  In Italy you’ll hear it called Proseco or Asti. Within France it’s called Crémant when it comes from outside of the Champagne region.  In the US and most of the English speaking countries it’s called sparkling wine with just a few legal exceptions.

The primary grapes used to make sparkling wines are chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, especially in France.  However there are variations, such as, muscat, riesling, macabeo or shiraz, just to name a few.

The labor intensive process used to make Champagne and top quality sparkling wines is called the méthode champenoise (“Champagne method”) or méthode traditionnelle (“traditional method”). Even this terminology is closely protected by the French AOC laws and can only be used sparingly.  There are other processes that are less labor intensive, such as the tank method or transfer method, that create lower quality sparkling wines, but the upside is that they are more affordable for the average consumer.

The last part of the evening was spent discovering sweet wines, such as Eiswein and Sauternes, just to name a few.  There are so many different types of sweet wines (and I’m not talking about white zinfandel) it’s hard to describe them all.  To make things simple, Rendell broke them down into three broad categories:

  • Interrupting the fermentation process (Vin Doux Naturels, etc.)
  • Adding a sweet component to the blend like unfermented grape juice (Oloroso sherries, etc.)
  • Concentrate the sugars in the grapes, either through drying or noble rot (Tokaji Aszú, Sauternes, etc.).

The styles vary greatly but you can guarantee they are all very rich and decadent.  Like Champagne, the processes used to create many of these liquid treasures are laborious and expensive.  Luckily many sweet wines, like late harvest rieslings and gewürztraminers, are affordable and easy to enjoy as or with any number of desserts.

Jessica Bell returns next week for our final class…Fortified wines & spirits!

Wines Tasted (Class 7):

  1. Gruet Blanc de Noirs NV (New Mexico)
  2. Jaillance Crémant de Bourgogne NV (Burgundy, France)
  3. Marqués de Gelida Cave (Catalunya, Spain)
  4. Taittinger Brut NV (Champagne, France)
  5. Robertson Winery Special Late Harvest Gewürztraminer 2008 (Breede River Valley, South Africa)
  6. Château Haut Mayne Sauternes 2006 (Bordeaux, France)

Midwest Wine School Experience – WSET Intermediate Level – Class 6

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Midwest Wine School Experience

Class 6 of the WSET Intermediate Level course, led by Jessica Bell, was a foray into the world of Rhone-style wines and the varieties that make them so delicious including grenache and syrah/shiraz.  In addition, we spent a short time delving into the riesling variety, discussing where it grows best and the remarkable styles of wine it creates.

Grenache and syrah (or shiraz in Australia) are very different grapes that winemakers have been using for centuries to make single varietal wines or blended wines using variations of the two (or more) varieties.

Grenache, a large thin-skinned grape that originated in Spain (where it’s called garnacha).  It loves hot climates and does well in warm places like Spain and France’s southern Rhône Valley.  It has made its way around the world and can be found anywhere that syrah thrives.  On it’s own, grenache makes full-bodied wines with lots of ripe red fruit and spice, but it gets better when it is blended with other varieties that add some more complexity.  Syrah is just one example.

Syrah is a dark, tannic grape that makes full-bodied wines with dark fruit flavors and complex animal and vegetal chracteristics.  Like grenache, it also does well in warm regions and is usually found in a blend.  Wines from the northern part of the Rhône Valley are made primarily from syrah with grenache and many others filling out the rest of the blend.  Examples of syrah can be found in warm places around the world, inlucding the United States and Australia.  Shiraz, as it is known in Australia, is made into bold, spicy, fruit-forward wines with intense black fruit and sweet spice.

Riesling, on the other hand, is the polar opposite to grenache and syrah.  Riesling is at home in cool regions like Germany, Alsace and Austria.  It can even be found in the cooler regions of the United States, Australia and New Zealand.  But Germany is by far the premier location for riesling.  The Germans have mastered the art of coaxing this grape into ripening under some of the most challenging growing conditions in the world.  The cold northern latitude force the winemakers to leave their grapes on the vine longer so they can fully ripen (if at all).  Steep rocky vineyards along rivers like the Rhine, with their east facing slopes, are difficult to manage but necessary to capture the warm sunlight needed to ripen the grapes. Dry riesling wines can have floral aromas, white fruit and bright citrus flavors with bracing acidity and steely mineral notes.  Riesling can also be made into delicious sweet dessert wines such as beerenauslese, trockenbeerenauslese and eiswein.

Rendell Thomas will present sparkling and sweet wines later this week

Wines Tasted (Class 6):

  1. Perrin et Fils Reserve 2006 (Côtes du Rhône, France)
  2. Domaine la Clotte-Fontane 2006 (Languedoc, France)
  3. Calcareous Tre Violet 2005 (Paso Robles, California)
  4. Layer Cake Shiraz 2008 (South Australia)
  5. Weingut Johann Peter Mertes Riesling 2006 (Saar, Germany)
  6. Buried Cane Riesling 2006 (Washington State)

Midwest Wine School Experience – WSET Intermediate Level – Class 5

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Midwest Wine School Experience

Jaclyn Stuart, co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine & Food Pairing, led our fifth class of the WSET Intermediate Level course.  This session was devoted to the wines of Italy, Spain and Portugal.  We spent the majority of the class discussing the wine producing regions of Italy.  The smaller, but no less important regions of Spain and Portugal were covered in much less detail.

Italy’s rich history of winemaking rivals that of France. Regions like Tuscany and Piemonte (among the many others) have been making distinctive wines for centuries.  Italy’s location shape give it many different climate zones where numerous types of white and red grape varieties thrive.  It would be easy to spend the entire course talking about nothing other than Italian wines.

Spain, though much larger than Italy in geographic area, has much fewer wine producing regions and even fewer grape varieties.  Regions such as Rioja and Ribera del Duero make the majority of the quality Spanish wines.  Tempranillo and garnacha (grenache) are the top red varieties, while international varieties, like chardonnay, make up the majority whites.

We spent the last part of the evening discussing the wines of Portugal.  The Duoro region topped the discussion with its high tannin, high acid red wines.  We also spent a short time reviewing Vinho Verde, the slightly fizzy, light bodied white wine that is becoming more popular in the US.

Jessica Bell returns next week to give us the low-down on grenache, syrah and riesling.

Wines Tasted (Class 5):

  1. Camp du Rouss 2005 Barbera d’Asti (Piemonte, Italy)
  2. Poggio Vignoso 2008 (Chianti, Italy)
  3. Levantino 2006 Primitivo (Salento, Italy)
  4. Compania de Telmo Rodriguez “LZ” 2007 (Rioja, Spain)
  5. Bodegas Navarro-Lopéz Laguna de la Nava 1999 Gran Reserva (Valdapeñas, Spain)
  6. Castillo Real Monastrell 2006 (Bullas, Spain)

Midwest Wine School Experience – WSET Intermediate Level – Class 4

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Midwest Wine School Experience

The fourth class of the WSET Intermediate Level course delved into the world of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc. Covering three different varieties in one class made for a whirlwind session.  Jessica started by describing the three varieties and reviewed some of  the regions that produce some of the best and most age-worthy wines in the world.  We also covered the stylistic differences between wines from different regions, France and the US being a good example.  

For a good portion of the class Jessica reviewed the classic red Bordeauxvarieties (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and a little about cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot).  She explained the differences between “left bank” and “right bank”.  The wines from here are blends of these varieties, with cabernet sauvignon being the primary grape in blend for “left bank” wines and merlot taking the lead in “right bank” wines.  This led into an informative discussion of the France’s AOC system and the Classification of 1855.  We also spent a good deal of time going over the how these varieties are being used in new world wines from places such as the United States, Australia, South America, and South Africa.  Many of the emerging wines from these areas are rivalling the quality and ageability of classic old world wines.

Sauvignon blanc also played an important part of the evening’s discussions.  This variety is a major player in the Loire Valley in the appellation of Sancerre.  It has a supporting role in Bordeaux, especially in southern Bordeaux, where it is blended with semillon to create the famous sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.  This popular variety is also being grown in many new world regions where is does quite well in cooler latitudes.  On New Zealand’s south island, Marlborough is quickly emerging as one on the best regions for sauvignon blanc.

Next week’s session will be led by Jaclyn Stuart, co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine & Food Pairing, who will guide us through the wines of Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Wines Tasted (Class 4):

  1. Apaltagua Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (Colchagua, Chile)
  2. Chateau Reignac 2003 (Bordeaux, France)
  3. Zulu Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Stellenbosch, South Africa)
  4. Rutherford Hill Napa Valley Merlot 2003 (Napa Valley, CA)
  5. Domaine Fournier Sancerre Les Belles Vignes 2007 (Loire Valley, France)
  6. Hunters Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (Marlborough, New Zealand)

Midwest Wine School Experience – WSET Intermediate Level – Class 3

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Midwest Wine School Experience

Our third class of the WSET Intermediate Level course was led by, Rendell Thomas from WineStyles in Brookfield.  Rendell’s session focused primarily on chardonnay and pinot noir and the regions best suited to these two varieties.  As a sidebar, we also got a glimpse of an unsual variety from South Africa called pinotage, a cross between pinot noir and cinsault.

Chardonnay is a resilient and forgiving variety and has been grown with much success in a many of regions and climates.  For this session we concentrated our efforts on Burgundy and California, two places known for their outstanding chardonnays, but made with vastly different styles.  What is most intersting are the range of aromas and flavors that can develop depending on where the chardonnay is grown and the processes used make it.  Cool climates, like Chablis, create wines with lots of acidity and flavors of green apples and citrus.  Warmer places, like California’s Napa Valley, tend to yield fuller bodied wines with pineapple and mango flavors.  The hand of the winemaker can have a dramatic effect as well.  Malolactic fementation and aging in oak can create buttery and spicy notes that can either improve or detract from chardonnay’s delicate aromas and flavors.

Pinot noir, on the other hand, is a finicky grape variety that is difficult to grow and only thrives within a narrow range of regions and climates.  It too, can be made in a variety of styles depending on the place and the winemaker.  Again, Burgundy and California were the the regions selected for comparison.  Burgundy is the classical home of pinot noir and is one of the two grape varieties (gamay being the second) allowed to be grown there.  Here the cool, well drained slopes of the Côte d’Or, yield some of the most delicious (and rare) wines in the world with delicate red fruit flavors and light tannins.  Winemakers in California are creating pinot noir in several styles ranging from cool climate, Burdundian style wines, to full-bodied, jammy wines with dark cherry flavors and well rounded tannins.   Similar to chardonnay, techniques like malolactic fementation and oak aging can create buttery and spicy notes that can dramatically effect this delicate wine.

Next week Jessica will guide us through the intricacies cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc.

Wines Tasted (Class 3):

  1. Mischief & Mayhem 2006 (Chablis, France)
  2. Domaine Renaud Mâcon-Villages 2008 (Mâcon, France)
  3. Hess Collection Chardonnay 2006 (Napa Valley, CA)
  4. Benzinger Pinot Noir 2006 (Sonoma, CA)
  5. Winery of Good Hope Pinotage 2008 (Stellenbosch, South Africa)
  6. Volnay (Argh…Can’t remember the producer, but it was incredible!) 2006 (Burgundy, France)

Midwest Wine School Experience – WSET Intermediate Level – Class 2

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Midwest Wine School Experience

The second class of the WSET Intermediate Level course focused mainly on the winemaking process and the factors that effect the style, quality and price of the finished wine. We also delved into the topic of organic wines and processes used to create them.  Finally, we began looking at all of the information that can be gleaned from the labels on a bottle of wine.  This session was intended more as an overview of the concepts and conventions, with more detailed information to follow during the remaining classes.

For myself, I found the first portion of the class to be a good refresher on the basics of how red, white, and rosé wines are made.  Jessica Bell covered many topics illustrating how factors such as the grape variety and environment can effect the raw materials of wine.  She also discussed how the role of the winemaker can effect the overall style, quality and price of the end product.  The topic on organic wines was also very informative.  Organic farming and winemaking has continued to grow in popularity as consumers have become more educated about what they eat and drink.

The part I found most interesting was the section on understanding wine labels.  This is always a confusing topic, especially when you are trying to understand European wine labels.  There are so many different regulations governing what can and cannot be displayed on a label. Combine that with the language barrier and you can have a daunting task when trying to select a wine.  With just a little bit of education and research you can quickly discover useful information to help guide you to the quality wines you want.   Jessica and WSET have done a great job of organizing this information helping make this easier to understand.

The wines that Jessica had selected for this week’s session were made from a wide array of grape varieties and came exclusively from France and the United States.  Jessica had made a point of selecting wines at different price points to help illustrate the differences in style and quality among the producers.  The wines, especially the French ones, gave as a good primer on decoding the French AOC labeling laws.

Next week Rendell Thomas will help us explore pinot noir and chardonnay.

Wines Tasted (Class 2):

  1. La Divette – Muscadet Sur Lie 2007 (Muscadet Sevre et Main, France)
  2. Charles Smith – Charles & Charles Rosé 2008 (Columbia Valley, Washington State)
  3. A to Z – Pinot Noir 2007 (Oregon)
  4. Hurrah Surrah – Syrah 2005 (Paso Robles, CA)
  5. Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (Calistoga, California)
  6. Chateau Moncontour – Vouvray Demi-Sec 2006 (Loire Valley, France)

Midwest Wine School Experience – WSET Intermediate Level – Class 1

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Midwest Wine School Experience

This past Wednesday was the beginning of the WSET Intermediate Level course.  The class is small (ten people, one attending from Green Bay), but a good mix of people with varied backgrounds.  There are people from the food service industry, graphic designers,  business professionals, even a home winemaker, all coming to together to expand our horizons.  The one common thread is that we are all wine enthusiasts!

Jessica Bell of the Midwest Wine School is leading the class and has done a great  job organizing all of the class materials and outlining what to expect throughout the course.  Jessica, as well as, Jaclyn Stuart (co-author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Wine & Food Pairing), and Rendall Thomas (co-owner of WineStyles – Brookfield) will guide us through the world of wine over the next eight weeks.

Our first foray into all things grape, started with the obligatory administrative and housekeeping items typical for the first day of school.  Once that was complete, we quickly delved into the coursework starting with the factors that effect how and what we taste in a bottle of wine.

The next topic described a systematic approach for evaluating wine, including helpful ways of describing the various colors, aromas, flavors, and textures.  To help illustrate what we had learned so far, we compared the six different wines (3 white and 3 red), starting with a very light-bodied pinot grigio from Italy and ending with a sweet, heavy-bodied monastrell from Spain.  Each wine had very a distinct profile that helped you identify the characteristics of what you were tasting and feeling.

The last topic of the evening revolved around the sometimes difficult task of food and wine pairing.  Jessica helped simplify the food matching experience by providing some samples of basic foods (apples, spinach, nuts, cheese, chips, chocolate) and had us compare them with the six wines we tasted earlier.  It is remarkable how different a food or wine can taste depending on what precedes or follows it!

Next week we’ll explore the wine making process to see how the grapes get from the vineyard to the bottle.

Wines Tasted (Class 1):

  1. Alois Lageder – Pinot Grigio 2007 (Dolomiti, Italy)
  2. Domaine Bott Freres – Reserve Personelle Gewurztraminer 2007 (Alsace, France)
  3. Randall-Monroe – Sonoma County Chardonnay 2007 (California)
  4. Louis Jadot – Beaujolais-Village 2007 (Beaujolais, France)
  5. Chateau la Lauzette – Cab/Merlot blend 2005 (Listrac-Medoc, France)
  6. Castano – Monastrell Dulce 2003 (Yecla, Spain)

Midwest Wine School Starts This Week!

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Midwest Wine School Experience

As a Christmas present, Sue secured a seat for me in the upcoming winter session at the Midwest Wine School.  Sue knows my personality and passions better than anyone, and thought this would make the perfect gift.  She was right!  I’ve always been one to say if you are going to do something make damn sure you do it right!  The Midwest Wine School, sanctioned by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) seems like the perfect place to start.  Since I’ve studied this subject off and on for some time now I’m beginning with the Intermediate Level course.  This will be a good place to learn new things and reinforce some topics I already know.

Classes start on Wednesday evening at Winestyles in Brookfield and run through March 24th.  I’ll do my best to share my experiences and keep you up to date.

Now where did I put my Spider-Man lunch box and those No.2 pencils?