I’ve been trying to decide what you become when you stop being an Enthusiastic Amateur of wine and I’ve concluded that the answer is probably a terminal bore. That said, my journey to get Proper Good at Wine has been continuing a-pace and interesting developments are afoot at the moment. Notably I am writing the draft for this post in the back of a car currently somewhere in France near to the German border, having left our hotel in Southern Luxembourg an hour ago.
Yes, we’re on a road trip and I’m determined to get in a little wine practice while I am at it. That’s because we are going through some of my favourite wine producing regions on this trip, not least Alsace, but mainly because 2 days after I get back from this trip I will be starting my WSET Level 3.
My Award in Wines Level 2 was completed a couple of months ago after a few weeks of schlepping to Birmingham on the coach. Level 2 was understandably a lot more interesting than 1 because the level of detail was much higher and the systematic approach to tasting became more complex.
On the downside, it also meant that you need to know a lot more obscure French villages and understand what wine they make and why and how they make it in that style. The wine laws of each country are also something I’ve struggled with a little bit because there are so many of them, each with their own idiosyncracies. I have no doubt that you could spend a life time simply analysing all of the French wine laws, region by region. But that would be madness. And probably a waste of a lifetime.
However, on the upside, it has confirmed to me that this is something I really love doing. School has always been missing several glasses of wine on the desk. It’s easy to say that in hindsight. But I think the thing I really enjoy is understanding the mechanics of wine growing. Of course tradition plays a big part in Old World wine production, but those traditions tend to arise through necessity. The impact of altitude and ocean currents both hot and cold in regulating temperatures, as well as the vagaries of micro-conditions locally, the insulating properties of a local lake, all govern what grapes do well in which areas.
Teaching an Old Dog
Having all this knowledge in my head in a way that means I really understand it is something that I really adore. Understanding the balance between making high volumes of moderate quality wine for the mass market, versus the complex and usually expensive methods employed to make a premium wine is also really interesting. Wine producers put in a serious investment in terms of time and resources and they need to see a return on that. This is why some wines can seem astronomically priced, but actually quite reasonable when you break down where that cost comes from. That’s not to deny that there is a degree of ‘paying for the name’ though, particular of course when it comes to Champagne, where the name of the house seemingly comes above all else in many cases.
Anyway, I am getting distracted from the point somewhere. My knowledge is continuing to develop as I prepare to start my Level 3 in October. I have my textbook with me and I have nearly completed my first reading of it. I’m hoping very much to get through it another two or three times before the course starts, but that may be wishful thinking with so much happening in the next two weeks (stay tuned for Italian wines, Terra Madre food festival and then a hop to the biggest artisan gelato festival in the world after that!)
Practice Makes Perfect
But the point is, here on this road trip, I am taking the opportunity to get a fleeting glimpse of many of the areas which are improtant to my studies. We came into Continental Europe on the Eurotunnel, and have driven through Belgium into Luxembourg. Today we are into France, with a soujourn through Alsace and Germany, across the Alps via Switzerland and into northern Italy, our final destination. While not all of these places are famed wine making regions, there is a lot of good wine in the vicinity and driving through the area, getting a feel for the sense of place, will hopefully help to cement some of the details in place.
I enjoyed a dry German Riesling with our dinner of Tarte Flambee at a sweet little museum cafe in Luxembourg last night. There was just a hint of that characteristic petrol aroma, (I write just as we cross into the region of Alsace), the beautiful fruity acidity that Riesling does so well and which cut through the creamy richness of the white cheese and bacone that made my dinner so delicious.
I always find that visiting a place helps me to understand its food culture better, and that faceless villages and Cru vineyards take on a whole new dimension in my understanding when I actually visit them. So this is my theory for level 3 – experience and immerse my way through it.
Level 2 ended with a most satisfactory 96% Distinction. Level 3 will not end so well, given that along with the multiple choice questions in the exam there are also a number of long form questions, as well as the dreaded tasting exam. Yeah, I know – the tasting is the scary bit! Whatever next…