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Changing Tastes or Taste Changing?

Those reading this that aspire to get some industry credentials—Master of Wine, Certified Sommelier, Master Sommelier, Certified Wine Educator, WSET Level II and Level III to name some—are well aware that part of the process/testing to acquire such post-nominals requires a blind tasting component, in addition to the various multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions. Irrefutably, it is this blind tasting exercise that causes the most angst among the candidates. Indeed, we’re aware of several instances where a person passes two or three of the required sections, only to get tripped up by the blind tasting portion—requiring these candidates to ‘retake the blind’ three or four or five times. It is so common in fact that most of these organizations now have limits, as in one can only attempt X times, and then the candidate goes back to square one and must retake all the written portions as well.

Most readers of this likely do not know Wine Geek is a former Master of Wine Candidate (a very long time ago: but the insight and experience were invaluable). MW’s—the Alpha Dogs of the wine trade—are uniformly bright, articulate, proficient writers and clearly great blind tasters. Geek asserts this last point since the tasting portion of the MW exam is far and away the most grueling: the candidates must taste 36 wines (three separate sessions comprised of 12 wines each) and try to determine their provenance as well as answer questions or comment on grape varietal, production methods, age and other pertinent information. Geek assures you it is a completely different universe from just trying to tell a Cabernet from a Pinot Noir or a New World Cabernet from a Bordeaux! The good news about the brutal MW tasting is that they are very fair: the wines used are classic, high-quality wines, i.e., if one has a flight comprised of Left Bank Bordeaux (for example), the wines in the lineup would be 2nd and 3rd growth wines, not some low-end unclassified wannabes. The notion is the classic wines have a classic taste, so anyone versed in wines can readily identify them. And now we arrive at the gist of this missive.

The word classic in this use is fairly amorphous: classic to whom, classic compared to what? However generally speaking, the fine wine world of much of the 20th century—provided by France and commercialized by the Brits—was pretty static: for example, pertaining to Bordeaux, it was the same 100 or so properties, mostly owned by the same families for generations with the same winemaker typically at the helm for 30 or 40 years. So there was consistency of style, consistency of methods of production: no roto-fermenters or centrifuges popping up in Bordeaux during this time…the biggest innovation was stainless steel fermenters which slowly came into use starting in the sixties (Chateau Haut Brion—American owned by the way– being the first). And the weather—though obviously with variances from vintage to vintage—was predictable, keeping ripeness in particular within a small range. Of course, the terroir and cépage were more or less constant, so these classic wines were indeed consistent in style and quality, and sometimes had a specific ‘marker’ or personality trait, hence an experienced taster could identify specific wines, or at least specific villages in a blind tasting.

Today however, there are many changes which have diminished this relative uniformity of properties and even entire regions. Without intending to issue political opinions, if Geek has asked 50 or 60 vintners—in France, Italy and the USA about Global Warming over the past year, 100% (not 99%) have acknowledged it as an issue. This increase in temperatures, along with improved vineyard practices over the past decade or two that maximize healthy fruit and ripeness is why the overall quality of wines has increased; there used to be a lot of green moderately priced Red Bordeaux years ago, not so much anymore. And even in places like Napa or Australia where achieving ripeness was rarely an issue, this extra ripeness led to richer, more polished wines—just what the wine reviewers liked. Now it is quite normal for Napa Cabernet to clock in at 14.8 to 15.5 alcohol. And Global Warming is just getting warmed up, so to speak.

As for the subject at hand—blind tasting—imagine cutting your teeth on Bordeaux and Cabernet wines of the seventies and eighties and developing all of your paradigms as to what tastes like what…and then you get dropped into 2019. Today’s MW candidates could have in front of them a group of twelve wines that include some high quality classified Bordeaux (today ripe, polished and 14+ alcohol), Cabernets from Napa, Colchagua, Margaret River, and for good measure Cabernet-influenced bottlings from Ribera del Duero and Priorat. Very few of these are ‘classic’ anymore…whatever that means. Good luck to these new candidates; we’re pretty sure even Michael Broadbent would lose his MW tasting epaulets if he had to redo the exam today.

The best news is that as the trade has acknowledged this problem (or shall we say change); the industry at large is making adjustments. Bordeaux just authorized a handful (7) of new grapes that ripen less easily than Merlot; Geek has talked with a couple of Napa vintners that are changing canopy management tactics and edging back toward the old ‘California sprawl’ (where the fruit was partially shaded by the canopy—as opposed to being essentially hung out on a clothesline, as has been the norm for the past decade or so). Different clones. Different rootstocks. Harvesting changes.  As is normal when things tilt too much in one direction, the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. If the adjustments and considerations increasingly come into play, perhaps that word classic will be in play again as well. Good news for blind tasters!

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