The Life of an MW Student – Thirty Nine

One of the classic questions asked in the Master of Wine tasting exam is to ‘comment on winemaking’. This is in the context of blind tasting, so requires you to deduce just how a wine has been made simply by tasting it.

Working through the winemaking process in chronological order is the best way to approach this, beginning with the grape varieties used to make the wine. Its colour, flavour, acidity and tannin can all give you clues to this.

The next part of the process to consider is the fermentation. Very bright, fruity, almost confected aromas (think of a White Zinfandel) can point to lower fermentation temperatures, while more savoury characteristics – as well as higher tannins in red wines – are achieved when fermenting at higher temperatures (for example a robust red from the Douro). Was the wine fermented in stainless steel or in oak? Bright, clean, fruity characteristics come from a stainless steel ferment, while toastier and rounder profiles are a result of barrel fermentation.

If the wine was matured in oak, where was that oak from? French oak tends to give a toasty, baking spice note to the wine, while American oak tends more towards vanilla and coconut. How about the age of the oak? As a barrel gets older, it imparts less flavour to the wine, so more subtle flavours will indicate an older barrel. This is where your theory knowledge comes in – if you know for example that producers in Bordeaux are likely to mature their wine in 50% new French oak barrels for 18 months, this gives you a useful starting point for your tasting.

There are many more winemaking techniques that you can detect from tasting a glass of wine which I won’t go into here for fear of writing a dissertation rather than a short article! For example – I haven’t even mentioned sparkling, rosé, fortified or dessert wines. You may be starting to get an idea of the mammoth task I have ahead of me…

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