Systematic Wine Tasting vs. Freestyle Wine Tasting
If you have ever seen the wine programs that Gary Vaynerchuk used to do on Wine Library TV and The Daily Grape in which he did 1,000 episodes of the former but only 89 of the latter then you are familiar with what I refer to as Freestyle Wine Tasting. The approach is fairly loose. You simply See, Smell, Sip, and Spit (or Swallow) the wine and then say whatever first comes to your mind. It is probably the most natural form of wine tasting and expressing one experience of the wine and it gives the taster and commentator the freedom to express himself however he may feel at the moment.
Then there are the more structured wine tasters who may write wine reviews for magazines (Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast etc.) who taste an incredible volume of wine and write volumes of reviews. The challenge to this kind of writing is that it becomes difficult to say something differently than you may have said before, so these writers tend to want to become more poetic in style of writing and remain short and to the point in order to make their descriptions more reader-friendly and less boring. Here is an example of a tasting note of the 2011 Domaine Thomas & Fils Clos de La Crêle Sancerre from the Wine Spectator:
“Very ripe, focused and pure, with a lovely verbena and chamomile frame to the mouthwatering straw, lemon curd and gooseberry notes. Long, wet stone-tinged finish. Lovely. Drink now through 2014. 1,500 cases imported.” - Wine Spectator (May 31, 2012)
The ultimate structured wine tasting comes in the form of a preset Systematic Tasting grid which is highly regimented and has a more restrictive vocabulary than the previous styles of analyzing wines. The U.C. Davis aroma wheel is the most common source for the terms that may be used for describing a wine.
Both the Wine & Spirit Educational Trust (WSET) and the Court of Master Sommeliers use Systematic Tasting grids that are very similar but have some minor differences. The intent is not to provide information to consumers but to test the taster who is being evaluated for their ability to analyze a wine and determine its varietal, vintage, style, quality and region of origin and identity.
My personal style of wine notes that I have used in my blogs, such as The California Winery Review, is probably a combination of freestyle and systematic, leaning heavier on the more structured format. You don’t typically hear Gary saying things like, “It has medium+ acidity…” or reviewers for The Wine Enthusiast write, “The wine has medium to medium+ tannins…”
Monday October 28th was the first day of the evening class of the Intensive Sommelier Training at the International Culinary Center in Campbell, California. On the first day the lecture and discussion was on the basics of viticulture and viniculture.
On Tuesday the 29th, the second day, we learned the basics of wine tasting techniques and “the grid” of the Court of Master Sommeliers. During that time we did not study any particular region. Rather, we tasted 6 wines (3 Old World, 3 New World) and primarily focused on just learning the tasting format that will be used during our certification examination. Since this blog focuses on non-Calfornian wines, my next three posts will be solely on the 3 Old World wines as the others were all from California.
The Loire Valley
The Loire Valley is north of Bordeaux, starting from the West coast it is about 200 miles long and ends near the middle of France. The major red grape in the Loire is Cabernet Franc and it grows best in Chinon and Bourgueil. The region’s best white wines include Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. The Loire Valley consists of 4 major wine sub-regions running along the Loire River - Upper Loire, Touraine, Anjou-Saumur, and Pays Nantais:
The Upper Loire’s premiere white grape is Sauvignon Blanc, the best producing appellations being Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
Touraine makes a variety of red, white, rose, and sparkling wines and Vouvray is well-known for its fruity Chenin Blanc.
Anjou-Saumur’s primary grape is Chenin Blanc with the primary communes being Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume who make Chenin Blanc based sweet white wines. In Savennières you’ll find more austere Chenin Blanc that have the ability to age into a complex, full white wine with fruity bouquet.
The Pays Nantes region is located at the westernmost edge of the Loire Valley near the city of Nantes. It is the home to a simple, bone-dry white made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape which has no relation to the Muscat family of grapes.
Sancere - The La Crêle Vineyard
The Medieval hilltop town of Sancerre overlooks the Loire River. This is the ancestral homeland of antiquity’s powerful Gaullic Celtic tribe, the Bituriges, “The Kings of the World.” After their defeat at the hands of Julius Caesar, a temple was built on a nearby hillside in the Imperator’s (victorious general) honor. Many historians and anthropologists lend credence that the temple’s name, “Sacred to Caesar,” eventually developed into the name, Sancerre. Once the Romans dominated the land, they established the Loire Valley for farming and vineyards. While Sancerre is primarily known for Sauvignon Blanc it also produces a small amount (20%) from the Pinot Noir grape, light red wines for quaffing under the designation of Sancerre Rouge. A rosé style from Pinot noir is also produced in a style similar to Beaujolais.
The soils of Sancerre are based on limestone with caillottes (small rocks), forming the top layer along with mid-kimmeridgian astrate calcareous soils. These small, white caillottes are the signature of the La Crêle vineyard. Located on a southeastern exposed hillside parcel, it adjoins the Perrière vineyard to the east. The vines average 35 years in age, the grapes are hand-harvested, and the wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks.
For more than ten generations, the Thomas family has been producing wine in the tiny hamlet of Verdigny, one of the 13 villages that make up the famous appellation of Sancerre in the Loire Valley. Jean and Ginette Thomas are the current proprietors, and their two children, Julian (currently studying at the oenology school in Beaune) and Christale, are following in their family’s footsteps. The Thomas own about 33 acres of vines, dedicated almost exclusively to Sauvignon Blanc, the grape type of Sancerre.
The 2011 Domaine Thomas & Fils Clos de La Crêle Sancerre is 100% Sauvignon Blanc. It is a clear, day bright and straw-yellow wine of medium concentration. On the nose it has dominating aromas of white grapefruit, grass and fresh apples with underlying notes of chalk. On the palate it has medium to medium+ acidity, medium viscosity and a medium to medium+ length finish with citrus dominating the return. A very fine wine, it retails for about $25.