its a slightly different format, and I’ve rethought some of what i’m doing. But mostly its still me talking about wine. Please check it out.
Tomorrow I will sit my WSET Advanced Exam. This will be the culmination of 15 weeks of lectures, tasting of 125+ wins in class (and plenty more outside of class), reading and rereading a serious text book, and loads of studying of flash-cards. The test consists of a multiple choice section, a short answer/essay portion and a blind wine tasting portion. I’m slightly intimidated by the material, and confused by the diversity and complexity of it all. I’m about as prepared as I’ll be for the exam tomorrow night, and I can’t help but think about the value of all of it.
I can say that the WSET program offers a fairly comprehensive view of the wine world. It’s clear that the perspective of the course is from a British outlook. Bordeaux and Port are the most detailed sections. Some of it is just absurd; wines of the UK are given more prominence than those of Oregon – something that just doesn’t sit right with me. And the text book can be pretty poorly written at times; I’ve found numerous typos, several omissions and poor cross-referencing. What made the course most worthwhile though, was having the text and course material explained through practical tastings with an experienced instructor at hand to guide us though it all. For me, the value of any wine education is in comparing my limited experience with someone who can put what’s in the glass into context and perspective. This in turn makes the regulations, the climates, and the production methods more more sense.
I’ll be glad when its over though, and hopefully I’ll have time to reflect on how this course has changed my thinking on wine, and whether its changed my experience of it too.
At our last wine club we had we had an array of fresh (read acidic) white wines in time for spring. A great selection was put together , with some real gems, like a Pouilly-Fumé, and a white Rioja. But the most interesting, or entertaining bit of the evening was when our host pulled out strips of paper soaked in PROP. The “Supertaster” Test. With a bit of build up, and some concern that these may be “broken”, we all put the strips in our mouths. Every one in the room immediately noticed the harsh bitter taste in their mouth, except for me. It tasted like paper. So there it is, I’m not a Supertaster. Boo-Hoo, right?
There has been a bit of discussion, if not controversy, about super tasters and their supposed powers. Wine writers and critics would love to be able to tout their above average ability, and with a name like “Supertaster”, how could you not want to call yourself one? Consumers, I think, also want to believe that there are supernaturally gifted tasters out there; it would explain their difficulty in describing the wines they taste, and whey they are not able to put their experience into flowery terms – their tongue simply cannot interpret the poetry in the glass.
Well, what is a supertaster? First off, physiologically a supertaster is sensitive to PROP and has a higher density of papillae on their tongue. Also, supertasters tend to have higher sensitivities to, and often avoid the taste of alcohol, spicy food, carbonation, black coffee, spinach and cabbage. They may be able to discern between artificial sweeteners and regular sucrose. Of course, we all have individual preferences, based on physiological differences, and experiential ones too. Most people I know relish the experience of eating a lobster or shrimp. I do not. I happen to be allergic to shellfish, but I don’t feel like I’m missing out because I never grew up eating shrimp or lobster, and have not developed a taste for shellfish.
Michael Steinberger investigated his own idiosyncratic tastes, as well as the philosophical side of supertasters. He quoted Gary Pickering, of Brock University saying “I would speculate that supertasters probably enjoy wine less than the rest of us. They experience astringency, acidity, bitterness, and heat (from alcohol) more intensely, and this combination may make wine – or some wine styles – relatively unappealing.”
Most importantly, in regards to “Supertasters” Steinberger asks us “Why is objective tasting, e.g., genotyping, important to validate what people say they experience about the flavor of wine? We don’t ask music critics to take hearing tests.”
Personally, I’m glad to not be a supertaster. I love coffee, whiskey, beer, wine, spinach, and chilies of all types. I like bold flavors and balk at bland food. But I don’t think this puts me at a disadvantage for tasting wine, or describing the experience of drinking one. Here’s the real truth about what differentiates wine writers and critics: they are critical thinkers. Its not their tongue that is gifted, its their brain that has been trained. They are able to concentrate on their experience, break it down into isolated sensations, then synthesize it back together and describe it using language. Research suggests that we are not able to discern more than three or four aromas in a given wine. What allows critics the ability to create wordy descriptions is the associations formed through experience. A whiff of black berry brings up images of plum and black currant, which then can be compounded into stewed black fruit and jam. A note of vanilla may suggest oak, which reminds us of toast and cedar boxes, then on to cigars and leather. This is a skill acquired and honed over time, and any wine drinker can learn it, if they care. Most North Americans didn’t grow up in wine drinking households, and lack memories, associations, and experience that help form an understanding and appreciation of wine. I also believe that North Americans are not in the habit of talking about food they way other cultures may be, and so we don’t develop a lexicon around food (though this seems to be changing).
Now, these associations may be personal or even fantasy on the part of the taster. I’ve already written about why the typical tasting note may not be useful to understanding a wine. But it reminds me of a what Karen McNeil stated in a recent interview on Fermentation, “Get better at wine.” She was encouraging bloggers to become more grounded in wine knowledge. However, if we take the advice at face value, and endeavor to know more about our wine, from its style and characteristics to its provenance, then we are better equipped to taste what is in our glass.
So back to that question: what differentiates Zinfandel from Syrah in a blind tasting? This came up from a blind comparative tasting in the last WSET class. My friend turned to me after the wines were revealed and said he could have sworn it was a Syrah that we just tasted. Well, true. The wine was balanced and didn’t taste overly hot, but it had lots of spice and darker fruit. It was full bodied and structured. There was no obvious markers to trigger a reflex…we ran into what drXeno called “one of the most difficult cases of guessing a blinded wine’s varietal…New World Syrah/Shiraz vs. Zinfandel.”
In the Wine Bible, Karen McNiel describes Zinfandel as a “mouth-filling dry red wine crammed with jammy blackberry, boysenberry, and plummy fruit.” Syrah on the other hand has flavors that “… lean towards leather, damp earth, wild blackberries, smoke, roasted meats, and especially pepper and spice.” She goes on to say that in the New world this can lean more towards the “… softer, thicker, more syrupy boysenberry-spice character.” The masking/homogenizing effect of oak can cause further confusion between the two.
I’ve thought of a few potential markers to keep in mind. My first though was that white pepper and strong cedar notes would be giveaways for Syrah, but after a little more thinking and research, I’ve come up with these: 1) Zinfandels tend to be higher in alcohol than Old World Syrah, though this may not help with New World Syrahs. 2) Zinfandel displays more red fruit than Syrah. 3) Zinfandel lacks strong tannin. 4) Brettanomyces would more liekly be found in Syrah than Zin. Given that Brett. is viewed strictly as a flaw in the new world, it would be hard to imagine a barn-yardy Zin, but is potentially beneficial to pedigreed Rhones.
Any thoughts on the matter? What are your experiences with these two varieties?
The WSET Advanced course has started for me, with lots of reading and ego crushing blind tastings to slog through. It is very fun and exciting, and has had me running to different reference sources to find out more. This past week however brought up an interesting issue: what differentiates Zinfandel from Syrah in a blind tasting? And what differentiates a Primitivo, for that matter, from a Zinfandel?
The second question first… to put a point of pride to rest… since it came up while doing an informal tasting this weekend. Two other students, and myself, put together a selection of bottles, one being a Primitivo. Discussing the varietal characteristics, we compared it to Zinfandel. At this point I stated that Zinfandel and Primitivo were not, in fact, genetically identical. Having read about UC Davis research revealing that Zinfandell was, in fact identical to a Croatian grape, name unpronounceable and unmemorable, and the Primitivo was merely closely related. My source for this info was not at hand, and Jancis Robinson’s Compact Wine companion shut me up pretty quick. Well, I’m checking my facts, and here’s what I’ve found.
Zinfandel is a variety of red grape planted in over 10 percent of California vineyards. DNA fingerprinting revealed that it is genetically equivalent to the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski, and also the Primitivo variety traditionally grown in the “heel” ofItaly, where it was introduced in the 1700s.
So, Jancis, my two friends, and I were perhaps all correct. And my source? Well, I tracked that down too: The September 2009 issue of Imbibe, a feature at the back “Tracing Zinfandel to its Croatian roots” by Evan Rail. Too bad it was more a human interest piece than wine geek piece. But speaking of WineGeek, I also found a piece on their site discussing the issue.
Part 2: So what about the differences between Syrah and Zin?
I really love these guys. They always write from a down-to-earth point of view, and do a lot to keep the dialogue going in the right direction.
One of my pet peeves in language is the misuse of the words further and farther. The two have distinct and specific meanings and should be used appropriately.
Similarly, the words varietal and variety have two distinct meanings, but are often misused, and are thought to be interchangeable. Until recently, I was under the impression that these two words were interchangeable. I was wrong. And now, enlightened by a viticulturist, I am spoiled, forever to cringe and grind my teeth when I hear people with a long history of working in the wine industry and a substantial knowledge of wine talk about a grape varietal.
For clarification, with help from Wikipedia:
Variety refers the kind of fruit, the specific cultivar within that species (vitis vinifera).
Varietal describes wines made from a grape variety, and which typically displays the name of that variety on the wine label.
Thus, varietal is an adjective; Of, indicating, or characterizing a variety. Variety is a noun; A group that is distinguished from other groups by a specific characteristic or set of characteristics.