Saturday, February 13, 2010

Master Sommelier Seminar - White Burgundy

On Tuesday, I ventured to Chicago for a few hours to taste some white Burgundies with some of the most respected sommeliers in the Midwest.  A professional organization that I am a member of, The Guild of Sommeliers, had organized a series of tasting seminars across the U.S. and one just happened to be a short drive (well, thanks to the snow that day, it was a trainride) away from me.  It was a small fee to register for and I probably would have willingly paid more just for the networking and educational opportunity this provided.

I arrived to the seminar about 2 minutes late thanks to the train supposedly having engine problems and having to stop for nearly 20 minutes.  Luckily, I discovered some of my fellow Wisconsinite sommeliers were on the train, so we all showed up late together.  The three Master Sommeliers that were moderating the seminar (Master Spellman, Master Kruth, and Master Alvarado) greeted us at the door with a handshake and we quickly took our seats at a table covered with glasses filled with a spectrum of gold and yellow liquids.

Immediately, I started sizing them all up.  That one's oldest (it was the most golden in color).  That one is youngest or maybe not even Chardonnay (it was watery-white and almost green in color).  I stuck my nose in one. Hmm, smells like Chablis.

We went around the room and introduced ourselves.  The room was filled with sommeliers from Chicago, California, and Wisconsin; plus a dentist that specialized in root canals who just wanted to know more about wine to better enjoy it. How random, but cool.  When it got to me, I kind of froze and spit out something about being a Certified Sommelier studying for my Advanced and also a wine writer.  No mention of my day job (which I'm sure my Wisconsinite colleagues thought odd) and no mention of my WSET studies. Oh well.  Let's taste.

We had 15 minutes to smell, sip and ponder the seven wines in front of us.  I went through the Court of Master Sommeliers' process of deductive tasting where you jot down notes about everything: color, alcohol, viscosity, acid, brightness, rim variation, concentration, aromas... you get the picture. You then make a few educated guesses about the wine's age, region, and quality level.  I got through five and a half of the wines before they decided to start going through them.

The main thing I was hoping to get out of this seminar was clues about how to identify specific sup-appellations and quality levels.  Sure, I could smell a Chardonnay and tell you that it is Chardonnay and probably that it is Burgundian, but I would be blindly guessing if I told you it was specifically from Chablis or Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet (all villages within the larger 'Burgundy' region).

After the first two, I thought I had it down.  I nailed the vintages and was doing fairly well with the quality levels.  The Masters started talking about various aromas that could clue you into a certain sub-appellation.  Things like "baby-diaper" for Puligny-Montrachet, "hazelnut" for Chassagne-Montrachet, and "baked brie" for Meursault all made perfect sense once they said it.

When we got to the fifth wine, I was stumped.  It didn't even smell like Chardonnay.  It was full of these weird saline/metallic aromas that I had never smelled before.  It ended up being an Aligote which is permitted in certain areas of Burgundy, like Gamay is. I had never had an Aligote before, so that made the trip all worth it right there.  When we got to the wine I had only made it halfway through, I opened my mouth at the wrong time and got volunteered to talk about the observations I made.  I nervously stumbled through my notes and then abruptly stopped where my notes ended.  Luckily, someone was able to pick it up and finish the observation portion.  It came back to me for the conclusion, though.  Not cool.  I had no clue what village it was from at all.  It was the oldest one of the lot, though, so I was able to hone in on the vintage and even got the quality level.  It ended up being a 1998 Bienvenue-Batard Grand Cru. Something else I had never tasted.

Some of the pointers the Masters gave for exams:
  • Don't feel like you need to guess the exact oak type (French vs. American) unless you are positive
  • Don't be afraid to say a wine is "unclean" if it is a little oxidized. 
  • Chardonnay always has some sort of apple aroma - whether it be red apple, baked apple, dried apple, or green apple. 
  • Alcohol doesn't lie, but acid can.  When trying to determine a region or vintage based on the alcohol levels, if the wine tastes 'hot' (high in alcohol), the vintage was either warm or the region is. 

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