Greetings from the site of the Boston Tea Party, the first stirrings of the craft brew movement, and putative home of cream pies and baked beans. I am sipping a cold-brewed iced coffee in the really excellent Render Coffee Bar in South End, waiting for my three o’clock BoltBus to take me back down to New York. Though I spent only three days in this city, and most of those three days was spent in class, sleeping, or eating ridiculously-sized calzones, I can say that this city is absolutely awesome!
I came to Boston to take the Introductory Course offered through the Court of Master Sommeliers. This course is the first in a series of four “levels”, which increase exponentially in difficulty. To call oneself a “certified sommelier”, one must pass the the second level, the Certified Sommelier Examination. One may decide to get additional certifications, but attaining these become absurdly hard. For instance, the passage rate for the Master Sommelier examination is a bone-dry 5-10%. By comparison, the July 2011 California Bar Examination’s passage rate was 54.8%.
That being said, my good friend Alex very generously invested in my scheme, which allowed me to enroll in the Introductory Course in mid-June. I received an e-mail with the course manual in PDF format, and over the next few weeks I looked through the manual and made a few flash cards. There is a lot of material to cover, including the major wine regions and their appellations, varietals, and classifications (such as AOC/AOP, DOC, and premier cru, grand cru, etc.). There is also a bit of information on beer, spirits, and sake, as well as on food pairings and service.
The course spanned two days, starting at 8 am and going until around 5:30 pm. Most of the course is in lecture format. Three Master Sommeliers ran the show, delivering the lectures and running the blind tastings. The Hyatt Harborside, our venue, very generously provided coffee, tea, and pastries during the morning and breaks, as well as delicious lunches during the middle of the day. The Hyatt also provided a very nice outdoor seating area with a very nice view:
Although the lectures and manual were very helpful, they were intended as surveys. For the course, we did not have to identify key vintages and, with a few exceptions, did not have to know individual vineyards or producers. (We did have to know a few of the Medoc first and second growths, as well as a random vineyard in the Mosel, but the instructors generally hint at the ones you will need to know.) On the other hand, I now know much more about Australia and New Zealand than I once knew!
What was more useful was learning the deductive tasting methodology, which was an eye-opener. This tasting methodology is used for blind tastings but is also useful for thinking about the wines one drinks regularly. This methodology distinguishes five different stages of the tasting process, starting with sight, nose, taste, initial conclusion, and final conclusion:
- Sight: this focuses on clarity, brightness, color, and intensity of the wine (along with rim variation). A good rule of thumb is that white wines get darker as they age, while red wines get lighter (and often develop a good amount of rim variation).
- Nose: this focuses on how the wine smells. What I like about the Court’s methodology is that it imposes a certain structure and discipline to this particular stage. Whereas previously I would stick my nose in the glass and simply write down whatever scent I detected, the Court insists on going down a list of scents. First, for all wines I would detect whether the nose is sound/clean or somehow flawed, and then whether the wine appears youthful or aged. Then, for instance, for white wines one would first try to identify citrus notes, then move on to apple or pear notes, stonefruit notes, melon notes, and tropical fruit notes. Each of these could also be described in terms of modifiers like fresh, dried, candied, stewed, skin-on or skinned, green or yellow, etc. Then one would move on to non-fruit elements like flowers, spices, herbs, or other, and then to earth (either organic like dirt or grass, or inorganic like stone, chalk, or slate) and oak. What I found is that this discipline is incredibly useful for categorizing and identifying wines.
- Taste: this should merely confirm what one has already determined in the previous step. The Court recommends two tastes, one as sensory confirmation of the nose, and the next to determine structure. Structure includes things like alcohol content, tannin level, acidity level, complexity, and finish.
- Initial Conclusion: the initial conclusion is where one decides whether the wine is Old World or New World, comes up with possible varietals, possible countries and regions, and vintage ranges.
- Final Conclusion: the final conclusion is the leap of faith, where one finally decides what the wine is.