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The MW Stage 1 Assessment - Practical
A rundown of the wines and what I thought they were at the time. Blind. In Exam Conditions.
It’s taken me a little while to get to this. Who knew going freelance meant that I was busy all the time.
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The Stage 1 Exam Day.
I’m pretty confident that now the questions are public, it’s totally fair game for me to share my thoughts on this. If you’re from the MW and this newsletter is drastically against the rules, please let me know.
A quick caveat: Politely, if you didn’t taste these wines blind, under exam conditions, then I’m not accepting commentary from you.
It’s very easy to say “I’d have spotted that” retrospectively, once you know the wines. If you weren’t there, then you don’t know what you’d have put.
If you read my ‘An Exam Is Looming’ newsletter, you’ll know I tried hard to prep the actual exam day, which all went pretty much to plan.
I walked from my hotel to the exam venue listening to Coheed & Cambria, Gravemakers & Gunslingers. I honestly can’t think of a better song to pump me right up.
Once settled into my desk, there wasn’t much else to do except taste the wines, figure out what I thought of them, write down the answers and move on.
The S1A exam questions and wine crib sheet is online if you want to follow along, but the 12-wine, blind tasting, practical exam for Stage 1 students this year was broken down into four flights of three wines.
Flight 1 - Still Whites
The first thing everyone in the room spotted was that there were no sparkling wines. That’s about 25% of my study time down the drain. Ho hum.
The first three wines I pretty quickly identified as cool climate premium Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. So, that should have been a pretty big red flag that the question wasn’t really about identification.
The wines were:
1. Heytesbury Chardonnay, Vasse Felix, 2019, Margaret River, Australia, (13%)
2. Sauvignon Blanc, Shaw + Smith, 2021. Adelaide H ills, Australia. (12.5%)
3. The Florita Riesling, Jim Barry, 2017. Clare Valley, Australia. (12.5%)
The questions were: Identify the country (15 marks). Then for each wine, identify origin, grape variety, comment on style, quality, and commercial potential (20 marks, per wine).
I argued for France. Key identifiers for France are bright acidity, lower alcohol, premium Chardonnay, the three grapes fit key regions (Burgundy, Loire, Alsace), so with 10 mins per wine to taste and write the answer, I played safe and argued that way.
Turns out most others did as well, that or New Zealand. Which, to me are the two clearly logical fits for those three wines, in the style they were. Premium, ‘Burgundian’ Chard, fits with Hawkes Bay, then Marlborough Sauv, and Otago Riesling. That all fits pretty neatly.
Frustratingly, Australia is now making, cool climate, bright, low alcohol (13%, 12.5%, 12.5%) whites with freshness, elegance and complexity that I wouldn’t have argued for in a hundred attempts.
Shaw + Smith make some arguably ‘French’ styled wines, the Clare Valley Riesling was arguably atypical, ripe and structured, while the Heytesbury Chard is outstanding, but very ‘Burgundian’. All of that threw me off the scent.
I nailed the variety, style, quality and commercial though, arguing for the Chard as Puligny 1er Cru, the Sauv as Touraine, and the Riesling as premium Alsace.
I’m not too grumpy about missing the country here. Hopefully we’re OK.
Flight 2 - Red Wines.
With a single sniff of wine 4, I was in Bordeaux. No question. Again, another red flag that Identification wasn’t specifically the point of the question.
The wines were:
4. St. Julien, Château Langoa Barton, 2010. Bordeaux, France. (13%)
5. St. Estéphe, Château Les Ormes de Pez, 2018. Bordeaux, France. (14.5%)
6. St. Emilion Grand Cru, Château Moulin St Georges, 2015. Bordeaux, France. (14.5%)
Three wines I know well, annoyingly, I’ve stocked and sold all three of these properties with my previous indie merchant, The Suffolk Cellar.
After the fact, other students worried about this question being a ‘Guess the Vintage’ problem. However, the first two questions were to talk broadly about all three wines together. 54 of the 75 marks were for: ‘Identify the region, specifying the origins of each wine as closely as possible’. (30 marks) & ‘Compare and contrast quality in the context of the region of origin’. (24 marks). With just 7 marks per wine for ‘Discuss maturity with reference to vintage’.
For vintage I can’t quite remember what I put, but I think it was 2010, 2018, 2016. The Langoa I put in Pauillac, this wine routinely punches above, and I knew it was great, so quality in context was reasonably close. Same with the Moulin St Georges, a premium Grand Cru St Emilion, while the Ormes in the middle was the lightest and simplest of the trio, I was in Superior or Graves territory, but.
Two things that might just make it into the examiners report as ‘Howlers’ are the following two, schoolboy errors that I hope don’t get me booted off the MW course for. Honestly, blame exam conditions and something, something, excuse, something else.
Firstly, I put ‘Premier Cru St Emilion’ for quality of the Moulin St Georges, which doesn’t exist. Of course it doesn’t, while I was writing it down I thought about it, but carried on regardless, I didn’t get time to go back and check properly.
Secondly, I put ‘Entre Deux Mers’ as the region for the Ormes de Pez, now I know it’s a broader region, but Entre Deux Mers AOC, is exclusively white wines. I’m doubtful for forgiveness on either of these clangers, but that is what sitting exams will do to you.
Flight 3 - Sweet Wines
I’m not gonna lie, this was a struggle. Once these wines were made public, many other agreed. Two aromatic whites with Botrytis, and a unicorn straw wine from South Africa.
The questions were pretty straightforward. Grape Variety & Origin (10 Marks), Winemaking (7 Marks), Style and Commercial Potential (8 Marks)
Usually, when the questions are like this, you expect each wine to have a different winemaking technique, or something different about each one. For example, Botrytis, Straw Wine, Late Harvest, or Fortified. So that you’ve got something different to talk about with each question.
The wines were:
7. Quarts de Chaume Grand Cru, Domaine des Forges, 2016. Loire Valley, France. (11.0%).
8. Noble One, De Bortoli, 2017. New South Wales, Australia. (12.7%)
9. Vin de Constance, Klein Constantia, 2017. Constantia, South Africa. (14%)
I was in Tokaji, Sauternes and Auslese (German) Riesling. Sounds horrid, right. The more I think about it, the less far off the mark I feel, except maybe for the Riesling. And perhaps the Tokaji.
The Quarts de Chaume, a botrytis Chenin from the Loire, lots of botrytis, low alcohol (11%) and beautiful aromatic quality, easily argued for Tokaji, right? RIGHT?
The Noble One, a benchmark Australian Semillon. I was in Sauternes, a French Semillon led, with botrytis again, so not way off, but those two wines were pretty damn similar blind. Try tasting the exam wines and the wines I argued for as a lateral side-by-side and I’m convinced a lot of people would be in a muddle.
Finally Vin de Constance, a wine I’d tasted a few weeks before the exam, and earlier in the year too, just slipped my mind. I played safe, less botrytis, purity and elegance, premium quality, so Auslese Riesling it was, but I need to get my head in the zone for future sweet flights.
Flight 4 - Port
I lead this paragraph with ‘Port’ rather than non-descript sweet red wines with high alcohol, because they were so obviously a flight of Port without even sniffing or tasting them.
I knew pretty quickly this was a quality, vintage, style question. It’s rare that three ports come up in an exam.
The wine were:
10. Vintage Port, Taylor's, 1983. Douro Valley, Portugal. (20.5%)
11. Quinta de Vargellas Vintage Port, Taylor's, 2008. Douro Valley, Portugal. (20%)
12. LBV Port, Taylor's, 2016. Douro Valley, Portugal. (20%)
Question 1: Identify the region. (15 marks). A gimme. If I didn’t get most of the 15 marks available here I’ll kick myself in the shin. Twice.
After that, I didn’t do quite as well as I’d hoped here. The questions were: Assess quality in the context of the region of origin. (8 marks per wine) & Comment on maturity and capacity to age, with specific reference to vintage. (12 marks per wine)
The 1983 Vintage, was obviously an old vintage Port, but I think I was in 2000 or so, my comment on maturity was 20-25yr old, but premium quality, I was well off on maturity. Note to self: Overstate old wines, I went too young on the 2010 Bordeaux too, remember.
The LBV was the only wine in the 12 wines that I got pretty much spectacularly correct. I even thought it was Taylors! Actually, I thought all three, correctly, were Taylor’s, but you don’t get any bonus points for producer retrospectively. Anyhow.
Logic would assume that wine 11, alongside a vintage and an LBV, you’d get a Tawny Port (Nope) or a youthful Ruby Port (Nope again). I was in youthful Ruby Port territory, because after the 38yr old Vintage Port, who’d have guessed you’d get a 15yr old Single Quinta Vintage. I attest to the fact that it wasn’t that good either.
Did I Do Enough?
Right now, I don’t know. The good thing is, that immediately after the exam had finished, I didn’t know either. Nothing changes now that I know the wines, I can’t change anything, so nothing changes.
Do I need Comfort or a Solution? Neither, I need the results.
Those, I don’t get until the end of September. At that point, I get a brief run down of how I did, with a Pass or Fail result. The pass mark being an aggregate 55%, with no less than 50% on either Practical or Theory Paper.
I’m probably not going to go into the depths of the practical question, except to say the Paper 4 Question was on Independent Merchants, so there’s a third kick to the shin if I didn’t do too well there, followed by a brazen stab at some pre-bottling treatments, because who knows anything about hybrids?
Fingers crossed that by October I’ll be a Stage 2 MW Student, and I’ll have to update my LinkedIn for the first time in a year.
The full Press Release from the IMW about the publication of the S2 exam, the premier league, as well as a footnote about the S1 students also having a crack in the Sunday league.
The first step is the stage one assessment, a one-day exam comprising a 12-wine blind tasting exam in the morning and a theory exam in the afternoon.
Eighty-six students sat the stage one assessment, which this year was held on 25 July.
Students can only progress to stage two of the MW study programme by successfully passing this assessment.
I really like reading Richard Hemming’s MW Diary on the Jancis Robinson Website. I’m sure I’ve linked to it before. Here’s his entry once he passed the Stage1 assessment, July 2010, the jubilation is palpable.
I am under no delusions about the volume of work still lying ahead. Gathering those examples and plumbing those depths across the whole syllabus is the true meat of the MW course.
Not only that, but performing well over one 12-wine tasting paper and a single theory exam (the format of the first year assessment) is a mere amuse-bouche compared to the banquet of next year’s week-long finals, consisting of four theory and three tasting papers.
[This is behind a paywall for subscribers. Sorry]