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Understanding Quality, Through Chess
I've been playing a lot of chess, it's logical, helps me concentrate as well as helping me switch off.
Most days I have around five or six games on chess on the go. In the last week that’s dramatically increased due to a tweet from Fergus Elias, winemaker at Balfour Winery. It’s slowly morphing into a burgeoning WineTwitter Chess mash-up.
“Reputable and positionally sound opening. Still, the Sicilian is a combative opening that tends to lead to dynamic and sharp positions.”
People need a way to switch off. Some people stare at the TV, some read books. When I’m working or studying I can’t concentrate for long periods of time. I need something to break it up. So I play chess.
I like the logic of it, I like thinking of all the possibilities, preemptive moves, second guessing the other player, figuring out all the possibilities.
I’m not very good. But it’s entertaining either way.
The London System
“The London System is a popular opening for White which has the reputation of being very solid.”
Imagine you don’t know how to play chess, and the only way to learn is by playing. But, your only direction is ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to any move you try to make.
You move a pawn forward one space. “Yes”
You move your knight forward one space. “No”.
Infuriating. Sometimes that’s exactly how the Master of Wine process feels.
If you don't now how to play, the MW’s feedback on an answer can sometimes effectively feel like: “Not like that”.
Course Day 1, last week, was interesting, our course day leader said they're told to refer to themselves as 'leader' rather than educator, or tutor. The MW is self study, and the course days are there for us to learn how to do it. The MW's are there to facilitate a time for us to teach ourselves.
We turn up, taste the wines, discuss the what we thought they were, figure out where we went wrong or right, and then go back to the drawing board. We teach ourselves the best move to make next time.
“Trompowsky is light on theory but still offers White good attacking chances. It also avoids some of the heavily theoretical lines of other openings.”
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months, breaking down the theory of the practical exam. Putting together quantifiable ways of making sure the question gets answered. Making sure that the pawns of the practical exam are well defended.
I’ve read back through some average feedback I’ve had. The answers I’d written convey what I was thinking far to subtly. They needed to be more obvious. Less statement and more adjectives, a more brazen attack.
I spent some time rewriting previous attempts at quality statements. Here’s a previous answer that I wrote about quality. I’ve omitted the headline statement I made to answer the question, but here’s my evidence for it.
Intensity of stone fruit and citrus (apricot,lemon) with toast and smoke from proportion of maturation in new oak (40% new, French, 12 months). Oak balance and integration show premium quality, with focussed, linear acidity, on long, complex finish supports quality.
Ask yourself, does Dan think that wine is any good or not, and has he demonstrated that effectively?
Now, here’s an updated version, based on being more obvious about what I think. Answers need opinion, and evidence, but they also need context. So, making sure that you add in context through adverbs & adjectives is important.
Pronounced aromatic intensity, with lemon rind, stone fruit. A lot of complexity on palate with elegant fruit and lifted, but precise, very well balanced acidity. Very well integrated toast flavours from oak (12m, 40% new, French). Extremely long finish, showing pronounced fruit, well integrated oak and fleshy fruit.
The second note, hopefully conveys more obviously, with justification why I thought the wine was a Top-Tier, Premium quality, 1er Cru wine.
Quality statements don’t need to go into too much depth about style, or focus on what the wine tastes like, they just have to use that evidence and follow up with a conclusion to show how good it is.
Chess theory consists of opening knowledge, tactics (or combinations), positional analysis (particularly pawn structures), strategy (the making of long-range plans and goals), and endgame technique (including basic mates against the lone king).
Answering quality questions follow a tight progression, in a traditional format. Balance, Length, Intensity, Complexity (BLIC). But you can’t just say it has complexity, and has balance, you have to add in context to explain quality.
Phrases like "very well inegrated” instead of just “integrated”, and “lots of complexity” instead of just “complex”, give context and show how much complexity, or how well integrated I think thought flavours were.
The logical element of all of this is; what can be Balanced, Long, Intense or Complex anyway? Can acidity be long? Can 14% abv be Complex?
Generally, I find structural elementsrequire balance, and so it's more useful to link a quality statements of balance to structural elements.
Aromas and flavours however can can have intensity and complexity. Simple wines can have simple, subtle aromatics, or they can be highly pronounced, but lack complexity. Similarly a poor wine can have pronounced smoke/toast notes that overwhelm.
My logical quality note now follows a more structured approach, chronological in how you taste, peppered with evidence, followed by context then conclusion. This is broadly
How intense and complex are the aromatics?
How well balanced are the structural components?
How intense and complex are the flavours?
How well balanced, and how long is the finish?
I’ll do one more, based on the above. Firstly an old quality note, verbatim.
“Silky, plush texture, from ripe well integrated tannins. Pronounced layered black fruit (plum, black cherry), with complex, long bold intensity from structured oak maturation (toast/spice) finish. Lifted, bright acidity brings freshness to intense black fruit.”
You can see I’m trying to justify quality, but it’s both muddled and not particularly compelling. Here’s a reworked version, following a more logical approach.
“Highly pronounced aromatics of intense black fruit (plum, black cherry) and spice (clove).
Richly structured full body with silky texture from very well balanced (m+) fine grained, present tannins.
Highly complex palate, with black fruit and upfront very well integrated toast/spice from oak maturation (18m, French, 50% new).
Extremely long, complex finish, with lifted acidity, well balanced high 14.5% abv, and consistent layered toast, spice and black fruit.
Logically, it’s a subtle change, but written down it makes a big impact as to how good I thought the wine was, and more importantly why. Are the tannins chunky and green, or ripe and silky. Is the finish short and simple, or long and complex, and where does the complexity come from?
There’s a whole other newsletter in here about how the above quality note could pick up a lot of marks even if I was wrong on grape variety and origin. Any guesses on what the wine was or could be? It’s purposefully as specific as it is vague, but that’s for another day.
I might not win all that often at Chess, but if it helps me through the MW, losing a queen to a well executed gambit is worth it.
dnkrby wine club newsletter is a reader-supported publication. All the money goes to funding my MW studies.
If you play Chess, then I use the app Social Chess. Username: dnkrby. Come and play.
Course Day 1, is seven months into a ten month term.
This would be an safe answer for a 5 mark quality question. Sometimes I’d be required to include this in a longer format answer, such as ‘Discuss style, Quality and commercial Potential’ for 12 marks, you’d drop in the quality bit for 5, and pick up the rest with style (2) and commercial (5).
Maybe include ‘Typicity’ if you’re faced with a pretty simple wine. I’ll write about the pitfalls of ‘typicity’ another day.
Tannin, Acidity, Alcohol, Sugar