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Ever wondered what it is like to take the Master of Wine exam? Notoriously one of the most demanding exams in the wine world consisting of three flights of 12 wines tasted blind and 11 theory papers all over four days. It has been two weeks since I attempted this challenge in London but the feeling is still very much fresh and racing through my mind. There is not a day that I am not asked what it was like and how I did. So here it goes.
The first day of this exam marathon is about to start and we (the candidates) stand nervously around waiting to be shown to our tables. Barely a word is spoken. The hall is filled with the future crème de la crème of the wine trade but anxious smiles and tense breathing belie that. Never mind how well prepared we are or how talented we may be, there is a palpable air of barely concealed panic.
We are all aware of the hopeless statistics of acing this exam. There is less than 10% pass rate on the tasting, the theory shows touch more success. Some people are more natural in blind tasting and others are more comfortable writing structured essays but I believe that anyone can learn both skills. I guess if I didn’t I wouldn’t be here.
Sitting at the end of the well-lit but rather soulless industrial room, I have a view of all 40-odd candidates. The overwhelming thoughts of who will be the lucky one this year come to my mind. This is our time to shine but all I can do at this point is breathe in shallow gulps and try and force some positive thoughts.
It seems like a century before we can start pouring our wines and then we are off like racing greyhounds. The wines are cold at first (Paper 1 is always whites) so you hold on to the glasses with your palms as if your life depended on it. I sniff all wines first and quickly assess what they could be. No grids for me. One thing I have learned is that the first initial judgement is usually the best and most accurate.
In order to calm my nerves I start with the flight of questions that I am most comfortable with. This time we were blessed with four lovely Rieslings that were instantly recognisable. Tasty too. A couple of swallows to build some courage, the heart rate starts to slow down and a hint of welcome relief follows. Before you know it we are asked to stop writing and put our pens down.
No doubt if I had more time, this would be so much easier but this exam is about the skill of wine knowledge as much as decision making and fast writing. There are 300 marks to be had and to pass you need to get at least 195 marks. You have a minute or two to decide what each wine is and then spend the rest of the time justifying your decisions on region, grape variety, quality, age, commercial potential, winemaking etc.
Fresh air tastes so good after the first exam I tell you, even with all the traffic heading towards Blackfriars Bridge. A quick cup of tea and a bite to eat and we are back in our seats getting ready for the first theory paper. It’s simple – you have 3 hours to write 3 essays that will be marked with equal importance. This is where true geeks shine.
This year the questions were tough but pretty fair – from management of the vineyard through quality control procedures to brand building and wine industry legislation. They are designed to test our breadth of knowledge but some were very specific so you really needed to be confident about the subject before answering. Choosing the right question is always crucial.
The biggest challenge here is the timing. Three hours may sound like a long time. In that time you could run a marathon if you were fast or half marathon if you were slow. But to write three academically structured essays filled with well-chosen global examples in a confident and critical manner is what gives this that punishing edge.
For the next two days you follow the same format. The pressure and stress lessens somewhat but the fatigue and lack of sleep start to play their toll. On the fourth day, we are allowed to show off our personality tackling more contemporary issues. The final whistle went off just after midday on Saturday, followed by generous helpings of Bollinger.
And how did I do? Well – we will find out in September!
Maddox Street is the newest addition to the 28-50 family with other restaurants at Marylebone and Fetter Lane A brain-child of visionary Xavier Rousset and top chef Agnar Sverrisson who have created a relaxing place to enjoy fine yet affordable food and wine. The main room has a bright and airy interior with a chic wine bar displaying tempting seafood and an aficiado cigar humidor. The side-wall made of classic French wooden boxes is a neat way of storing bottles of wine while giving you the impression that this place means business. There is also a cosy underground space with polished wooden tables and a view of the kitchen, creating a perfect hide-away for those long boozy lunches.
Talking about lunch – ours was fair, but nowhere near as good as the last couple of times I dined at 28-50 at Fetter Lane. The starter (ranging £7 – £9) of baby beetroots, goat’s cheese curd and salad leaves was simple but delicious. Our main (around £15) chicken spatchcock was average, lacking taste and a bit dry unfortunately.
While this was bit of a let down on the day, a rare opportunity to try older vintages of Tahbilk, one of the oldest and most beautiful Australian wineries, more than made up for it. There are two things that you should know about this unique producer.
Their famous 100-acre (40 ha) Marsanne vineyard is the largest single holding of the variety in the world with 16 acres (6 ha) of vines dating back to 1927. The current release of 2011 (Armit £78 per 6) is delicate, pure and floral with lemony vibrancy and green apple freshness. By the time you start sipping the 1995, the wine is unrecognisable. Dark in colour reminiscent of an aged Sauternes, this is an aromatic infusion of orange peel, honey and dried fruits with a spicy, resiny finish and still with mouth-watering acidity. The 2004 vintage was a great balance between the two wines, perfect drinking now and my personal favourite.
The second fact you should know is that Tahbilk’s 1860 Vine Shiraz is one of the great 25 vineyards in the world and amongst the oldest Shiraz vines in the world with less than one hectare left. Many of these 153 years old vines did not survive the difficult 2006 frost and it is predicted that the remaining vines have only about 20 years left in them. So now is your chance to try these still affordable and available wines before they become a mere memory. Only 80 dozen were produced of the current release 2006 vintage but luckily Armit still has some in stock (£600 per 6). At the moment the 2006 vintage tastes like a young Hermitage but give it another 8-10 years (if you can) and nervy intensity with bright black pepper and sweet oaky notes will mellow to a rich, deep and complex delight. The 1999s were my favourite showing that these wines definitely shine with moderate ageing.
Let’s hope that Xavier will add some of these treasures to the wine list so that everyone gets the chance to try them. They should be a great addition to what is already a pretty interesting offer with many rarely seen wines. The fact that the majority are served by the glass, in a carafe or a bottle, is a great way to give people confidence to try and discover something new.
As a beer lover I usually only make it to the bar – visiting several last weekend in Brussels – but today was different. James and Christine gave me a little tour of the Camden Town Brewery based underneath Kentish Town West station, only 5 minutes from my house.
Everyone is welcome to visit. In fact, every Thursday they run public tours from 6pm. There is also a Brewery Bar and Street Food Stands on Thu – Sat 12noon -11pm.
At first glance, brewing beer seems like a pretty straightforward process – all you need is water, cereal grains (barley, rye or oats), Humulus Lupulus and Saccharomyces Cerevisiea. However, a lot can go wrong to affect the final quality of the brew. But with beer you cannot just say ‘’It was a bad vintage” as you can with wine, we all expect 100% consistency. It is a tough job but the guys at CB do it so well and they produce 2.2 million pints every year.
And here is what you can try on tap now:
Hells Lager (4.6% abv) – clean and crisp golden Pilsner with aromas of aniseed and fennel, taste of fresh lemon and white pepper with hoppy finish
Pale Ale (4.0% abv) – rich aromas of meadow flowers, ripe grapefruit, honey and hints of caramel, classic mild bitterness and dryness on the palate with fresh lemon zesty finish
Jamie Oliver Pale (5.1% abv) – mild bitter Pale Ale with subtle aromas of honeydew melon, blossom and sweet nutty finish
Gentleman’s Wit (4.3% abv) – Wheat style, one sip can transport you to a café in the middle of Brussels, lemon meringue hazy colour with fluffy snowy cap, aromas of lemon curd, honey, sweet spice and creamy texture with hints of bergamot and orange peel
Ryeld (3.7% abv) – made from rye as the name suggests, pale amber colour with haze, aromas of cold tea brew with hints of sliced lemon but juicy fruity palate with toasted caramel and hoppy notes
Redlight Waltz (4.1% abv) – US hopped amber larger, bitter earthy spicy aromas with hints of dried lemon skin and fresh barley and limey finish
Fukdahator Doppelbock (6.7% abv) – Doppelbock to you and me as no one orders this beer by its full name, well not after a couple of pints anyway. My favourite for its Belgian style of richness and high alcohol. Dark Madeira amber colour, luscious aromas of mocha chocolate and roasted coffee with more fruit driven and nutty flavours on the palate and sweet spice, toasted walnuts and dried orange peel lingering finish
Ink (4.4% abv) – beautiful black liquid with creamy hat, it brings you joy just looking at it, aromas of roasted coffee and bitter dark chocolate with lively sharp palate yet smooth creamy texture resembling Guinness but with surprising hazelnut sweet and popcorn-like finish. Actually the popcorn notes could have something to do with the popcorn machine in the bar. Who knows?
Camden Town Brewery – 55-59 Wilkin Street Mews, NW5 3NN