Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Framework for Wine-Region "Mastering" Courses using Steven Spurrier's Decanter Medoc-Graves Class as a Case Study

On October 18th, 2010, I attended a course titled Mastering the Medoc and Graves.  The class was held at Decanter's London HQ and was led by noted Bordeaux expert, and Decanter Contributing Editor, Steven Spurrier.  In my October 13th review of the course, I commented thusly: "There was something missing though, and after giving it some thought, I arrived at the conclusion that it was context.  While the course is titled: Mastering the Medoc and Graves, we were not provided an overarching framework at the beginning of the class; and how tasting these specific wines would allow us to attain those objectives." I will, in this post, propose a framework that can be applied uniformly to all mastering courses and, in a series of supporting posts, provide the relevant contextual input to the framework.

In my opinion, mastering a wine region intimates a comprehensive understanding of the elements that contribute to the making of fine wine in that region (theory), the construct of a "strawman" of the characteristics of fine wine from that region (application), and the ability to taste through a sample of the wines  to identify the characteristics included in the strawman (practice). If these criteria are applied to the Medoc and Graves course, we should have been identifying the characteristics of fine wine in these regions and then tasting the wines to see how/if they reflected those characteristics.  The first contextual element would thus have been met: an objective and a set of related tasks.

The elements that contribute to wine quality are location, climate, vintage, aspect, soil, grape variety, viticulture, vinification, and the winemaker.  Of the foregoing, all but the winemaker could be considered at a regional level.  That is, these elements could have been discussed as it relates to the Medoc and Graves and, in my view, are essential contributors to a mastery of the regions.  They were either mentioned anectdotally or in passing in the class.  I have filled that gap with a series of supporting posts on the Medoc, Graves, Medoc and Graves vintages, and viniviticulture in the regions.  This constitutes the first step in truly mastering the Medoc and Graves.

The next step is building a strawman of the characteristics of the wine.  Steven did provide a starting point in that he saw wines of the Medoc tending to austerity.  He also described Margaux wines as "charming and elegant," Pauillac as "sterner and tougher," and St. Estephe wines as "a little more rustic." To the Margaux description I would add aromatic and excellent ageing potential.  St. Julien wines exhibit power and concentration along with elegance and require ageing to demonstrate their true potential.  Pauillac wines are powerful, complex, and tannic. St. Estephe wines are balanced and elegant with a structure that lends to ageing.  With the charaacteristics of the regions in hand, the second step towards mastery of the region has been taken.

The final step is tasting the wines and one of two approaches can be taken: (i) taste the wines blind in order to attempt to identify the region of origin based on the identified characteristics; or (ii) tasting the wines non-blind to determine if they match up with the defined regional characteristics.  Upon successful completion of this step, masterey of the region is within grasp.

In retrospect, we utilized a modified version of the latter approach in our tasting of the wines from the Medoc and Graves.  I will discuss the wines and the tasting in future posts.

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