Quality Wine Education – key to success in unconventional markets

Vinexpo Hong Kong, the Asia-Pacific version of the parent event in Bordeaux and one of the most important annual fixtures of the international wine calendar, concluded recently with much fanfare and a bullish outlook for the region’s wine business. The grand occasion not only lived up to all the hype and expectations, it also reinforced Hong Kong’s stature as the world’s most desired wine destination.

In addition to the usual business protocols and showcases, this year’s event also highlighted the significance of wine education to succeed in new but hugely promising markets like China. The key message; consumer awareness along with a well-informed industry workforce is vital in developing and maintaining a robust wine economy. Here is the coverage of the news article on decanter.com.

Although the news dealt with the importance of wine education in mainland China, considering the enormous prospects it has to offer to the wine businesses world over, the core message is universal and holds equally true for a country like India where wine is increasingly making a headway as part of the urban lifestyle.

So, what are the options available for individuals (and businesses alike, for their employees) seeking to acquire/enhance their wine knowledge? Whether one is contemplating a serious career in the wine industry, the trade looking for well-structured courses to educate their staff or you are simply smitten by the charm of wine and want to demystify the intricacies related to its production and enjoyment, there are numerous options out there awaiting to be explored. Among these, there are only a few selected and trusted ones which offer the most innovative and world-class courses and provide the most comprehensive wine education. I have listed them below.

Please note that courses related to wine production (Wine-making & Viticulture) do not feature in the following list as their focus is markedly different from general wine education.

Wine & Spirit Education TrustWSET, as it is commonly known, is by far the most reliable and effective wine education provider in the world. Recognised the world over for the quality and depth of the courses, it has to be the numero uno of all the dedicated wine education providers. The enormous demand for its certifications means that the WSET is also the fastest growing wine educator outside its original home, the United Kingdom. A rigorous selection process of the APPs (Approved Programme Providers) and a centralized examination control (in London) also make these courses very trustworthy.

The Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT) wine, developed by WSET is also one of its indisputable USPs which has set a benchmark for many other courses around the world.

The four levels (plus an additional case study, the Level 5 Honours Diploma), each with their distinct theory and practical tasting papers, cater to the needs of different skill levels of the industry. The Level 4 Diploma is a challenging but enlightening two years’ expedition which covers all the wine regions of the world with an additional focus on the commercial and business side of wine-growing plus testing an individual’s ability to correctly identify wines after tasting them blind. The Diploma  is considered to be a vital stepping stone towards the holy grail of all wine qualifications; the Master of Wine (MW).

Court of Master Sommeliers – The CMS is a very highly regarded organisation offering wine courses at various levels like the WSET but with a strong focus on the beverage service sector, more precisely to groom professional sommeliers. It’s highest certification leads to the coveted designation of ‘Master Sommelier (MS)’. There are only 170 (till date) of these top wine professionals in the world and majority of them are responsible for running some of the most successful and critically acclaimed wine programs, not only in the hospitality industry but also in the wider wine trade.

Society of Wine Educators – Although not yet as internationally recognised as the previous two, the SWE deserves a mention solely based on the quality and clear-cut purpose of its three-tier wine certification program. These are; ‘Certified specialist of Wine (CSW)’, ‘Certified Wine Educator (CWE)’ and ‘Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS)’.

Wine MBA from the Bordeaux Management School – A one of its kind MBA program designed for wine professionals aspiring to take the next big step in the world wine trade. This unique course is structured keeping in mind the dynamics of the present day global wine business. Students have the choice of pursuing this option from any of the four strategic locations – Bordeaux, Adelaide, London or the UC Davis campus in California.

Courses run by wine experts – A lot of individuals offer different levels of wine courses which can help you get a head start in the industry or enhance your wine appreciation capabilities. Most of them will either hold a wine educator’s certificate from a recognised institute (like the WSET) or should be adequately trained/qualified to be able to be both authoritative and informative in their teachings. In countries like the UK, USA and New Zealand, many such courses are run by Masters of Wine or Master Sommeliers.

Others – There are a number of other options which can be explored as means of laying a foundation for wine knowledge. Most cosmopolitan societies nowadays boast of institutes offering wine courses of various sizes and affiliations. These range from customized courses based on particular requirements like training restaurant/bar staff to laid back and fun events.

There are a myriad of factors that play crucial roles in creating and developing a healthy wine culture in an untraditional market, among which, quality education is probably the most key ingredient that helps in sustaining its popularity and commercial success. Therefore it is in the larger interest of a country’s wine industry to recognise this fact and assign it the pivotal role in all attempts to promote the beautiful beverage.




Understanding Wine Descriptors – Part 2

In this post I’ve listed some most common faults that one may come across occasionally in wine literature, although, being faults, they hardly appear in tasting notes. Once again, this is an attempt to present the flaws in as simple language as possible without venturing into the science and technicalities behind them:

  • Appley/Sherry like – A common fault that is a result of heavy oxygen contact. Imagine smelling leftover cut apples.
  • Cloudy – When wines (mostly whites) appear hazy because they were not properly clarified before bottling.
  • Corked/Cork taint – A massive issue that is the basis of the New World efforts to popularize alternative wine closures, especially the screwcap. A musty smell masks all the basic aromas of the wine. Imagine smelling a wet cardboard.
  • Brett – Short for Brettanomyces. There are many ways this fault is described based on the level of contamination the meaning of which are pretty self explanatory like horsey (imagine walking into a horse stable), mousy, band-aidy, cheesy, barnyardy etc.
  • Buttery – Generally a positive outcome of ‘Malo’ (see previous post) but occasionally higher levels can interfere with varietal flavours.
  • Oxidised – A result of extended contact of oxygen with the wine. In appearance, most distinct in white wines which turn brown. Smells appley or sherry like. Heavily oxidised wines will taste flat.
  • Slimey – When the wine’s texture is particularly viscous or fatty. Sometimes can also be described as ropiness of the wine.
  • Spritzy – Fizziness or effervescence noticed in wines that are expected to be absolutely still. A byproduct of micro-organisms feeding on nutrients in the wine after bottling.
  • Sulphur taints – Sulphur acts as a preservative in wines but excess amounts can result in smells of spent matches (fireworks smoke on a Diwali night???). Another sulphur related fault often described as rotten eggs smell.
  • Vinegary – Also referred to as VA (volatile acidity). In simple terms it means that the acid components are too obvious on the nose rather than on the palate.

These are the most common descriptors one is likely to encounter although there are numerous other flaws that can be observed in bottled wines which experts often relate to various intricacies of wine science. But the saying “you don’t have to know how an internal combustion engine works to drive a car”, is also applicable when it comes to enjoying wine!



Understanding Wine Descriptors – Part 1

In one of my previous posts I discussed about the nature of wine tasting notes that are mostly visible on the web nowadays. Most of them can be encountered on on-line wine forums/communities/tasting groups – a virtual world of wine linguists where anyone who is not accustomed to the language may feel a bit out of place.

If you happen to be one of these rank outsiders, it is worthwhile to get a basic understanding of the most common descriptors that have become almost de rigueur and to a large extent indispensable in modern day wine language.

Following is a list of such words/jargons/phrases that I’ve come across the most. Please note that they are not in any particular sensory order (appearance, nose & palate) but are general words that are most likely to appear in tasting notes. This list does not include the wine faults which I’ll discuss in my next post:

  • Astringent – A drying and often unpleasant sensation after swallowing. Mostly used to describe red wines with high tannin. Imagine a very strong black and unsweetened tea!
  • Austere – Simply, a wine that is hard to enjoy mostly due to high acidity or lack of fruit characters.
  • Autolytic characters – Used to describe Champagne and other sparkling wines made in the ‘traditional’ way. A character achieved by ageing these wines on dead and decomposing yeast cells. Synonymous with ‘yeasty’, ‘biscuity’, ‘briochy’ etc.
  • Big – A wine so full and rich in flavour that it seems big in the mouth. Sometimes may also be used to indicate high alcohol and tannic (not harsh but well integrated with flavour components) wines.
  • Body – Primarily indicates a combination of fruit, alcohol and sweetness but may also account for other factors.
  • Buttery – A creamy, almost butter like sensation observed in oak matured Chardonnays. See Malo characters below.
  • Chewy – Used for tannins that are so obvious that they need to be chewed before swallowing.
  • Closed – A wine that does not express itself entirely because it hasn’t matured enough.
  • Cloying – A negative term that indicates the sweetness of the wine which masks other characters.
  • Complex – In wine language, a positive term. Used for wines that demonstrate a balanced and wide range of flavour and aroma components.
  • Crisp – White wines that have high levels of but not necessarily unpleasant acidity.
  • Dumb – More or less similar to closed but in a more negative sense as they may not express themselves with age.
  • Depth – Suggests how long lasting the flavour profiles of a wine are.
  • Extract/Extraction – A term used to indicate the overall concentration of colour and flavour as ‘extracted’ from the skins of the grapes.
  • Flabby – A wine that lacks the required acidity to make it balanced.
  • Finish – Simply, the sensation once the wine is swallowed. A big factor in deciding the quality.
  • Firm – A wine which holds itself well with either acidity or tannin.
  • Fleshy – A positive term to suggest body and extract.
  • Hollow – A wine with initial burst of flavour and a lingering finish but not so obvious in between. Requires a trained palate to observe this.
  • Hot – Indicates high alcohol. Heat observed on swallowing.
  • Jammy – Red wines with jam like smells. May indicate over-ripe fruits but not necessarily in a negative sense.
  • Lean – Somewhat watery. Lacking body and character.
  • Legs/Tears – Refers to the droplets that cling to the glass and descend down slowly after swirling. A result of high alcohol or sugar content.
  • Length – How long the flavour lingers in the mouth after being swallowed.
  • Malo characters – Malo is the short form of ‘Malolactic Fermentation’ which not only softens the wine (of acidity) but also imparts ‘Malo’ characters which, in white wines are generally described as ‘creamy’ and ‘buttery’.
  • Minerally – A wine that is perceived to have some distinct qualities that resembles mineral characters. For example, imagine striking two flint stones and smelling it! Top German Rieslings show plenty of minerally characters.
  • Powerful – A wine’s ability to pack a punch. In other words how powerful is it in terms of flavours, tannin and alcohol.
  • Robust – A wine with plenty of character in terms of body, flavour, length and overall profile.
  • Structure – Indicates the overall balance and harmony of all the wine’s components.
  • Supple – An easy drinking wine with a smooth texture. Often used to describe the balance of red wines.
  • Vinous – A rather ambiguous tasting term. Simply speaking it just suggests a simple wine that just tastes of ‘wine’ (Vin=wine in French) without displaying the complexities of a truly good wine.
  • Viscous – Mostly refers to the texture which is not thin. A combination of alcohol, sweetness fruit and oak extract.
  • Vegetal/Herbaceous – Can be used in both positive and negative ways. When positive it refers to the distinct grassy/leafy aromas of grape varieties like Sauvignon Blanc. In negative terms it means unripe tannins and fruit flavours in red wines.
  • Zesty – Often used to describe the acidity in a wine. Can also sometimes denote the citrus flavour profiles in grapes.

Although there are hundreds of other tasting terms used within the wine community, the list above are the ones that I’ve come across the most and in my view will assist a novice wine drinker in his/her quest to, well simply enjoy wine!

Part 2 on wine faults follows.