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Wine 101 

A new class of wine drinkers

We all drank Cab during the final exam. While a few of my classmates put their glasses to the side at the beginning of the test, others merrily sipped and penciled in their answers to the 50-question final exam.

It was all so civilized, so British.

The exam marked the conclusion of the Intermediate Certificate Program of the British-based Wine and Spirits Education Trust (W.S.E.T.) class, a nine-week class which met for two-and-a-half hours each Thursday night on the fifth floor of the academic building of Johnson & Wales. The W.S.E.T. courses are the stepping stones to the Master of Wine certificate, the most ambitious and coveted rank to obtain in the wine world.

The Master of Wine designation is not to be confused with the British-based Master Sommelier program, which is less strenuous and more hands on. The latter is primarily sought by people who work in restaurants because service is one of its components. The Master of Wine and the W.S.E.T. courses, on the other hand, are more theory-based and taken by négociants, winemakers, wine writers, hospitality and culinary students, wine shop staff, restaurateurs and other members of the trade, as well as civilian wine geeks, er, aficionados.

Students in this class were a mix. Most had years of experience tasting wines and visiting vineyards, but some were students: a native Chinese preparing for a job in a French Vietnamese restaurant in Cary and another going for a J&W summer abroad program in German vineyards. Sarah Malik, an associate professor in The Hospitality College at Johnson & Wales, led the class and noted W.S.E.T., an internationally recognized wine certification, is recommended not only for the wine professionals but also for people who drink for pleasure.

Malik, a native of the U.K., sprinkled the lectures with asides of her trips through French vineyards, and midway through the course some of us realized we were using "nasty" in front of Asti and pronouncing Carminere, a Chilean red wine, with a British accent.

For one class we had nine wines to taste; in another, there was a cart full of scotch, tequila and gin. One of the strengths of the program is its view of the wine and spirit world from a European center. The text focuses on the world's wine regions, yet devotes the most discussion to Europe, specifically France, and the least to wines of the "New World." (South Africa, by the way, is part of the New World, according to the W.S.E.T.)

This European perspective is particularly refreshing because New World wines are just easier with their label-friendly bottles and familiar taste profiles. Americans who enjoy California chardonnays know their characteristic oak flavors and perhaps over-acidification. This course, however, tested on the taste profile of a Chablis, which stands in sharp contrast, with its crisp, rich palate with tart and flinty notes.

Yet, an attitude emanates from the W.S.E.T. text that sweeps New World wines into broad categories not allowing for the expressiveness of place (terrior) as shown in European wines with few notable exceptions. One is the Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, which clearly demonstrates a distinctiveness as pronounced as Sen. Barack Obama's speech cadence.

Each week brought a covey of tasting glasses. Some wines, and spirits, were universally enjoyed while others produced squinched-up noses. My least favorite was the floral tidal wave of a Torronté, from Argentina's Cafayate Valley. This particular bottle had the aromas of rose water and gardenias and would best be paired with a cheap suit. Yet while preference for styles of wines is personal, knowledge of that style is what W.S.E.T. expects you to know.

Each class made me think about the grapes and where they are grown and how the foods of that culture are a reliable way to match wines. Occasionally the discovery of a cross-world match, say, Australia's Coffin Bay oysters with Champagne, stands out, but in general, there is no better match for Barcelona's tapas than a Penedes Cava or a bold Barossa shiraz with a grass-fed Australian steak thrown on the barbie. This concept proved itself repeatedly throughout the course.

Although not tested on blind tastings during the final, Malik frequently conducted double blinds in class. Blind tastings are, however, a component of the Advanced program final, also taught at Johnson & Wales. The diploma level, typically a two-year program, is not yet taught in Charlotte and is the prerequisite for entering the Master of Wine program.

The results of the exam take six weeks to process because the tests are returned to the U.K. If you do plan to take the class and that exam, I'll offer one word of advice: sherries. Know them. It is a British test after all.

The nine-week W.S.E.T. Intermediate Certificate Program is $695, the 15-week Advanced Certificate $1,175. For more information about the W.S.E.T. classes offered at Johnson & Wales: wset.clt@jwu.edu or 980-598-1441. For more info on the Wine and Spirit Education Trust: www.wset.co.uk.

Eaters' Digest is back on a bi-monthly basis. Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine events? To contact Tricia, send information via e-mail (no attachments, please).

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