This semester for my diploma in grapegrowing and winemaking I have been studying sensory science. This involves, as a substantial part of the overall marks for the course, a week of wine evaluation. This takes place on the EIT campus in Napier, in sunny Hawke’s Bay.
I set out from Wellington on Sunday afternoon, and as I approached Napier the rain started to set in for good. I found my motel on Gloucester Street, and checked in. Taking a lesson from my previous residential course, I’d taken the precaution of bringing some ready-made meals with me, so I wouldn’t be at the mercy of the dubious eateries of Taradale.
Wine evaluation is different to wine tasting. Whether you like the wine is largely irrelevant – what we were endeavouring to do was to identify all the flavours in the wine, and decide whether they should be there. This involves, among other things, detecting “wine fault” – the smells and tastes associated with wines that have gone bad, and went into some detail of what causes these faults. There was a small group of us, only 10 in total, as opposed to the 24 who attended the microbiology course I did earlier in the year. Also, most of the attendees on this course were either working at vineyards or had recently done so, so there was a good deal of experience in the room, which I think helped me, and hopefully the others, a great deal when it came to talking about the different wines and the flavours from them. We worked through the main grape varietals grown in New Zealand – sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, riesling, gewurtztraminer and other less-planted white wines; and pinot noir, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, together with other red wines. On the final day we also dealt with rosé, sparkling and dessert wines.
As part of the course marks, we also had to deliver a presentation on a wine-related subject. The subjects presented covered such topics as malolactic fermentation, “lifestyle” wines (i.e. low-alcohol), regional comparisons of New Zealand chardonnays, wild versus inoculated yeast fermentations. My presentation covered oaked and unoaked chardonnays. At the end of each presentation we tried some wines (usually two) that showed the characteristics of the presentation.
After lunch on Friday, we had an hour-long practical exam where we had to identify wine faults, rank some white wines by acidity and sweetness, and evaluate three white and three red wines. Results should be out in a couple of weeks, then there’s a final written exam at the end of November.
It was a very enjoyable week, with a lot of good wines, and I now feel I know a lot more about what to look for in a wine when I’m tasting it. It was also good to meet people working in the industry, and hopefully I’ll be able to follow up with visits to some of their wineries and vineyards in the next few months.
Oh, and it pissed down all week. Sunny Hawke's Bay, my arse!