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Decanter Best

Taste like a pro: 12 classic French wines to test your skills

Natasha Hughes MW draws on her experience of devising tasting papers for Master of Wine students to recommend bottles that can train your palate, from classic Sancerre to quintessential Côte-Rôtie.

I’ve just spent four years working on one of the best gigs in the wine world. As the former co-ordinator of tasting papers for the Master of Wine education programme, students probably saw my role in a similar light to that of an inquisitor general.

I prefer to think the skills I’ve used when setting papers are similar to those employed by devisers of moustache-twirlingly-tricky crossword puzzles.

Every MW student sits eight 12-wine papers each year in the run-up to the exams, four at one of the week-long residential seminars, and another four at the course days dotted throughout the year.

Two of these feature white wines, another two are devoted exclusively to reds. The third papers in each set focus on rosés, sparkling, sweet and fortified wines, while the final papers are ‘mixed bag’ mock exams.

It’s a simple enough framework, yet within these broad outlines my challenge was to capture the diversity of the wine world in 96 wines and to create the perfect conditions for students to hone their skills at answering a range of questions.

Recently, Decanter asked me to select a dozen classic French wines that might make the cut the next time I set a paper.

The wines I’ve chosen would not only test students at MW level, they also make an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to improve their tasting skills.

What are classic French wines?

The 12 wines list below are a combination of red, white and rosé, with one sparkling wine, spanning the regions of Provence, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Bordeaux, Northern and Southern RhôneAlsace, Loire and Champagne.

They come from classic regions, ones with which every serious taster should be familiar.

They also hit a range of price points, because MW students don’t just get to taste the expensive stuff, and all of them demonstrate terrific typicity in terms of both style and flavour profile.

That search for typicity is usually the biggest challenge, because there’s often huge variation in style from one producer to the next, not to mention vintage variation.

The art lies in finding wines that won’t mislead the taster. A Meursault that lacks opulence or an overly ripe Sancerre with lush tropical fruit just won’t make the grade.

Instead, the fresh green herbs, lemon zest and smoky minerality in the Domaine André Vatan ‘Les Perriers’ 2018 listed below points clearly in the direction of Sancerre.

On the Château Batailley 2012, fine tannins, oak and complex aromas of dark fruits, leather, bitter chocolate and game lead you straight to Bordeaux’s Left Bank – that polish on the wine telling you to zero-in on Pauillac.

Château Beaulieu’s Cuvée Alexandre 2019, meanwhile, is quintessential Provence rosé, from its pale hue to the way it combines fresh berries, a tinge of garrigue and a refreshingly dry palate.

Don’t be afraid to ask

For every wine that makes it into an MW education paper, I’ll have tasted somewhere in the region of a dozen possible alternatives before finalising my selection. It’s the same process with the recommendations here.

I’ve been lucky; the job allowed me to conduct these kinds of exhaustive tastings almost on a daily basis.

The next best option for anyone wanting to organise a blind tasting is to throw yourself on the mercy of a good independent merchant.

Explain what you’re looking for, and why, and they should be able to help you make some appropriate choices. In the interim, these 12 wines make a good starting point.


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Adding complexity: Lessons from the MW programme

It’s widely believed that passing the tasting part of the MW exam relies on an ability to identify the origin of a wine and the grapes from which it was made.

Although this is a key skill, even more emphasis is placed on commercially relevant assessments. Candidates are expected to appraise the quality of a wine, to understand where and how to sell it, to make accurate predictions about its state of maturity and ability to age, and to comment on how the wine has been made.

Students who go on to pass the exam will have learned not only how to taste with great precision, but also how to put the wines they’re tasting into a truly global context.

My job was to set a series of exercises that allowed candidates to flex both their tasting muscles and their theoretical framework.

My first step was to think about the kinds of wines that I might use to populate my papers. I could, for instance, use the Sancerre I’ve recommended in a flight of Sauvignon Blancs from around the world, or as part of a Loire line-up featuring Chenin Blanc and a Muscadet.

It could even feature alongside a series of wines based on Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and blends of the two grapes.

The wines covered in the papers aren’t just Old World classics, either. Students should be aware of trends in consumption and be match-ready for any curve balls I throw their way.

Orange wines from Northern Italy, kvevri-aged cuvees from Georgia, South African Cinsaults, big-brand Aussies and the hugely popular Apothic, a medium-dry red blend from California, have all made their way into papers I’ve set.

In terms of geography, I try and cover the entire wine world over the course of the eight papers.

In the MW programme, it was important to set the broad parameters before selecting specific wines.

Remember that typicity rules. If I’ve picked a Côte-Rôtie, it should fit in with the platonic ideal for this kind of wine; Syrah, of course, but of higher quality than either a Crozes-Hermitage or a St-Joseph, and with a distinctive elegance and perfume, especially when compared to a more powerful Hermitage or a savoury Cornas.

Getting the wines right is so important.

On the MW programme, a small group of MWs put themselves, their tasting skills and their reputations on the line every September to come in and work through the papers blind.

This would allow me to weed out wines that didn’t really fit the bill; the rate of attrition was around 5%.

This year, for the first time in nearly five years, I won’t be there to watch them unpick the puzzles I’ve so painstakingly set. Maybe next year I should step up to the plate myself and find out whether I can take the punishment I’ve dished out with such relish over the past few years.


Classic French wines to try at home 


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