I had the honor to once again attend TEXSOM, the sommelier education conference hosted in Dallas each summer, but this time with a little different perspective. I participated in the Introductory Sommelier Course and Exam conducted by the Court of Sommeliers, the organization that grants the certified, advanced and master sommelier designations. It was an eye-opening experience of what it means to undertake the certification process and I was both delighted and relieved that I passed my exam. Phew!
Thank you to everyone who helped me study, blind taste and talk me down off the ceiling when I got nervous. It took a village!
After the course, the sessions at the conference seemed downright relaxing – no exam at the end! And, as always, I learned an incredible amount from the Master Sommeliers, writers, educators and winemakers who conducted the informative sessions.
The overarching theme for me at this year’s conference was that winemakers around the world are moving beyond the most popular varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc.) and embracing grapes that are ideal for their climate and region. The result is an emergence of enticing and interesting wines. The challenge? We have to be willing to get out of our comfort zones and try them.
Here is a quick snapshot of some of my biggest takeaways from TEXSOM 2014.
Don’t be afraid to explore the states
We’ve all had wines from California, Washington and Oregon, and maybe you even have a Texas favorite or two (I know I do), but have you tried some of the other states? There are some incredibly interesting wines being made across the country and that was the focus of the Beyond the Big Three panel curated by seven industry leaders. We were taken on a vinous tour that spanned from Virginia to Arizona and included wines from Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri,New York, Texas and Virginia.
I was intrigued to try so many new wines including a Norton-based wine from Stone Hill Winery in Misssouri. The Norton grape, new to me, is a native American varietal that is planted widely on the East Coast and was planted in Missouri by German immigrants. I also really enjoyed the Michigan (Chateau Grand Traverse) and New York (Ravines Wine Cellars) Rieslings, as well as the Bookcliff Vineyards Syrah Reserve from Grand Valley, Colorado. And, of course, I loved the Texas stars at the tasting, the Duchman Family Winery Sangiovese and the Pedernales Cellars Tempranillo.
Wine writer and educator Paul Lukacs summed up my feelings about this session and the pleasure in exploring new wines. “When wine is well-made outside of the West Coast, it doesn’t taste like a clone of West Coast wine. You are going to get different flavors and characteristics. How many wine lists have we seen that are repeating the same characteristics at different price points. Let’s look at new things. What is the story to tell when they are all the same thing?”
Lukacs’ words rang in my ears this week as I perused a predominantly California list at a restaurant, full of wines I’ve seen on so many other lists, and suppressed the urge to question their sense of adventure.
Portugal is about much more than Port
When you think of Portugal wine, you probably consider Port and maybe Vinho Verde, but you probably do not know much about the other 250 indigenous grape varieties. With a renewed focus on non-Port styles and an increased interest in exporting (thanks EU!), you can now find more Portugese labels on the shelf and restaurant menus.
Master Sommeliers Devon Broglie (Austin) and Keith Goldston introduced us to a number of Portugese gems. Already a fan of Vinho Verde for Austin’s hot summer days and Touriga Nacional when I’d like a deep red to cozy up with, I was delighted to find some new Portugese favorites and even happier that they are reasonably priced.
I’ll be seeking out the Qunita Dos Roques made from 100% Encruzado grapes as well as the Luis Pato Beiras VR Vinhas Velhas from the Baga grape. I’ll also be keeping my eyes peeled for wines from Alvaro Castro who Goldston called “the soul of Portugese wine.” With a title like that, how could his wines not be fantastic.
Embrace your inner gaucho
Until the regional focus on Chile and Argentina led by Master Sommeliers Craig Collins (Austin) and Peter Neptune, I alway thought of South American wine as an acceptable alternative to my other choices when I was wanting to spend a little less. A new wave of young winemakers with a penchant for experimentation is changing all of that and the result is a host of exciting wines from the region.
Collins noted that winemakers are planting increasing amounts of Carignan and Cinsault in Chile and Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Bonarda and Semillon in Argentina. On the Chilean side, two wines from Concho y Toro caught my fancy: the 2012 Terrunyo Sauvignon Blanc and 2008 Carmin de Peumo Carmenere (this one’s pricey at $65, but worth it).
From Argentina, I loved the Mendel Semillon, which Collins dubbed as “gluggable” for its easy drinkability, am always a fan of the Bodega Colome Torrontes, and if you need a leggy red to go with your steak, seek out the Andeluna Cellars Grand Reserve Pasionado blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
Pecorino isn’t just a cheese
No, really, Pecorino is also a wine. This Italian white varietal from the Offida DOCG in Marche makes a crisp, clean wine with a touch of apple and honeysuckle. In the Weird & Wild DOCGs session, Master Sommelliers Brett Davis, Laura DePasquale and W. Scott Harper led us through a fascinating tasting several lesser known Italian DOCGs, or government classified wine regions.
The white varietal Albana was the star of the Tre Monti Vigna Rocca Secco from Emilia Romagna, a region considered the bread basket of Italy because of its fertile soils. With light flavors of honey and peach, this wine would be perfect shared with friends over a platter of ham and cheese.
As a big fan of Nebbolio, I was excited to discover a region outside of Piedmont (its traditional home) growing the grape. The Nino Negri from the Sfrusrsat di Valtellina DOCG did not disappoint and I will not shy away next time I see a Valtellina Nebbiolo on a list.
I ended this year’s TEXSOM conference with a retrospective tasting from Chappellet Winery. This was my first vertical tasting, sampling several vintages (years) of the same wine to learn how it has aged and changed over time, and it was a revelatory experience.
Chappellet was the second new winery to open after prohibition, Mondavi was first, and has a well-deserved reputation for making outstanding wines. It was an honor to have the owner and Chairman Cyril Chappellet share the winery’s history as we tasted the Chappellet Signature Cabernet Sauvignon from 1975, 1977, 1980, 1987, 1991 and 1997, followed by the Chappellet Pritchard Hill Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from 2005 and 2010.
The wines represented the work of three different winemakers over four decades and you could sense their style in each glass. I came away from the tasting with a distinct feel for Pritchard Hill, even though I’ve never been there, and how the winery is evolving.
Before this session, I had avoided vertical tastings, not understanding why you would want to taste so many versions of the same wine. I won’t make that mistake again. Vertical tastings give you great insight to a wine – its past and its potential.
And a lesson learned
And, one last thing. I learned the hard way during my Introductory course that I need to drink a lot more red wine before my next blind tasting test. I did pretty well with the white wines in the portion of our class where you have to deduce the wine without knowing anything about it. However, when we started analyzing reds, my penchant for roses and whites got in the way and I struggled. Clearly, I have more studying to do… Darn.
Thanks to the Court of Sommeliers and TEXSOM for another year of expanding my horizons and palate. I can’t wait to see what next year brings!