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WSET Diaries – Part 5: The Americas

Read Part 4 over on my blog, CoinduVin. For a start off, the
Posted 31st March 2011        

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Read Part 4 over on my blog, CoinduVin.

For a start off, the reason I’m labeling these WSET Diary posts as “parts” instead of “weeks”, even though they seem to be occurring weekly, is that they won’t be occurring weekly at all; after next week’s there’s a two week gap (I think it’s two weeks) because of bank holidays.

So now you know.

As with last week‘s escape from Old World originals around the Cape and over towards Australia, Van Dieman’s Land and beyond, we’re now over in the Western Hemisphere in what was apparently once know as America, before a pesky cartographer had his way with it and wrought division by way of Panama or thereabouts.

The three recognised wine producers of the Americas according to WSET are the USA, Chile and Argentina. Fair enough.

The story of wine’s journey to the New World is one I’d love to get into in more detail – one day, perhaps I will – but for now I’m stuck with the image of conquistadors planting vines in every plain, swamp and mountainside they came across, thirsty for the blood of Christ but lacking in the more comprehensive know-how of the modern vintner. Perhaps that’s not fair, but I know from my visit to Florida that they tried and failed there (due to the sub-tropical climate) and had to make do with the local grape varieties or move on to drier climes – not that I suppose your average conquistador was motivated chiefly by wine; there were other things to consider in those days: conquest, trade, religious freedom and suchlike.

But some things got lost along the way.

Two frequently-cited examples are the modern day Zinfandel and Carménère grapes: the former spiritually at home in California and the latter a flagship varietal for Chile.

Zinfandel is – it transpires – a DNA-match for the Italian Primitivo grape but accidentally (or on purpose?) given a new lease of life and a new identity (like so many non-grape organisms) after its arrival in the New World. Our teacher tells us the Americans benevolently bestowed the Italians with the opportunity to label their own Primitivo bottles as Zinfandel if they wanted, just a couple of years ago: they didn’t want.

Carménère on the other hand was bottled and sold mistakenly as the much more famous French export Merlot: it must have been a marketer’s dream when it turned out to be a little-used soft red that had its own fancy name and everything, and (in my own opinion) provides a much tastier wine at the end of the process. It’s similarly soft but there’s a touch less dull, rubberiness to it in my experience. (My experience amounting to two bottles, next to countless Merlots, few of which – if any – have ever truly impressed me.)

The Carménère tonight is a Llai Llai (sounds Welsh: isn’t) and lives up to my expectations wonderfully – probably providing my favourite taste sensation of the evening – fairly tannic, spicy, plummy and dark: and yet all fairly soft and supple.

I’m disappointed by the USA (i.e. Californian) wines tonight, but I’ve had enough Californian wines over the past year to convince me of their greatness, so no bother. Robert Mondavi‘s Cab Sav is very Californian, and therefore a bit too fruity for my tastes: not my favourite from his excellent Private Selection range, (I preferred the Pinot Noir and the Meritage in particular), and expensive for a supermarket brand at over £10.

Redwood Creek‘s Chardonnay wasn’t as bad as their Cab Sav, but for me it was all sugary-sweet fruit and little to excite the senses; frankly, I think they make wine for another palate: not mine.

Tesco’s finest Argentine Malbec isn’t as fine as many non-Tesco equivalents I’ve tasted. And the rest of the wines are fairly okay but not too memorable.

Still, good old Cono Sur came up trumps for Chile with their Riesling Reserva: about twice as alcoholic as a German Riesling (14%!) and dry on the finish: slightly petrolly smell but a good mouthful of dazzling fruit and floral flavours. Hate to say it, but it is that much better than their regular Riesling, which we tried in week 1, despite the fact that officially there’s no legal requirement for ‘reserva’ to mean anything in Chile, so I’ve been told.

“I’ve gone crazy”, says our teacher, after revealing the relatively high price of yet another of tonight’s bottles.

Let’s hope he goes positively postal for next week’s lesson on sweet wines.

Read Part 6 over on



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Meet the Author:
Alexander Velky
Alexander grew up on Anglesey, almost as far away from civilization as he’d have liked. He studied English at university and subsequently moved to Prague to teach it to Czech people for just long enough that he could say he’d done that. He then returned to the UK to do an MA in Professional Writing, and later moved to London by accident and worked in the music industry for a while. His interest in wine has been developing throughout. He took the WSET Intermediate exam, for which he was rewarded with a certificate and a pin badge, but he probably won't bother doing any more. He now lives in Pembrokeshire with his wife and daughter. He writes, and drinks, for a living. You can follow him on Twitter if that's how you choose to spend your time. Photograph by Léonie Keeble