by Charlie Leary

Navigating A Complex Terrain

There are mixed bags and wild ferments, threats and inert gases, stability and prestige Champagne. The content of the 2023 Master of Wine exam presented an extremely high hurdle for MW candidates. It also drew a neat picture of the current wine industry. When the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) started in the 1950s, the wine world wasn’t so complicated. Everything was firmly and traditionally British. I’d call that the start of wine’s modern era; nowwe have slipped into a post-modern one.

Following tradition, the 2023 exam had two major components: the “practical papers” based on blind wine tasting and the “theory papers,” which delve into viticulture, vinification, wine handling, the business of wine, and what the IMW calls “contemporary issues.” That phrase is interesting because, as the exam itself shows, everything in the world of wine edges towards the contemporary. The candidates, for example, boast diverse backgrounds and more of that is wanted. It wasn’t always so. “The Institute’s members were all male until 17 years after the first exam, in 1970, when Sarah Morphew Stephen MW became the IMW’s first female member.” Julian Gore-Booth, the Institute’s new Executive Director (who is not an MW), very recently said, “We need to do more around diversity and inclusion.” The gender split of new MWs in the last 10 years is 52% male, 48% female, and 414 MWs live in 31 different countries. The IMW doesn’t reveal their ethnic origins or economic backgrounds, but more diverse perspectives certainly exist today than 70 years ago.

In 1953, the theory questions used Jerez to discuss how “the character and quality of wines made in a particular area depend on certain well defined influences.” Another topic: “State if the cultivation of the vine has altered materially in Europe in the last 100 years. If so, what is the nature of these alterations, what caused them, and what are the effects, if any, on the wines of to-day?” Sherry and European viticultural history; it was a different world, although change was afoot. Examinees had to compare the work of “vine dressers” in Sicily, the Côte d’Or, and South Australia in distinct months of the year.

The 2023 theory questions do not delve explicitly into terroir or its fashionable replacement, “sense of place,” and there’s no mention of “fine wine” or Jerez. The IMW used the terms “high-quality wine” as well as “prestige” bubbly, and requested that candidates describe achieving stability in “entry-level” New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, “domaine-bottled” Meursault, and Alsace Sélection de Grains Nobles Riesling. The technical character of these three wines obviously related to their quality, scarcity, and price hierarchy. The exam was relatively pluralistic regarding wine quality levels in asking examinees to take on the hypothetical roles of a quality-control manager for both a major European supermarket chain as well as a “major multiple retailer” of unknown origin. Under the business of wine section, the questions equally balanced return on investment concerns with advancing a “sustainability agenda.” Candidates could answer one or the other. California was intriguingly singled out in terms of the opportunities and challenges facing its wine industry.

The post-modern (and maybe transmodern) reality of today’s wine world raised its head in questions about “the future of traditional wine packaging,” whether alcohol even has a place in “high-quality wine,” and what should be on a wine label. Future and tradition, high-quality and entry-level are two of the inevitable binaries the IMW posed, which might require deconstruction. Perhaps the exam did that by asking about alcohol’s necessity and if wine’s ability to age is even important. But the IMW gives its position on these issues away by demanding (and giving big points for) assessing “quality and ageing potential” of wines in the practical section. Hot topics like climate change and conventional viticulture are not explicitly named, but appear, nonetheless. The exam refers to “extreme heat and drought” as a fact and also requests solutions to soil nitrogen deficiency. There is no mention of the increasing organic, biodynamic, old-vine, or regenerative trends in viticulture. The exam leaves that to the exam takers’ subjective discretion.

Wine tasting has long been a focus of intellectuals concerned with the philosophy of subjectivity and objectivity. Examples include the writings of philosophers Barry Smith and Wendy Donner as well as the historian of science Steven Shapin regarding wine sensory analysis. They ask if wine tasting objective or subjective? IMW addresses that issue obliquely, but in essence head-on, in the practical papers. Candidates must be able to assess and describe not only a wine’s market potential but also its actual market and commercial positions. Level of maturity, grape variety, style influences, production methods (including oak contact), and, of course origin, all receive supreme importance. This is not surprising. The IMW comes down firmly on the side of “objectivity” in assessing a wine’s qualities. The place for subjectivity is left to the theory papers, particularly the “contemporary issues.”

An intriguing question contained a quotation: “’Minerality is one of the most overused yet misunderstood words in the wine industry.’ Discuss.” Had the candidates used “minerality” in the practical section, maybe in identifying one of the South African Chenins or the Russian River Valley Chardonnay? I, for one, wouldn’t blame them. A noted and characteristic “flinty” taste in wine descriptions has a history going back to the 18th century, and it’s interesting that what the IMW asked opened the door to literary semiotics, although maybe that wasn’t its intention. Were candidates to explore how the term “minerality” functions as a sign in the context of wine tasting and appreciation, the differing cultural and linguistic factors that contribute to the overuse and misunderstanding of the term, as well as measure the subjectivity and objectivity of “minerality” in wine? Wine tasting notes are in many ways at the cutting edge of post-modern power dynamics in the wine industry, where most MWs will find their gainful employment.

Finally, we get to know the wines tasted. The list provides a glimpse of what the IMW views as important knowledge for MW candidates, with perhaps some surprising omissions. The oldest was a 2005 Château Rauzan-Ségla from Margaux, an appropriate attestation as to ageing potential and the region’s production capacities. Then the exam jumped in time to a 2015 Barolo followed by a 2016 CVNE Rioja Gran Reserva. The vast majority of wines — from across the globe — represented 2019 to 2021 vintages, with one from 2022. South Africa received its own section with four wines made from three different varieties of distinct regions (Swartland, the Hemel-en-Arde Valley, Western Cape, and Walker Bay). The examinees had to state the country of origin and distinguish the three grapes among the four wines. There were two Chenin Blancs, one Sauvignon Blanc, and one Chardonnay. Other than that, Argentina, France, Italy, Australia (including Yellow Tail Shiraz), England (one bubbly, of course), Chile, Spain, California (only Sonoma and Napa), Portugal (Mateus Rosé), and Hungary (two Tokaji) all counted present. The collection contained just one wine each from Bordeaux, Rioja, Cava, Chile (a Maule Semillón), Portugal, Bourgogne, and Champagne, and French wines outnumbered all others. There were no wines from Georgia, Uruguay, California AVAs outside Sonoma and Napa, Oregon or Washington; no Prosecco, no Greece, no New York, no Canada, neither Ribera del Duero nor Galicia. Sherry and Port were absent. Italy was well represented.

MW candidates represent the future of the wine industry, and the 2023 exam serves as a microcosm of the current landscape, reflecting the delicate balance between tradition and post-modern realities. The exam’s focus on wine’s diversity, contemporary issues, and the interplay between subjectivity and objectivity underscores the industry’s ongoing evolution. As MW candidates navigate this complex terrain, they contribute to the growth and transformation of an industry that is continually redefining itself. By embracing diversity, addressing issues like climate change and sustainability, and engaging in thoughtful discourse, these future wine experts should pave the way for a more inclusive, dynamic, and profitable world of wine.

Photo by Akshay Chauhan on Unsplash


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