I spent the day going through thirteen exams worth of feedback from the examiners, and it was telling. It was good in that there are certain consistent elements that examiners require for a given region or wine style, being climate, weather, soil, viticulture, vinification, and grape variety for the former, and colour, ripeness, structure, acid, tannin and alcohol for the latter. Seeing year after year of people struggling to pass their exams, the reports show clearly that what they want is not rocket science, but many students approach the exams without having spent much time looking at the past feedback.
However, it does make me wonder a bit about the system in general. The pass rate for exams is not brilliant – somewhere in the 50% range, which varies greatly from question to question. While I think the WSET is obviously trying to maintain a very high standard in keeping exams difficult, they’re not as good at keeping up the other half of the equation in providing students with the education they need in order to pass the exam. It’s all well and good to craft challenging exams, and there is a perverse pride as a student in being able to say that you’ve succeeded where many others have failed, but it does seem strange to sign up for a course where the instructors are only able to effectively convey the expectations and the material to half their students.
So while the reading today was equal parts informative and depressing, I did have a drop to console myself this evening. It’s the Will Taylor Hunter Valley Semillon 2004. I don’t know very much about Will Taylor, but his website suggest someone who neither grows grapes nor makes wine, but rather is putting together a portfolio of wines based on excellent vineyards and excellent winemakers, which seems like a nice thing to do if you have a huge pile of money. (Yes, I’m jealous.)
Just a few words about the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Australia – it is an iconic Australia wine region, and Semillon is the grape with which it is most commonly associated (though Chardonnay is more widely planted and they grow many others as well). It’s due north of Sydney, though a bit further in from the coast as the coastline moves somewhat to the northeast. It’s one of the oldest areas of Australia growing grapes for wine, approaching its bicentennial in the next decade or two depending on which start date you pick. The climate is generally classed as Mediterranean, but it’s one of the warmer Australian regions, and wetter picking up maritime influences from the Pacific as well as cooling breezes and rain. The soil is volcanic basalt. Semillon is widely planted, usually on different rootstock due to phylloxera presence. Some irrigation is used in drier parts of the region. Mechanization is common, as with much of Australia, but other viticultural practices can very as it is unregulated.
This Semillon is fairly typical for a number of reasons. First off, it exhibits high acid with is common to Hunter Valley Semillon but less typical of Semillon grown elsewhere, particularly Bordeaux. On the palate there is a bit of lemon, but more honey, toast, and lanolin. Finally, this is a seven year old wine and still showing nicely. While some Australian fine wine is certainly capable of ageing, most is readily drunk young. Hunter Valley Semillon is one of the few Australian wines that is readily appreciated with more bottle age as in this case.
Bright and clear, medium-minus gold, with a thick film that only slowly turns to legs.
Clean with medium-plus intensity and developing. Notes of lanolin, honey, toast and lemon.
Dry, high acidity, medium-minus alcohol, and a medium-plus body and medium-plus flavour intensity. The palate matched the nose with lanolin, honey, toast, and a bit of quince and lemon. The length is medium-plus with a slightly sour finish.
This is a very good wine. The alcohol was low relative to the other characteristics, but the body more than made up for it as far as balance. The high acid drove the intensity, but the flavours at medium-plus kept up. I would only slightly fault the wine for a lack of complexity, in that it is almost cliche Hunter Valley Semillon in it’s flavour profile. It shows both varietal and regional typicity. Hunter Valley Semillon, while iconic, is not the flavour of the month, and this wine is available from the producer for $22.50.
Readiness to drink – showing well but has potential for further ageing or perhaps five years. I would expect the honey to become more pronounced though I would not expect the acid to soften at all.
A note on the map – Will Hunter is based near Adelaide, in South Australia, whereas this wine is from the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. That puts the pin in the map in the wrong place with respect to this wine, but the correct place with regards to the producer. If I had an accurate address for the vineyard in the Hunter from which the grapes were sourced, I might use that, but I’d rather have a specific address for the main office than a much less accurate pin vaguely in the right region.