Natty Girls-in-Training: Weeks One and Two of the WSET

by Megan Jones

What’s up, kids. If you were expecting Dan’s dulcet Aussie tones, ‘fraid I’m here to disappoint you. Dan doesn’t need to take the WSET – in fact he famously took the entrance exam for me and completed it in eleven minutes. That’s why he’s our lord and saviour, and we just his humble wine neophyte servants.

Anyway, not Dan. This is Megan. If you’ve ever been down to the bar then I’ve probably poured you a glass of wine or four, or shoved a card machine in your face at 10:59 p.m. so I can go home. If you’ve never been to the bar then a) nice to meet you and b) what are you playing at? Not living in London is no excuse. Heard of a little thing called a train?

As relatively new additions to the Natty family, myself and my good buddy Ruth are being sent back to school. Wine school, to be exact. Every Monday from now until the end of time (or for the next eighteen weeks, more precisely) we Natty Girls-In-Training will be dragging our tails down to London Bridge to study this business we call wine. Apparently there’s quite a lot to learn. Who knew?

So I thought it would be fun to share our progress, what we’ve learned, and how you can translate that into buying things from us :) If you already know loads about wine, good for you. Stick around for the witty banter. If you’re a wine novice like us, stick around for the knowledge. At the end of eighteen weeks you’ll officially know as much about wine as me and you can come down to the bar and steal my job.

I’m going to skip the week one summary, for one thing because I wasn’t there (I was in Tuscany quaffing supermarket red wine from 5 litre plastic bottles, something I’m sure Dan wouldn’t approve of. I figured it was my last opportunity to drink that vinegary crap before I have to start saying things like ‘Hmm, tastes more like a Syrah than a Grenache, wouldn’t you say?’ Neither of which grow in Tuscany. See, I’m learning already) and for another, because it was about tasting techniques and how to actually pass the WSET exam. Since you’re not taking the WSET I assume that won’t be of interest, and if you are taking it, you should be reading the textbook, not my bad paraphrasing of it.

So, straight to week two! ~Natural Factors and Human Influences in the vineyard~. This was essentially a straight up geography lesson, chatting all things climate, weather and soil. Sexy. Tbh my main takeaway was that being a winemaker is really fkn hard and everything is conspiring against you at all times to mess with your grapes. So next time you’re throwing back a fizz at dan’s, spare a thought for the guys and gals who made it. Or don’t spare a thought, just order a bottle and say thanks to them that way instead.

The first rule of vines is that they’re really needy. They require heat, sunlight, water, nutrients and carbon dioxide in perfect balance or your whole vineyard will go to hell faster than you can say Pinot Noir. I’ll break down a couple of them here for you.

First off, let’s talk water. À la Goldilocks, it’s gotta be juuuust right. If there’s not enough, photosynthesis (remember that Biology GCSE? Yeah, me neither) will stop and the grapes won’t ripen. If there’s too much, the vine gets all hyped up and starts producing loads of useless leaves and new shoots, which steal the sugar from the grapes that actually need it. The extra green stuff also adds to the canopy shading the vine, which can stop the grapes from getting their daily dose of Vitamin D. Rain can also really F things up. If it rains heavily right before the harvest, the grapes can swell, diluting the flavour, or even burst, which increases the risk of fungal disease and then they end up looking like those pictures you see on Web MD when you google your symptoms. Not nice. Hail can destroy an entire vintage in one afternoon, and basically the only way to prevent it, unless you're a millionaire who can afford to cover the whole shebang in nets, is to plant vines all over the shop, so if hail ruins one of them then you’ve got backups. That’s it. That’s your only option. This really is Mother Nature’s world and we’re just living in it.

On to sunlight. The distance from your vineyard to the Equator determines both how strong the sun is (near the Equator = strong. Duh) and how long the day is (further from the Equator = longer, less duh, I didn’t actually know that). The longer days are an important factor in ripening Riesling grapes in Germany, for example, which need a slow, long warming up to get those good flavours flowing. Vines near large bodies of water have more cloud cover, but can also benefit from the sunlight bouncing off the surface of your lake or your sea or what have you. In vines further from the Equator, you can maximise sunlight by building your vines on a steep steep slope, although this then limits harvesting options (like the fact that you can’t drive a machine harvester up the side of a cliff so you’ve got to pick all the buggers with your own two hands). But too much direct sunlight and the grapes can get SUNBURN WHICH IS SO CUTE! What is not cute is that sunburn makes the grapes all bitter and gross and apparently you can’t put factor 50 on them because that doesn’t work. I mean, I didn’t ask if you could do that because I didn’t want the lecturer to think I was a moron, but it seems like a safe bet.

So those are the natural factors (or an extremely broad overview of them, I’m trying to summarise about forty pages of information here). On to the humans.

Once you plant a new vine, the first yield doesn’t come until the third year. Imagine having enough of a life plan that you could plant a vine and be sure that you would still want to be a winemaker when the grapes finally started to grow three years later. Can’t personally relate, but good for those people. It’s probably the reason why so many wineries are handed down through generations, so people don’t have to keep planting sodding vines every time they fancy a career change. Older vines are also generally considered to produce the most banging wines out there, although they come with their own special set of irritations (are you sensing a pattern here?) – low yields and susceptibility to disease, mostly.

There was then a long section about the grape lifecycle which a google image diagram can probably sum up better than I can, so I’m going to jump right to chemicals. The amount of chemicals used in the vineyard to prevent pests has been climbing of late, and more and more grape growers are doing their bit to bring those numbers back down. There are a couple of ways they can do this. Sustainable agriculture is one, meaning strategically spraying based on the lifecycles of pests and weather forecasting rather than just blasting the vineyard with pesticides all day every day. There’s organic agriculture, which allows a super strict selection of traditional treatments, and if you want to use the word ‘organic’ on the bottle to sell your wine to hipsters you have to go through a rigorous accreditation process. Then there’s my personal favourite: biodynamic agriculture, where you adapt your processes according to the cycles of the planets, moon and stars. I don’t know how this works exactly, but I imagine it has something to do with horoscopes. Like not planting any grapes that will be Scorpios, because everyone knows they’re the worst. No offence.

I’ll round off this extremely long meditation on grapes with some good stuff I’ve been drinking recently and which you should start drinking too. I had this pét nat, La Dilletante from Pierre and Catherine Breton, at a *whispers* wine bar that wasn't dan's last weekend and it was cracking. We ended up having to neck most of it because we misjudged the timing of our dinner reservation, but you could also take your time with it if you’re that kind of drinker. Sticking with the bubbles theme, this Château Tour des Gendres pét nat was a creamy, frothy delight. Get yourselves a case for New Year’s, or for the New Week, as in, right now. Final fizz for the week is this treat from Marcobarba, which I served at a Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks ago and which received universal approval. Give thanks indeed.

Thanks for sticking around! Catch ya next week, or chez dan’s this weekend.


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