It says a lot about Marcela Burgos and her ability to be concise and to the point, that we managed to shoehorn her interview into just 20 minutes before the other MW candidates arrived for a blind wine tasting.  Marcela is one of those women who exude self-confidence and a sense of purpose, so in her presence I always feel like I need to pull my socks up and get on with things. No shilly-shallying about. A typical teacher vibe, actually, now I come to think about it.

No surprise then that Marcela is the owner of the Conservatorio de Vino school in Santiago offering Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses and occasional masterclasses. Marcela set up the school six years ago and is in the enviable position of having waiting lists for some courses, while others sell out soon after the dates are publicized.

What makes the Conservatorio de Vino so successful?

“Three things,” she says. “Firstly, I directly import the wines for the course tastings from the United States, so students can sample a really great range of wines. Secondly, unlike some wine schools, my courses have a gradual format – one or two evening classes a week. This means that students can review the material between classes and it also tends to fit better with their family and work commitments. Thirdly, I have a great team of teachers with first-hand knowledge of the wine industry, like Master of Wine candidates Marco de Martino (de Martino winery) and Fernando Almeda (former Technical Director of Miguel Torres Chile).”

So how did she get into this industry in the first place? She smiles, “I had just graduated with a business degree and was looking for a glamourous job, so I wrote to all the wineries on the Wines of Chile list.” Her first job at Los Boldos winery marked a key moment in her career. During the year she worked there, she had long conversations with the French winemaker, who told her about the world of wine outside of Chile.

Marcela’s next stop was a visit to the French white wine enclave of Alsace, followed by a year studying German in Munich, where she developed her ongoing love affair with German Riesling – especially from the Mosel.

“Riesling is a superlative variety,” she extols, “and Mosel Riesling evolves like a poem.”

Her career was set after a period living in Canada, where she worked her way through the WSET courses, completing WSET Level 4 (the Diploma) in London. Then, six years ago, after coming back to Chile and starting a family, she opened up the Conservatorio de Vino.

So what are her ambitions for the future?

“The Master of Wine programme, of course,” she says. Marcela is one of a very select handful of people in Chile on the extremely challenging MW programme who are seeking to join the 382 people around the world who currently hold this highly prestigious wine qualification.

She also writes features about Chile’s wine industry for Meininger’s Wine Business International, something she really enjoys. And she is confident that the Conservatorio de Vino will continue to grow over the coming years, offering the WSET Diploma, which is not currently available anywhere in South America, and increasing the number of WSET courses she runs each year.“Also I’ve just added the new WSET spirits qualifications and the demand is very strong, so I expect to see lots of growth there.”

And the final question: what are her favourite wines? Other than Mosel Riesling, red Burgundy tops her list, especially Chambolle-Musigny because it is so fragrant and evolves in the glass. And in terms of Chilean wine, aside from the Riesling wines from Chile’s coolest climate areas like the far south, she highlights Carignan from Maule because of its concentration and fresh, nicely balanced acidity. What an excellent choice!

More information about:

The Conservatorio de Vino

Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses

Master of Wine programme

Maule and its Carignan wines

Blind tasting Chilean redsI’ve set myself the challenge over the next few weeks of blind tasting the most common types of Chilean red wine until I can tell them apart in a blind tasting. I’m doing this to become a better wine professional and also to help me pass the terrifying WSET diploma exam when I’ll have to blind taste 12 wines and write intelligently about them. At the least I want to be able to identify any Chilean wines that are included. So I’m starting with the thick-skinned red varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Merlot, Malbec and Syrah.

What is blind tasting anyway?

A couple of people have asked me if blind tasting means you have to wear a blindfold when tasting. Fortunately not, as I’m sure I’d knock over my glass half the time! Actually it just means that you don’t know anything more about the wine in your glass than what you can perceive through your senses. Either you cover up the labels and anything else that could help you identify the wine or somebody else pours the wines into your glasses when you aren’t looking.

Bottles for blind tasting
Bottles covered up for blind tasting

It’s quite liberating in a way, as it means that your opinion of the wine won’t be influenced by the label or your perceptions of the wine producer.

Usually you taste several wines (typically between three and six) together in a “flight”. By serving them all together, one into each glass, you can go back and forth, comparing them. Is this one more aromatic? Does that one have more body? Which do you like best?

blind tasting
Sauvignon Blanc blind tasting

What are you looking for?

Blind tasting of Chinon wines
Blind tasting of Chinon wines (Cabernet Franc variety)

If you’re blind tasting for fun, your objective may be just to see which wine you like best out of a group of wines. There may be a theme, such as all the wines in the flight are Sauvignon Blanc or they are all from Bordeaux.

On the other hand, you may just be faced by a set of glasses of wine without knowing what they are or where they are from. In the WSET diploma exam, the 12 wines could be any white, red or rosé wines from anywhere in the world, including less well-known regions like Mexico or India.

There may be a theme for some of them, eg four Cabernet Sauvignon wines from different countries and in different styles or four wines from Chile (hence my current challenge). In the exam, you have to accurately describe the wine and then take a stab at what variety it is and where it is from, giving reasons for your answer.

Eat your heart out, Sherlock Holmes

Blind tasting CarmenèreOK, I’ve really got nothing on Sherlock Holmes. But I am slowly learning to be a wine detective; to look for all the clues that can help me identify a glass of wine. To do this, it really helps to have a checklist to help you look for clues eg colour, tannins, acidity, body and so on. There are a number of standard ones out there but the one I have to know by heart is the one used by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).

By way of example, let’s imagine you have a deep-coloured red wine in front of you. The deep colour tells you it’s likely to be a thick-skinned variety like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Carmenère, Tannat or Syrah.

What can you smell? If there are aromas that remind you of green pepper, chilli pepper, tomato leaves or similar “vegetal” notes, known technically as “pyrazines”, then it’s from a very special family of grape varieties that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Merlot (and Sauvignon Blanc). So you can rule out Malbec, Tannat and Syrah.

If there is a strong aroma of blackcurrants, then Cabernet Sauvignon is a strong possibility, while aromas of black plums tend to indicate Merlot.

When you taste the wine, the level of tannins and acidity are likely to clinch the matter. If it’s high in both and smells of blackcurrants, then it’s probably Cabernet Sauvignon.

Grape expectations

So succeeding in blind tasting is about knowing your grape varieties too. Unfortunately there are rather a lot. To give you an idea, the ultimate guide to varieties is Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, including their Origins and Flavours, written by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. 1368 varieties! That’s an awful lot of varieties to learn about and taste! Especially if you live in Chile, where few foreign wines are available. But hey, as with any challenge, you have to start somewhere. And for me, that’s a line-up of Chilean reds. Wish me luck!

Want to know more about tasting wine?

To find out about WSET courses, this website gives details of providers around the world.

Here in Chile, there are two institutions offering WSET courses: The Conservatorio del Vino and the Wine School.

Two books worth checking out:

Burton, N., 2016, The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting. Acheron Press.

Clarke, O. and Rand, M., 2015, Grapes and Wines: A comprehensive guide to varieties and flavours. Pavilion Books Company Limited.