Studying for the Master Sommelier exam is one of the more grueling and draining undertakings a human can do. Only 200+ have ever succeeded in earning the designation of Master Sommelier, and the series Uncorked on Esquire Network has been following six New York City-based somms hoping to get one step closer to earning that title. All that studying and pressure means lots and lots of stress, so when somms Morgan Harris and Yannick Benjamin got the opportunity to travel to Ribera del Duero and Rueda to do some on-the-ground studying and training, it was as if the wine gods answered their prayers.
“At the end of the day, you look at flash cards, and study books and go to tastings, but this is the best way to study for me,” Morgan says about his time in Spain in the fifth episode of the show. Yannick agrees, saying: “I think it’s really great to go on a wine trip just before the exam because sometimes it’s easy to feel stale and exhausted … and what ends up happening is when you go on a wine trip, you get inspired again.”
With suitcases and inspiration in tow, Yannick and Morgan start their trip with a taste of the the region’s finest food at the Michelin-starred La Botica restaurant, where they also nerd out as only sommeliers can do over a glass of Rueda Dorado fortified wine. After sharing a touching moment about Yannick’s paralyzation not holding him back from achieving somm greatness, he lightens the mood by faux cutting off Morgan from any more Dorado.
Next stop on their journey was the José Pariente winery (which you can read more about here), where Morgan and Yannick faced the first of two challenges during their trip. At the hands of Ignacio Pariente, the challenge is: Taste a handful of their wines, and then tell him how they were produced and aged. Simple, right? Well, not so fast, because José Pariente has a trick up its sleeves in the form of two-ton concrete eggs they use to ferment one of their wines.
“Concrete eggs are very much in vogue right now as an experimental technique for winemakers,” Morgan explains, adding that “it’s not as fresh or as razor-clean as you’d get with stainless, but it doesn’t add those non-fruit flavors that you’d get with the oak.” Ignacio tells the duo that’s exactly what they were going for with that experiment, “to make an elegant and big wine with a good structure, but without the touch of the oak.” They then get to see the eggs first-hand, or maybe first-head is a better way of putting it since they both put their domes inside of the egg-shaped vessels.
With Rueda in the books, an hour-or-so away are the red wines of Ribera del Duero, and Yannick and Morgan were warmly welcomed by María del Yerro and Lionel Gorgue at Alonso del Yerro vineyards (who you should really read more about here). After a quick tour of María’s gorgous Hermés-lined barrel aging room, the smiling hospitality then turns into yet another tasting challenge for Yannick and Morgan. At Alonso del Yerro, the wine is stored and aged separately based on what type of soil the grapes grew in: Sand, Limestone, Clay or Gravel. Since the soil type plays a big part in how the wine will taste, once the different wines age separately, they are then blended at the final stage to the winemaker’s taste. So, now it’s up to the sommeliers to blindly taste them from the barrel and give their best guess as to what soil that wine came from.
“Blind tasting them side-by-side and saying this is sand and this is gravel is going to be pretty rough,” Morgan said, and for the most part, he was right. After tasting four wines from four different soil types, Morgan and Yannick agreed that wines 1 and 3 were from sand and clay respectively, but while Morgan thought wine 2 was limestone and wine 4 was gravel, Yannick went the opposite route and chose gravel for 2 and limestone for 4. It turns out Yannick got the best of Morgan, as that tricky second wine was indeed gravel, both erred with wine number three, which was not clay, but limestone, and the final wine being clay.
Being able to see how this one grape was from the other just because of the soil, really it was just very stimulating … It just reminded me that there are other things that I need to focus on as I’m doing theory. Not just memorizing the regions, but understanding them and what makes them so unique from everyone else.
“It was really the first time I had done that blind,” Yannick reflects. “Being able to see how this one grape was from the other just because of the soil, really it was just very stimulating.” He later adds about that experience that “it just reminded me that there are other things that I need to focus on as I’m doing theory. Not just memorizing the regions, but understanding them and what makes them so unique from everyone else.”
In a final conversation reflecting on the trip, Morgan called the experience “humbling,” and has become completely aware that his personality and penchant for lots of talking has worn a bit on his sommelier pal. “I’m glad you survived me,” he jokes, leading Yannick to deliver a fairly stellar one-liner: “Listen, everybody has a disability. My disability is I cannot walk. Your disability is you cannot stop talking, so it’s my job to help you out.”