The email came in mid-week, at the end of a long workday, from my friend Leo F:
“blind tasting challenge, Saturday”
The skinny: being put on by Heritage Auctions, and in their own words, “The Blind Tasting Challenge is an opportunity for wine lovers to put their palate to the test. Tasters will be given 8 blue-chip wines to identify in a friendly and relaxed environment. Answers will be evaluated and scored according to the correct identification of: country of origin, growing region, varietal, vintage, appellation, vineyard and producer.”
“8 blue-chip wines? Free? Say no more”, I thought. I really didn’t care if I embarrassed myself with my guesses, how often do I get to drink auction-house caliber wines? And, ever since watching the documentary “SOMM”, I’ve been kind of curious to see how I would do under more formal testing conditions, rather than our informal “guess if you want to” format for my regular blind tasting club.
The folks at Heritage welcomed us graciously into their offices, where a friendly rep from a champagne house was pouring some bubbly to welcome us. Ok, not just any champagne house – Moët, and she was pouring 2004 Dom Perignon. Boom. My first time having the 2004 vintage of DP and it was less mineral than the 2002 and 2003, but mighty fine – crisp but also with a bit of richness. Along with the tasty hors d’oeuvres coming around, the Dom has us off to a great start.
We were then seated for the tasting challenge. After I sat down, I realized I had a problem: someone sitting near me was wearing an overpowering amount of cologne, which obliterates your ability to smell the wines analytically. It’s a simple rule that pros know, but consumers may not have thought about: never wear cologne or perfume to a wine tasting. I made a brief attempt to find another seat, but the tables being used for this session (there would be two more later) were mostly filled, and I decided, “who cares how you do anyway”.
A team of servers brought out the first two wines, both whites. The first had some golden color and some slightly oxidized caramel notes that made me feel this wine had not aged well. Sort of reminded me of the Kongsgaard The Judge that Jay H had poured recently for the blind tasting group. Viscosity-wise, this also fit, so I was leaning California chardonnay already. Could it be a Rhone white instead? Yes, but I wasn’t getting the waxy, lanolin impression I often get on Rhone whites, and it just didn’t smell or taste like Hermitage blanc or Chateauneuf blanc to me. Could it be white Bordeaux? Yes, because the aged caramel part fit – I’ll be honest, I don’t think white Bordeaux in general ages very well; examples older than ten years from vintage often feel over the hill to me. But, I didn’t pick up any Graves mineral here. So I followed one of my rules of thumb when it comes to blind tasting: go with your first hunch. I decided to guess California chardonnay, but without thinking too much about what producer and vineyard this might be, I decided to check out the other wine on the table (It turns out I was pretty wrong on this particular guess, but I stand by my advice to go with your first hunch generally).
The mineral on the nose of wine #2 made me think it had to be white burg; I rarely get this on, say, California chardonnay. Plus since I thought wine #1 was Cali chard, a Burgundy next to it would make sense. The wine was elegant, composed, and possessed a depth of flavor that I really only get with white Burgundy. Thinking of chardonnay from other countries besides France and the US, I have had some wines from other countries that have passed for Burgundy but I couldn’t think of any that I thought would be considered “blue-chip”. For now, my guess would be burgundy white, but the reds were arriving on the table so I moved on, and I often find it helpful to come back to a wine later to see if my re-check matches my first impression.
Wine #3, the first red, has a lot of mineral on the nose – a slatey rock that made me think Bordeaux at first. I picked up glass #4, and that smelled like Bordeaux to me too. #5 on the nose, had me completely lost. And #6 smelled like Bordeaux to me as well. “Uh-oh,” I thought. This was going to be a tough tasting – they couldn’t be pouring us that many Bordeaux, so they must’ve picked some Californias that hew very closely to a Bordeaux style, and it seemed the main task in these reds would be to pick out which were Bordeaux and which were Napa – no easy feat when the wines get enough age on them.
Going back to wine #3 to taste, and attempt to identify: again the rock on the nose, but also I noticed it was very bretty which made it hard to read. This made me lean towards the Rhone, which I don’t drink often, but is one of the regions that I tend to get brett from more often than from other regions. On the palate, though, it didn’t taste like a Rhone to me. No confidence on this one, so I punted and said I’d come back to it.
Returning to wine #4, this still felt like Bdx. Right Bank or Left? Could not get a read.
On to wine #5 to taste. This was still utterly confounding. Color seemed a bit lighter than the others, but it didn’t taste like pinot noir to me. Also, would they place a light-bodied pinot-noir after two heavier French reds? It didn’t add up. It didn’t have the profile of a nebbiolo either. What could be blue-chip, but be this much of a mystery to me?
Trying to regroup, I went to wine #6. Still seemingly Bordeaux.
By now, wines 7 and 8 were on the table. Wine 7 has the lush fruit of something New World. Gosh darn if wine #8 doesn’t feel like Bordeaux varieties as well, but from somewhere New World.
At this point, I realize that I think that 4 or 5 of the 6 reds are composed of Bordeaux varieties, and the remaining red is an utter mystery. I am screwed. I go back and forth among all the glasses, and my feeling of being lost doesn’t get much better. I decide I have to divide and conquer – focus on one wine at a time and try and nail down what it is.
What’s a wine that seems pretty clear as to region? #8 feels pretty definitely New World. Napa probably. Tasting again, seeking clues on producer: doesn’t seem as austere and Bordeaux-style as a Ridge Monte Bello, Montelena or Togni. This wine is more ripe than that, but not over the top. I can’t help but notice the quality. Whatever it is, it is very good. What’s this good, but midrange in style for a New World red? I consider Mondavi Reserve, but this seems still more bold than that. Shafer Hillside Select has blown me away like this in the past, and fits the style, so I go with that guess. I haven’t had many vintages of HSS, but 2006 is one of them, and I just guess that for the heck of it. One wine down.
#6 really feels like Bordeaux to me – but Right Bank or Left Bank? Searching for more specific clues, I am struck by a bit of perfumed quality on the fruit on the nose. What place is known for perfume? Margaux. What blue-chip Margaux do I know? Chateau Margaux, and Palmer are the top 2. But then, plenty of Right Bank reds come off as very perfumed to me too. Tasting it, I realize that this reminds me of an early-90s Chateau Palmer I had once (I’ve only had Palmer twice), but this wine is more tannic. I put down 1996 and move on.
I go back to wine #4, which reminds me a lot of 6. Since I decided went Left Bank for wine 6, I decide to go Right on this. It has a stoniness, and seems fairly well resolved, so I go with ’82 La Conseillante.
Frank Martell of Heritage comes around and tells us to start wrapping it up, as time is running out. I only have 3 guesses down, and I’m flailing. Time to speed-guess. Highest confidence wine remaining is wine 2, which I’m pretty sure is white burg. Puligny? Chassagne? Could be, but as I start thinking about filling out vineyard, I realize my experience is not deep enough to guess vineyard. I might have a better shot at producer. I decide it is reasonably similar to some Henri Boillot Batard-Montrachet I’ve had once, the 2010. This doesn’t seem like the same wine – I try to judge approximate age and vintage character and I go with 2009.
Wine 1 was my Cali chard guess. What’s blue-chip but probably not aging well? Something big like Marcassin, though I’ve never had an older example. No time to quibble; I put Marcassin chard, Marcassin vineyard.
Wine #3 seems like a Bordeaux, but they couldn’t give us that many Bordeaux in one tasting, right? So what do I mistake for Bordeaux, that would have that bretty note? I once guessed Bordeaux on a Jamet that someone in the group poured so I decided to go with that with time running out, even though I got no Northern Rhone spice or herbs. A totally no confidence stab, made all the better because in my scramble to get some answers down, I actually guessed a wine that does not exist. I wrote Jamet, Cote Rotie, La Chapelle for the vineyard – and of course I was actually thinking of Jaboulet’s Hermitage called La Chapelle. Did I mention that blind tasting is humbling? Wine nerds, go ahead and have a good laugh at my expense.
Wine 7 I get lush fruit, but also a bit of peppery spice, so at the last minute I decide to guess Cali syrah. That left Wine 5, the complete mystery. I ended up guessing as a nebbiolo given the wine’s lighter color and body but also recognizing what seemed to be un-pinotness.
Frank ended up scoring my guesses before I left, and told me that I did pretty well – a total surprise to me. I held onto glass #2, and enjoyed it to the last drop, though the wine I regretted not keeping was wine #8. I enjoyed one more lovely (and shamelessly full) glass of Dom Perignon that the rep was kind enough to bring over as a reward for finishing the challenge, and was on my way to the rest of my Saturday.
The next day, we got an email revealing what the wines were, and I wasn’t feeling so great about my guesses after all.
Wine #1 – 1996 Domaine de Chevalier Blanc, Pessac-Leognan
A big swing and a miss for me on this one.
Wine #2 – 1992 Puligny Montrachet, Les Pucelles, Domaine Leflaive
Whew. At least I’m not getting a zero today. The fact that I guessed this crisp, amazingly fresh 20+ year old wine as being a 2009 just shows how great white Burgs were before the awful phenomenon of premature oxidation started afflicting the region’s whites. The thought of that makes me weep..
Wine #3 – 1966 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, Pessac-Leognan
Friends who tasted in later sessions thought this was great; I think I got the 66 La Miss from a different bottle – mine was borderline flawed. In retrospect there was a lot of crushed rock on the nose which at least made me sure it was France, but it should have clued me in that this was a wine from the Haut Brion diaspora (scorched earth). I was a little lost because it was unlike Bordeaux that I’ve had, but then this is the first bottle from the 60s I’ve ever had.
Wine #4 – 1978 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac (from double magnum)
Nice wine. I suppose I’m happy enough with my ’82 Conseillante guess.
Wine #5 – 1999 Clos de la Roche, H. Lignier
Like I said, confounding. For someone who considers red burgundy to be my favorite category, this is a big miss. Ben G loves to make fun of me for ever calling Burgundy as Barolo, and he has more cannon fodder on me now. I’m later consoled by the fact that my friends in other sessions didn’t pick this out as a Burg either.
Wine #6 – 2001 Chateau Palmer, Margaux
Got most of the points here – my ’96 Palmer guess helped me save a little face today. Whew!
Wine #7 – 2003 Blankiet Merlot, Paradise Hills Vineyard
My last minute stab at calling this Cali syrah was probably ill-advised. I need to remember that Napa cabs and merlots can show pepper sometimes.
Wine #8 – 1999 Penfold’s Grange, South Australia
My guess was not close, but I’m at least glad I detected the undeniable quality here. I think HSS is a great wine so I’m alright with it turning out to be Grange, which based on this example, absolutely lives up to its iconic reputation. Thanks to Frank Martell and crew for generously sharing this stupendous wine as well as all of the others. My guesses were pretty spotty, but at least I drank well! And learned a lot in the process.