Blind Tasting Chronicles, March 2014

Regular readers of these pages know that I enjoy doing blind tasting from past posts like this, this and this. After watching the entertaining documentary “SOMM”, about sommeliers preparing for the demanding Master Sommelier exam that includes rigorous blind tasting training and testing, my interest has only deepened. (I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the testing of obscure knowledge shown in SOMM really improves wine service in a meaningful way, but I do believe that blind tasting with the kind of precision shown does seem to hold some value in terms of forcing one to really hone in on and learn the characteristics of recommendable wines out there). So, I went to this month’s Blind Tasting Club dinner with a little extra anticipation.

The ground rules: one host for the evening selects all wines, allowing for planned flights and themes. Tonight’s host was Leo F., our club’s namesake. In the past, Leo has poured many wild card wines, so I was prepared for a crazy ride.

Arriving a bit late, I missed my chance to guess at the first wine, but got a taste of it: a 1997 Domaine Carneros by Taittinger California brut sparkling wine that showed some age in its golden hue but was quite refreshing on the palate. The first flight of four wines was pretty clearly chardonnay to me, and all lovely ones at that. They all showed beguiling noses of gorgeous but tasteful fruit framed by a touch of vanillin oak, and the real question was, where are these from? Wines three and four had a more pronounced racy acidity that I rarely encounter in Californa chard, so I seized upon this clue to guess that wines 1 and 2 were from California and wines 3 and 4 from Burgundy. Answer: the flight was a vertical of 1997-2000 Mayacamas chardonnay. Leo had thrown one out over the plate, and I only managed to foul it off into the seats.20140327-071036.jpg

Next was a flight of reds. Wine 1 had ripe dark red-to-purple fruits on the nose and some evident oak, which planted the hypothesis of a New World wine based on Bordeaux grapes into my head. Wine 2 was more controlled but also pointing toward Bordeaux grapes. Wine 3 felt like another key clue to the flight – the combination of slightly green herbal varietal character and stony mineral definitely felt like Bordeaux. Wine 4 was open, ripe and oaky – a prototypical modern international red. I guessed that the flight was Bordeaux blends from 4 different regions. Answer: Merlot or Merlot blends from 4 regions – 2001 Duckhorn merlot, 2002 Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels from New Zealand, 2001 Hosanna from Pomerol, and the blockbuster (by price anyway) wine of the flight, 1998 Masseto. In voting before the reveal, I picked Hosanna as my favorite of the flight, followed by the Masseto. The Craggy Range showed well too – composed and elegant. I’m happy enough with my guess – call it a standup double.20140327-071128.jpg

The next flight of 4 wines all read like #3 from the last flight – Bordeaux varieties with a touch of green, and stony mineral. My first guess was all Bordeaux from the same vintage, but the host let slip that they weren’t all the same vintage, so I reformed my guess: a certain similarity among all four wines led me to guess all four wines were from the same Bordeaux producer. It seemed a reasonable guess that Leo was progressing to Left Bank. Given the nature of the slightly green fruit character and amount of stony mineral, I guessed Pichon Lalande. Answer: two Pensées de Lafleur (’97 and ’98), and two vintages of Ch. Lafleur, ’98 and ’99. Because of its cost and rarity, this was my first time having Lafleur – thanks Leo! The wines did not disappoint. The Lafleurs did outstrip the Pensées, showing perfumed noses that were a virtual tie in quality. On the palate, the ’98 lived up to the vintage’s reputation as strong in Pomerol; there was more depth here on the palate than the ’99. Both Lafleurs showed more generosity of fruit than the Pensées; while form held here, this was an enjoyable and educational flight. I would’ve been happier if I had guessed La Conseillante, another Pomerol that leans stony and slightly green in some vintages, but I’ll give myself a bloop single in this flight.

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The next flight was confounding. Leo gave us a hint that these wines were about 20 years old; Suzanne remarked that these seemed Bordeaux-like again, and they did, except for a certain aroma, almost a nuttiness, that didn’t smell like 20 year-old Bordeaux or California cab to me. A stony mineral was present here that signaled Old World to me. I thought back – what had I ever mistakenly guessed as Bordeaux at about 20 years of age? Odd as it sounds, I have guessed Chateauneuf du Pape around that age as Bordeaux before, so I went with that guess, unconfidently. The wines turned out to be a staggered vertical of Lupicaia, a Tuscan (Bolgheri) blend of Bordeaux grapes, including vintages 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999.

20140327-071101.jpgIn expecting Leo not to give us such a similar flight again, I had done something I’ve heard master somms warn against – forming a hypothesis too early and then making your guess fit that hypothesis and ignoring some other signs that point in another direction – or lack of signs that should be present if your hypothesis is true. Here I knew there were Bordeaux grape characteristics, but the nutty character that led me toward guessing CDP (and that’s not even something I strongly associate with CDP) was not accompanied by other classic Southern Rhone character like spice or grenache or syrah flavors. A total swing and a miss on this flight; I was looking for the breaking ball so much that I missed a cut fastball in the strike zone.

In the end though, it’s the wines I get wrong that I love in blind tasting – that’s when I really learn. Bolgheri, I’ll be ready for you next time!

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