Andover Wine Friends unusually had a fine wine supper in August … and also, atypically, indulged in a bit of blind tasting masochism. Speaking for myself I normally enjoy the considerable challenge of blind tasting, even though it is a very artificial exercise. This is not just for the rare moments of triumph when you actually know or can work out what the wine is. Rather I like the discipline of having to concentrate on what this elusive liquid is – without having the answer in advance. It really makes you concentrate in a way that no other tasting does. But, boy, isn’t it difficult!
This tasting was particularly challenging – that is a contemporary euphemism for ‘impossible’ – but that was hardly surprising. At the end of the evening, it was revealed that the ten wines we tasted in groups of twos and threes were wines from this year’s Master of Wine exam. In other words, our ten wines were one-third of the formidable array of wines you would have to identify (more or less) in this notoriously demanding exam. We, of course, did not have to write detailed explanations as to why the wines were what we were claiming them to be. But it was remarkable how elusive even highly distinctive wines became when tasted blind. The only mitigating circumstance was that this was not a hushed occasion given to concentration but a relaxed and social evening.
For our purposes here, we might just focus on why these particular wines were or were not difficult to identify. We started with a glass of Laurent Perrier Brut NV Champagne which was both a pleasant aperitif and the chance to correctly identify a wine: fine bubbles, toasty and yeasty notes over cool green fruit, medium length, high northern acidity, refined, bracing and clean. it could have been on the tasting papers but wasn’t. But it was NV Champagne.
On to the real business. The clue, as per the MW exam rubric, for the first pair of wines, was: two different grape varieties from one country but two different regions. The obvious point was that the first wine was heavily oaked while the second wasn’t … But beyond that, it got tricky. I wondered if the first was Californian Chardonnay but it wasn’t sweet and ripe enough. What I did not notice in the heat of the moment was that the wine had some age, that the fruit had been transformed into another register with a hint of raisins, perfume, old wood and cooked lemon rind. And those final drying tannins in a white wine pointed to something really distinctive … which indeed it was: Viña Gravonia Blanco, Lopez de Heredia, Rioja, Spain, 2003 – a wine I have admired and written about at some length! More calm concentration called for. This first example was the clue as the other wine was an unusual, mildly oaked, Albariño, a variety rarely oaked – and while oak conveys an extra layer it reduces the stone fruit character which is the variety’s calling card. So you had to be able to spot peachy fruit under the sweet oak to have a chance to identify Albariño Limousin, Granbazan, Rias Baizas, Spain, 2010 – especially if you had not already hit on Spain as the country in common.
The next two whites were a real puzzle even with the rubric that they were made from one single variety and from one country. One was obviously oaked and the other not and they both showed a pretty high acidity, but in terms of a starting point that was it. There were no obvious fruit/floral aromas to go on and this is why this was hard. One suggestion was a rather neutral Loire Sauvignon Blanc and an oaked Sancerre – but there really were not the green, grassy notes to support this. In fact, they were both South African Chenins – but with little guava or other tropical fruit on the first (too basic a price point?) and the palate of the second was rounded out with the aforementioned oak. Tough. The first is great value for its refreshing acidity in the mouth, Chenin Blanc, Man Vintners, Western Cape, South Africa, 2012, £8.15, the second pretty sophisticated oak-dominated Chenin Blanc Reserve, DeMorgenzon, Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2012.
Round three was the helter-skelter round – one easy number followed immediately by a really difficult wine and then a third, a sort of possible-as-long-as-we-don’t-have-to-be-too-specific-about-country, region, etc. The clue was simply that these were from three different countries. I am pleased to say that we all had that ‘aha’ moment with the first – one sniff and there was a chorus of ‘that’s Beaujolais’ and so it was: The Society’s Beaujolais-Villages, Beaujolais, France, 2011. It is the unmistakable whiff of bubble gum (product of semi-carbonic maceration) and light, refreshing, plumy fruit. After the brief elation, there was the deep dive into Capitel San Rocco Rosso Ripasso, Valpolicella Classico, Fratelli Tedeschi, 2009. We had a rough 50/50 split on whether this was from the cooler old world or the warmer new world – which was just about right as it is, in fact, a slightly enriched (ripasso) version of a fairly light wine from northern Italy. The surprising feature was the high tannins, not typical of the blend, so that would throw you off the trail … Really difficult. Despite my attachment to Italy, I did not get closer than identifying that this was from the old world … Wine number three of this random trio was Gran Corte, Pulenta, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina, 2009, an exuberantly expressive new world Bordeaux Blend with lashings of refined new oak – but were we supposed to spot the 40% Malbec which might lead you to Argentina?
The final round in this pugilistic contest veered back towards the possible. Three white wines, from two countries with varying proportions of one grape variety – instantly telling you that this trio at least includes some blends. Visually and on the nose it was clear that wine number 3 was a sweet wine and the first two had lemon fruit and at least wine number 1 was light in the mouth with some age – which all pointed to Sémillon as the common variety, correctly. I also managed to identify Hunter Valley Semillon, white Bordeaux and botrytis-effected dessert wine, ie Barsac or Sauternes. This round was so much easier than the others, but we should be grateful for small mercies. Vat 1, Hunter Valley Semillon, Tyrrell’s Wines 2006, was just beginning to develop some interesting baked orange rind notes but will only get better … while Graves AC, Clos Floridene, 2008 has some grassiness and freshness from Sauvignon Blanc but also weight, even gravitas, from its Sémillon, all wrapped up in smooth new oak just beginning to wear off and integrate with the fruit. The sweetie was indeed Sauternes AC, Castelau de Suduiraut, Ch. Suduirat, 2007, the second wine of this famous property with quite intense layers of honey, marmalade, lemon and some lusciousness held together with a rigorous acidity.
On paper these wines look recognisable – traditional white Rioja should be a banker and Chenin is not usually this elusive – but without full concentration, good knowledge and razor-sharp wits, they are anything but. More practice and more acuity are called for!
Many thanks to Rob for sourcing the wines and organising this evening.