What you can learn without the label
By Tim Protzman email@example.com
How do you drink your wine?
If you’re like me you pick up the bottle, look at the label, maybe study it a little, insert the corkscrew, pull the cork, pour it into the glass. Swirl, swirl and sip.
Nobody, make that very few people, does this: place the bottles into a brown paper bag, tape the top shut so only the neck and cork show, remove the foil and pull the cork, throw the cork away, close your eyes and shuffle the bottles around three-card-monte-style and then drink the wine.
Usually at a blind tasting (when you don’t get to see the label) the big question is which wine is better. You could be tasting a flight of California Cabernets, all from, say, 2004 and you’re comparing the nuances, flavors and which wine tastes best.
This weekend we had a blind tasting. Each person brought a bagged bottle, foil removed and ready to have the cork pulled. The object was not to determine which wine was best, but to determine which wine was which. We would actually need to sip the concealed wine, taste, assess and pronounce. Everybody thought it would be easy. I didn’t. I knew that being unable to look at the label takes away more than half the information. And like we see on TV, the taster who sips, chews and announces, “a Chilean syrah, from 2004” is very rare. The fact is without the label it’s really, really hard to tell what varietal you’re drinking. Think you can do it? Piece of cake? Then go ahead, try. Here are the results of the Wine Rookies Pre-Christmas tasting:
I thought I had an advantage because I knew that the shape of the bottles would be a clue, but Kyle decided to pour the wine in the kitchen and I only got to see the half filled glasses emerge on a serving tray. Squiggy, whose palate has progressed to the point where he no longer needs to taste the wine, only sniff it, was the most stumped. He hadn’t studied up on his varietals. I found it really tough — with hundreds of different styles of shirazes and chardonnays around and pinot noirs that come close to syrah, it really takes a trained set of taste buds.
• Wine #1 When Kyle brought it out Liz shouted; “It’s a white!” and of course she was correct. I tasted and thought chardonnay, but then rejecting my initial gut instinct I started to think gruner veltliner.
“Not swampy!” proclaimed Squiggy, using his nasal litmus test reserved for white wines.
“Chardonnay,” said Hayley.
Two more people chose chardonnay. I went with the Gruner veltliner, And Squiggy thought it was pinot grigio.
We revealed the wine to be Bearboat Russian River Chardonnay 2005, $11.99. Each of us noticed the oak. Some mentioned butter. A few tasted lemon.
• Wine #2 It was red. It had hints of tar and black pepper. Currant and a touch of blackberry. Squiggy said it was foreign and won’t elaborate. Debbie and Don said it was a Nero d’ Avola, which was a great guess. I said a mid-priced Californian pinot noir and Jeannine said shiraz. She was right — 2003 Jindalee Shiraz, $8.99. Kyle’s a tightwad, but he knows a great value.
• Wine #3 Its light red color told me it was young and probably not a shiraz. Mike said Chianti and got extra points for knowing it was Sangiovese grapes. I thought it had chocolate, but the others said it was leather and smoke. I guessed Cabernet Franc. Hayley pegged it as a Beaujolais, which is Gamay.
Chateau de la Chaize Brouilly, $10.99
• Rise and fall of the four wine. I loved the wine. I was intoxicated by the acrid yet appealing aroma, like when you were in junior high and they were having spaghetti and you could smell it in the locker room.
Most thought it was a pinot grigio, but the hint of sweetness made me think Viognier. The real identity was Rain 2006 Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. Sweet to me but regular to most of the others. Lemon verbena, honeysuckle and unripe pear flavors with a typical touch of cat urine aroma. That should have been the tip- off, but it’s not always apparent.
Which brings us to the question: do we taste what’s really there when we see the label or do we taste what we’re supposed to taste? Pinot noir: do I really taste the tar, violets and cherries? Or do I imagine them because I know they’re supposed to be there? This will be the subject of our next blind tasting.
• Wine 5 Deep red color. Heavy, silky taste. A profound wine. Tannic, though. Hints of fruit: dried strawberries, cranberry and currants. Chocolate, sage and blackberries. My guess was a Chateauneuf du Pape, which was grenache and syrah. Mike went with malbec, and Hayley said a wacky cabernet sauvignon. She was part right. It was Neyen Carmenere/Cabernet Sauvignon blend (70 percent carmenere, 30 percent cabernet) from the Colchagua Valley in Chile. .