Monday, September 08, 2008

Krug, Cristal, Dom Perignon...and More.

I was incredibly lucky to participate recently in the Wine & Spirits Magazine Champagne tasting panel. "Lucky" sounds trite, but I don't mean it that way. It was an amazing experience, and I was so lucky to have been part of it. Tasting 50 wines by 12 producers in a professionally organized blind tasting format...let's just say that I have never learned more about wine in a four hour period. Not about the technical aspects of vinification, although that was discussed and did provide some context, but more about smelling wine, tasting it, discussing it, listening to others speak about it and considering their thoughts. I wish I could do this every week.

There were about 8 of us sitting around a table, including the magazine's editor and publisher Joshua Greene, Associate Editor Nicole Drummer, Peter Liem, Juliette Pope (Wine Director at Gramercy Tavern), and sommeliers at celebrated NYC restaurants such as Esca and Gotham. I was the guy who sat there quivering in fear at first, too intimidated to say anything. But I had no choice, really, as the tasting format forces you to participate. It's a great format, I think. We taste blind in flights, each flight contains one producer's wines. We are not told which producers' wines will be in the tasting. Glasses are numbered and tasters are given a truncated description of what we're drinking. For example, the sheet for a flight might read:

1. Champagne Brut
2. Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs
3. Champagne Brut 2002
4. Champagne Brut Rosé

Tasters spend quiet time with the wines in a flight, evaluating and making notes. Then Josh Greene says "Okay, everyone ready? Wine number 1, show of hands." And you give the wine a thumbs up, a thumbs down, or a thumbs sideways. Thumbs up means the wine is good and should be reviewed by the magazine. Thumbs down, no, and sideways means that you're on the fence. Everyone shows their thumbs together, so yes, there is the possibility of being the only dipstick at the table who likes a particular wine. Then we go around the table and talk about the wines. It was like the best graduate school course I ever took.

Blind tasting is a humbling and an enlightening experience. Forced to throw out any preconceived notions, it's better not to worry that you'll wind up hating something you "should" love, or vice versa. Best to concentrate instead on what is in front of you, purely on how it smells, tastes, and feels in your mouth. This is how Yoda would taste wine, I think. It's as if there is a 6th sense that aids you when tasting blind, the sense of truth. You cannot be biased by labels or prices, those impurities are gone.

I'm not going to review wines, Wine & Spirits will do that at the end of the year. But I will tell you that I learned an enormous amount. I learned to recognize the signature that marks the wines of some producers - earthiness, for example, in the wines of Vilmart & Cie. And alternatively, that some producers present a lineup of wines that don't seem to be unified by anything other than the name on the label.

I learned that Champagne can show differently at different times - for example, the wines of Lallement are certainly better than the way they showed on that day. And the wines of Chartogne-Taillet are just wonderful, better than I thought based on my experiences at home.

I learned that I should trust my own tastes when not blind more than I tend to. It turns out that I really do prefer grower wines over big houses. The flight that was by far my least favorite happened to be from Moet (thumbs down on all 6 wines, including the 2000 Dom Perignon), a producer that represents the antithesis of healthy farming.

I learned that sometimes the most expensive wines can actually be the most wonderful and show stopping - for example, the1985 Krug Collection or 1996 Krug Brut. But it's also possible that the most expensive wines will not distinguish themselves from the pack - for example the Roederer Cristal lineup, with the exception of the 2000 Rosé, just didn't lift my skirts.

All in all, an exceptional experience and one that I hope to repeat. Who knew when I started this blog two years ago, that I would participate in something like the Champagne tasting panel at Wine & Spirits?!? Funny, this life, and unpredictable.


Director, Lab Outreach said...

Are you glad you didn't quit after your 300th post! I don't know if this is the sort of thing that warrants congratulations, but it should, so congrats. If I were a wine editor, I would welcome your input. Which is... perhaps... why I'm not one. cheers!!

David McDuff said...

Way to go, Neil. I can't say I'm not jealous. Sounds like a great experience. It definitely beats any grad school seminar I ever attended.

Deetrane said...

um, does this officially make you a "wine stud"?

Anonymous said...

Well done, sir. Glad to hear when Krug lives up to its rep (rare these days, sadly).

Love the blog. Keep up the good work.
And congrats on the new baby on the way.

t e n b r o o k s (at) m a c (dot) c o m

Vinotas said...

Wow, color me jealous!

I do love blind tastings, it's a way of humbling oneself but also (hopefully) learning not only about the wine but also one's own palate.


Anonymous said...

Excellent blog!

Michael D. said...

Congrats on the accomplishment brooklynguy......

Peter Liem said...

It was a pleasure to have you there, and despite your modesty, you have a lot to contribute to the panel. You are welcome to join us again anytime you like. (And you certainly should have come to the Mosel tastings!)

Anonymous said...

I'd print out the prior comment as evidence of a binding agreement!

Deetrane said...

Peter - I'm generally available most days for the tastings, as a backup if Neil can't make it. C.V., references and cellar list on request. Oh, would you please provide me with an address to messenger you the cheese and flower assortment basket? Any allergies?

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! Sounds like a fabulous experience full of opportunity.

Brooklynguy said...

what a nice bunch of comments. anyone reading this might think you are a nice bunch of people.

really - thanks!

and thanks again peter.