Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Yet Further Adventures in Blind Tasting

I love blind tasting. It's fun to drink wine without having any idea what it is, whether or not it's expensive, cult-ish and rare, common, glorified, or unknown. Without knowing whether or not I am intrigued by the producer, whether or not I've had it before, or any of the many other things that influence my expectations about a wine before I actually smell and taste it. I particularly love doing this over a meal with a relaxed group of people who will participate in the conversation and laugh with one another as we swing from kind-of-accurate to wildly wrong in our attempts to identify wine.

I did this last year at about this time, and now again. Eight of us at dinner, everyone brings one wine. I told everyone beforehand what we'd be eating, and randomly assigned two people to each of the courses. It would be fascinating also to see what sort of pairings these wine people would come up with.

We drank some truly interesting things - Zind Humbrecht Pinot Noir with roast chicken, 150 year old vines Hatzidakis Santorini Assyrtiko and 1988 Brundlmayer Gruner Veltliner Langenloiser Berg-Vogelsang (!) with carrot soup (and in the night's only tragic wine event, the Vatan Sancerre meant for that soup was corked), a seriously disappointing bottle of 1987 Joly Coulée de Serrant and a Japanese Madeira-style wine by Chuo Budo-shu (or the Grace Winery) made of Koshu and Muscat Bailey-A, both grapes indigenous to Japan. I learned something with every wine and very thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The first course was a Japanese-style savory egg custard with shrimp, shitake mushrooms, and scallions. We drank two fantastic wines with this course and I thought that both paired beautifully with the custard. The discussion around these wines was illuminating and funny, and I will share as best I can remember.

I sett two glasses in front of everyone, a Zalto Universal glass and a Schott Zwiesel Burgundy bowl. The first wine we drank granted me the opportunity to show just how good of a blind taster I am. My friend elected to pour it in the Burgundy bowls, as the other wine for this course was a sparkling wine, and he thought that the sparkling wine should be served in the Zaltos. We spent some quiet time with the wine, swirling, sniffing. It felt in the mouth like Chardonnay to me, and I got something like iodine on the nose. I began to think Chablis. And then I began to notice oyster shell and other marine scents. "I think this is Chablis," I announced. The fact that all 7 of the other tasters agreed that it was an Austrian wine made me feel just slightly less confident.

I keep hearing about how there are so many people in the wine world who cannot relax in this sort of situation, who are too competitive or aggressive with their opinions, people who will make you feel small for not knowing things, or for being wrong. I am so happy that I don't know or hang out with these people. Folks - I cannot recommend strongly enough that you spend your thoughtful wine drinking time with nice people, people who want to enjoy with you and learn together, not to compete and act like jerks. Sorry if this sounds obvious, but I don't think it's obvious. I know people who will go where there are good bottles, even if their owners are brutish wine-thugs who are not very pleasant to learn with.

Anyway...everyone else thought it was Austrian, and the questions were about Gruner versus Riesling (consensus was Riesling), region (no clear consensus, but leaning towards the Wachau), and the age of the wine (consensus was mid-2000's). And as I continued to smell and taste the wine, I knew it was true - it was an Austrian wine, not Chablis. Would I have come to that conclusion on my own, had others not been suggesting this? I really cannot say. But it was crystal clear to me, once the others said so.

Everyone agreed that it was lovely wine, the 2001 Prager Riesling Achleiten. This is a wine that I would love to drink again, and Prager is a producer who I haven't spent enough time with - the few wines I've had have all been excellent. My friend who brought the wine said that he finds that Austrian Riesling can show like Chardonnay when served in big bowl glasses. Maybe this is true, but I think he was trying to make me not feel like such a dope. But I really didn't feel like a dope. In blind dinners like this, I will get it wrong 8 or 9 times out of 10, and I'm fine with that. It was funny in the end, and the collective appreciation of my mistake reminded me of exactly how it is that I want to drink great wine - with good people.

The Champagne was fascinating too. I felt at first that it might not be Champagne, it had an herbal scent and I just didn't recognize the profile. It was heavily reduced upon opening, though, and it took a while to compose itself and be presentable. Even when it did, I wasn't sure. It felt like white grapes to me. If it were Champagne, then maybe something with the oddball grapes like Arbanne or Petit Meslier? But the wine had this mineral tang on the finish that reminded me of Huet, and I thought it was bottled at low pressure (I was wrong). Could we be drinking Huet Pétillant here? Other tasters thought there might be red grapes, some thought it was Champagne, others weren't sure.

First, we tried to resolve the main question - was it Champagne? Peter Liem thought it was and said something like "If this isn't Champagne, then it's really, really good." The texture was getting silkier by the minute, and the finish more and more saline. When the wine was revealed as the 2004 Agrapart L'Avizoise Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs, most of us were still a bit mystified. Peter cleared this up (he did not bring this wine), explaining that the wine is a Blanc de Blancs that is meant to showcase the clay soils of Avize (a village famous for Chardonnay grown on chalky soils), and this is what gives the wine its unusual character. By the way, the wine was compelling and delicious.

Listening to these experienced wine people, all of them professionals, some of whom I've seen perform amazing feats of blind tasting, hearing them discuss this wine...realizing that Peter Liem, one of the world's leading and most important Champagne experts, was not certain about this wine...It reminded me that if we are open minded and humble, we will never stop learning. I hope I will be so lucky.


Anonymous said...

What about the assyrtiko by Hatzidakis?

Anonymous said...

This post is spot on! I am with you 100%. I am 43 years plus wine brokering. Good Show!
Jonathan R Bates
Wine Broker
Chatsworth, CA