Tasting in the dark

IMG_0211Blind tasting sounds a slightly terrifying prospect. The phrase itself is slightly worrying, like ‘deaf skiing’ or ‘mute horse riding’. It’s not entirely accurate in that you can still use visual clues in the colour or viscosity of wine, but obviously not read the label. But it is a remarkably different experience. Rather than interpret what you taste in the light of what you know and what you expect, you are forced back on to your basic senses and wine knowledge. But it’s a great way to extend your experience and can be very convivial.

The formula is simple. A group of friends or colleagues each bring a bottle of something that is worth savouring, carefully wrapped in tin foil, decanted into another bottle or somehow covered up. Each bottle is then tasted in turn. A first taste is poured and mused over – appearance, aroma, taste, finish  – but no information is given. You immediately realise how much you depend on your preconception of what a wine is and how much it cost. More tasting and musing. Sometimes you just know what it is, sometimes you can make an intelligent guess, often you have no idea. Questions can be asked, especially to see if the group can agree some basics: is it Old World or New, warm climate or cool, a single grape variety or a blend? Of course the person who brought the wine doesn’t have to answer or confirm anything. Then comes the great unveiling. If you get it right, you feel (quietly) elated, if you get it wrong … you are in good company. And my did we get some of these excellent wines wrong! In a way it’s very reassuring … even the professionals get it wrong, so it is a genuinely difficult and revealing task.

Stanley Park, Berkshire, England, quality sparkling wine: this had been decanted into another bottle for disguise and so wasn’t as sparkling as it once had been.  Good colour, heavy legs, slightly oxidised nose. Nobody guessed England!

Engelgarten, Marcel Deiss, Bergheim, Alsace, 2003: it you are going to set a test, it might as well be a bit of a tease too. This wine puzzled people, with its strangely deep yellow/gold appearance and disappearing ‘petrol’ nose. Most plumped for Riesling initially –  that nose, the substantial texture – then the aroma seem to fade or transmute. Lots of appreciation and head scratching. As I had brought this wine I was in the Jeremy Paxman/University Challenge position – I had all the certainty that knowing the answer in advance gives you. Yes it’s 50% Riesling but the rest is a field blend, a mixture of three Pinots (Blanc, Noir, Gris) and Muscat, and hence the disappearing trail of the Riesling/non-Riesling nose.

IMG_0198Domaine de Montbourgeau, L’etoile, Jura, 2006: another real puzzle, big oxidized nose, sherry like almost; again quite a mid yellow colour, appley fruit, much bewilderment over the grape variety. It turned out to be Chardonnay of all things but made in an oxidative style, rendering it interesting but completely unrecognisable.  But a wine of real character and in a old-fashioned style.

Christian, Chenin Blanc 2007, Barossa Valley, Australia:  mid pale gold, excellent fruit, some floral notes, decent acidity, long persistence.  A moment of triumph as I guessed the grape correctly … and we all remembered that we had drunk this wine quite recently during Dennis Canute‘s visit from Rusden vines.  Yes, tasting blind does make for a level playing field.

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Chateau du Tetre, Margaux, 2001: this fabulous claret pretty much fooled us all. Everybody got the presence of Cabernet Sauvignon with the menthol and blackcurrant nose but its bright, full-on fruit had most of us in the New World or Italy. It turned out to be from this classed growth, a tribute to what Bordeaux can now do. Incidentally, the Chateau is owned by Eric Albada Jegersma who owns not only a second Bordeaux chateau but also the excellent Caiarossa on the Tuscan coast.

Ch. Cantemerle 1971 – sadly had passed away, very tired. It could have been a great experience but this wasn’t to be.

Hermitage, Monier de la Sizeranne, Chapoutier, 1999: a great depth of strawberry/raspberry to plum fruit, nice mineral streak and sour like so many Rhône Syrah.  Big debate over whether New or Old World.  Happy to say I spotted the Rhône Syrah.  But for each one you get right, there’s a following one you have no idea about.  The ageing of Syrah is also a much subtler process than some grapes – it was quite difficult to spot this was more than a decade old.

Cornish Point Pinot Noir, Central Otago, New Zealand, 2005: probably the biggest surprise of them all.  A deep ruby colour, complex fruity almost porty nose, big in the mouth, rich and dense.  One brave soul plumped for Pinot Noir and was roundly met with disbelief from the others – it’s too dark, too fruity, too big … but it was.  An amazing feat of extraction in the winery, by the company now known as Felton Road.  An excellent wine and quite an eye-opener.

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This was a great evening with excellent wines of real personality (£20+ per bottle), a good meal at the Red Lion in Overton, and great  company.  We all learned something, had a stab in the dark and were often wrong … and enjoyed one another’s company.  And appropriately enough the evening ended in the dark.   We had a lift back home but sadly we broke down and ended up waiting for the excellent bus service on a dry, warm and starry night.

But how many places have thatched bus shelters?  Very classy, Freefolk, Hampshire.

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