Getting Better at Blind Tastings

I’m going to let you in on a deep, dark secret – one that has been burning inside the most hidden recesses of my soul: I can’t identify different red wines, based on taste alone.

Yeah, I know. And sometimes I leave the dirty dishes in the sink overnight, too. Sue me.

But this secret bothers me and I have vowed to do better, so the other night I made a move to change my life. I drove over to BottleRock – Culver City, and told my-favorite-waiter-who-never-gives-me-discounts-even-when-I-flirt-like-a-crazy-girl, Byron, to line up some reds and let me puzzle through their mysteries. I also ordered a grilled cheese sandwich.

Cute little British Byron said he’d help me out and help me out he did! After disappearing for a few minutes, he returned to my table with four glasses containing two-ounce pours, and lined them up on a diagonal. Byron gave me instructions on the order in which to try each taste, and then bounced merrily away like some benevolent spirits pixie, tending to the thirsty masses.

Out came my notebook and down the hatch went the first wine.

The strong blast of alcohol heat clued me in that what I was drinking was young. The nose contained lots of delicious

Taste test

Taste test

plum and raspberry and cherry. It tasted of rich, ripe red fruit but felt a little oily. It had a medium body and a short finish. I thought it was a Cabernet.

My next taste smelled like a combination of dill, fennel and cherry – but was very pleasant, despite the somewhat odd-sounding mix. On the palate this wine was floral and herbaceous and really lovely, with definite strawberry notes and high – but not overwhelming – acid. It was a little thin, but ended up being my second-favorite pour. I noted that this wine was probably a Shiraz.

Wine number three was big and jammy. It smelled and tasted like cough syrup, but not in a super sweet way. Again, I picked up some dill on the nose, but on the palate it was mostly cherry. This pour was huge and hot, but contained smooth tannins. “I’m picking up tannins,” thought I, “so this is probably a Cab!” I decided I had been wrong about the first wine and crossed the varietal off my notes. I told you I have no idea what I’m doing.

The final pour had a nose of plum, a little hay and a bit of petrol, so when I tasted it, I was incredibly surprised at how smooth and delicious it was. This wine was massive, with a silky mouthfeel and flavors of delicious plum. It was a little hot, but all of these wines seemed to need age or decanting. This was another favorite. I decided it was a Pinot Noir, because I like making stuff up.

Wine consumed, sandwich finished, Bryan sprang back to my table and took a look at my notes. To his credit, he didn’t laugh at me at all – not even once – which is why I love him, even though I always have to pay full price.

MacMurray Pinot Noir

MacMurray Pinot Noir

The first wine, the one jotted in my notes as Cab Sav (?) turned out to be Pinot Noir – a 2007 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir (about $17 per bottle) from the Central Coast of California, in fact. Duh. (Super delicious)

My second tasting was not a Shiraz, as I had thought, but a Zinfandel – a 2006 Puccioni Zin from the Dry Creek Valley, in Sonoma County, California ($28). I love Zinfandel; it’s one of my favorite varietals. And apparently I can’t tell a Zinfandel from a hole in the ground. Or from a Shiraz. Man, I’ve got some catching up to do.

Wine three – the one I so wisely guessed was a Cabernet based on the tannins – was a 2005 Robert Keenan Winery Merlot (about $35 per bottle). A big Merlot, mind you, but still not Cab.

Keenan Merlot

Keenan Merlot

Finally, wine four was a 2006 Josh Cellars Amber Knolls Cabernet Sauvignon, from Napa Valley (about $15 a bottle). If you know anything about wine, you know that Cabernet Sauvignon is not really the same as Pinot Noir. Oops.

So how did I get all of these wrong? More important, what should I remember for next time?

Let’s start with Pinot Noir:

Pinots tend to be lighter in body, but are often complex and aromatic. New World Pinot Noir is more fruit-driven than Old World Pinot Noir, but I find that this is – in general – a given for all New World vs Old World wines. Pinot also possesses a more earthy character, often containing notes of mushroom/truffle, smoke, spice, tea or floral perfume. I only picked up on the heavy fruit in my Pinot pour, which pinned this as a New World wine. In my defense, I did register its lighter body, too, but I didn’t sense a trace of earthiness. But maybe that’s my bad.

zinfandel

Zinfandel grapes

Zinfandel:

Because of the huge variation in alcohol from one Zin to another (anywhere from 13% to over 18%), this wine presents a very diverse flavor profile. The term “jammy” is pretty popular as a description, since Zinfandel tends to possess big, concentrated blackberry, boysenberry, raspberry and/or black cherry fruits. But often woven within the chewy flavors are hints of black pepper, clove, anise and herbs. The more alcohol, the bigger and more concentrated the Zin. These are the “monster Zinfandels” you may have heard about. However, these 16%+ alcohol heavy hitters lack balance and acidity, and therefore don’t pair well with food. In the taste that I tried at BottleRock, I detected some of the herbs in the wine. Also, this must have been a lower alcohol Zin because I didn’t get drunk found the pour to be thin and high in acid.

By contrast…

Shiraz/Syrah:

Syrah/Shiraz grapes

Syrah/Shiraz grapes

Are big, bold, bad (in a good way) motor scooters. Despite having two different names, these are actually the same grape. It’s also known as Hermitage, but that name is a protected French designation (like Champagne). Australian and South African producers call the wine Shiraz. If it comes from France, the United States, Argentina or Chile, it’s labeled Syrah.

These wines display firm, smooth tannins, and are medium-to full-bodied. Huge black cherry, blackberry and plum fruits are common, but so are more exotic notes of bell pepper, black pepper, spices, licorice, lavender, chocolate, vanilla bean, smoked meats and musk. If you remember, I found the wine I described as Shiraz to be herbaceous (not spicy) and thin. See where I went wrong?

Merlot grapes

Merlot grapes

Merlot:

Merlot can be soft and mellow or big and bold. Obviously, the tasting notes will be different, depending on the heft of the wine.

In general, Merlot presents with fruit-forward black fruits like blackberry and plum and blueberry. It can also contain cherry and currant. It is also common to pick up floral flavors and stronger notes like cocoa, black pepper, clove, caramel, bay leaf, green peppercorn, green olive or bell pepper. With a bigger Merlot, you might find yourself chewing through smoke, tar, coffee, leather, cedar or cigar box. Milder Merlot will be more floral, with toasty tastes of vanilla and coconut and sweet wood. It is also worth mentioning that, although usually on the softer side, Merlot can be tannic – especially bigger Merlot. This might be why I got my pour confused with Cab Sav.

Cabernet Sauvignon:

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes

“The noblest of all grapes,” “the king of red wine grapes,” the darling of collectors and connoisseurs, Cabernet Sauvignon contains the most tannins of any other wine – love it or hate it – which makes this the best wine around for aging. Cabs can present a similar set of flavors as Merlot, although Cab Sav is not as sweet and soft as Sideways-maligned Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon ranges from medium-to full-bodied and the tannins support all that plummy, berry fruit. Depending on the way it’s aged, Cabernet Sauvignon can also be rich, warm and spicy on the palate, with notes of vanilla or tobacco, warm spice and sometimes leather, toast or tar. Some fancy folks talk of pyrazine, which is a green pepper or sometimes asparagus-like flavor imparted from under-ripe grapes. This is not a wine fault, and is often attributed to growing influences.

The fact that I thought this pour was a Pinot is proof that I need to drink more.

Maybe I’ll do this with another blind tasting at BottleRock and a full glass of the MacMurray Pinot Noir to start.

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes

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