Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Blind Tasting - Monday Study Group 1.2

Back to starting with a bit of Theory, the last two weeks we covered Washington and Oregon. Today we start with California. We will go quickly as these are the wines we all sell and know best. Started with non-Napa and Sonoma. From Mendocino to Monterey to Santa Lucia Highlands to Paso Robles to Santa Barbara. Every region has its own version of the American story. Initial winemaking efforts by the European settlers, in this case first the Spanish, then the great immigrant influx of the 19th century. The nascent wineries are dealt the dual blows of Prohibition, then phylloxera and most were abandoned only to be revived by successful entrepreneurs who chose to leave successful careers and follow their passion in the sixties and seventies. In every region there are iconic producers who staked the claims for the modern California wine industry.

It was an open blind tasting session, four white wines and three red. Once again the wine I brought was flawed. I bought it from the store's cold box and now wonder if it spent too much time in the fridge. Note to self:  need to look at how long wines stay standing up in the cold. Maybe I'll put a date stamp when they go in and start rotating. Or maybe it was just a flawed bottle. The tasting comments of my colleagues were not kind, to say the least! Nor should they have been. The wine was terrrrrrible!

Otherwise the tasting session went smoothly. As a group we're getting quicker at running through the tasting grid and getting better at getting our notes consistent and without contradiction. Today we had more than a couple of wines on which we identified all the components correctly but for a conclusion could only say, "What the hell is this?"

The first problem was a Santa Barbara Viognier . The surprising acidity led to a call of Italian Pinot Grigio with which no one was happy. The wine had too much weight and complexity for PG. Most tasters were looking for more tropical fruit to call Viognier. I was thinking unoaked Chardonnay. As the wine sat in the glass, the peachiness became more and more evident. Several weeks ago, Rob, our tasting coach, brought a Condrieu which gave us fits as well. Evidently we need to work on Viognier.

The next wine was Alsatian. Everyone had the same "Ah Hah!" moment when smelling the wine. The big floral peachy-lychee aromatics screamed Gewurztraminer. But the rich, seemingly off dry flavor masked the surprisingly persistent acidity which lingered past the sweetness of the fruit and left a dry mineral finish to the wine. Yes, that's right. It was an Alsatian dry Muscat in the classic overripe style of Zind-Humbrecht. It's not the first time the group has faced the Muscat/Gewurz confusion.

Now it was my turn to run the grid. The wine had rich floral citrus aromas that I described as baked Meyer Lemon with a creamy meringue and good acidity. I leaped to the conclusion that it was the Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay that I had brought and so I raced through the rest of the grid, building what I thought was the case for the wine that I thought it was. (Of course as we later learned the wine I brought smelled like ass!) Appropriate. I had just committed the cardinal sin of blind tasting. Premature identification.

As I started into my initial conclusion, I took another sip of the wine.

"Wait a minute," I said. "I think I'm totally wrong. This wine is off dry. It is oozing petrol on the aroma and the palate! How did I miss that? This wine is top quality 2010 Alsatian Riesling from a good producer!"

An embarrassing, but spot-on reversal.

Our first red was a straight forward New World Pinot Noir. The only question was whether it was Sonoma Coast/Russian River or Oregon. I really think it could have been either. The ripeness of the fruit overwhelmed any significant identifying characteristics.

The last two reds were much more problematic and the differences and similarity were classic. The wines were very similar with good acidity, predominately red and black cherry fruit notes with some sort of spiciness on the finish. Both were obviously classically Old World.

The group was split on the second wine. Some thought it was Syrah from the Northern Rhone, some thought it was a Bordeaux varietal. A classic clash of flavor groups, was the spiciness due to some form of Pyrazine driven bell pepper (not necessarily green but possibly dried ancho) or was it due to Rotundone (white or black peppercorns?)  The vegetal note won out over the spice. The wine was a fabulous Cabernet Franc from Chinon in the Loire Valley.

The last wine was very similar, but had more drying tannins and less spice. Discussion centered on the Tempranillo/Sangiovese divide. Nebbiolo was out of the question. The wine did not show characteristics of American Oak which would seemingly rule out Rioja, but did not show the leatheriness expected out of Sangiovese. I thought is was Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero, but it was a very ripe Chianti Classico. I wish Rob had been present to coach us through the subtle structural differences and distinguishing elements between the two wines.

All in all, a really great session. I think we've really raised our game!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Blind Tasting - Monday Study Group 1.1

To bring matters up to date, for a little over a year I have been meeting with a group of young Dallas sommeliers who are intent on achieving advanced levels of sommelier certification. To that end, we meet to study theory of wine involving intensive learning about winemaking and viticulture as well as tasting wines both to reinforce what we are studying and tasting and identifying these wines 'blind' in accordance with the blind tasting examination of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Our core group consists of three restaurant sommeliers, a salesman for a local supplier - all of whom are quite young - and myself, the grizzled geezer of the group, almost old enough to be their grandfather! They are patient and seem happy to put up with this old man.

In the world of these young Dallas somms, the year culminates in the TEXSOM Conference, a three day weekend full of workshops, tastings, a sommelier competition and testing conducted by the major somm accreditation programs. It's a big deal!

So getting together post TEXSOM is like starting the school year.

And so it is that we have some new faces in the group as well as the return of familiar but intermittent members from the past year all with good intentions of regular attendance and sticking with it. Our core group is back and looking forward to another year.

So far we've covered Europe from Germany and Austria to Spain and Portugal. Of course France and Italy required many weeks of study. So where do we go next?

Before the TEXSOM break, we were fortunate to have Master Sommelier Candidate Ben Roberts coach us through some blind tasting sessions. We thought we had been doing pretty good and making progress, but in fact we were babes in the woods. Ben was able to give us a new sense of perspective and focus to help us when we're blind tasting.

Blind tasting is like walking through a densely treed forest and it is easy to forget where you are. But if you combine the identity of the plants and trees with the geography, the geology, the climate, the position of the sun, the direction of the wind; all these points of data combine to define the notion of place. It's a deductive exercise that forces examination of all factors of the wine.

Critical tasting of wine often seems silly and is an easy target of jokes. But the rationale is simple. To develop a vocabulary that will make us more able to describe wine to customers whether in a restaurant or in a wine shop.

We all agreed that the primary focus of the groups needs to shift to blind tasting. And that means not just running willy nilly through tasting grids, but taking notes and holding each other accountable for making correct, non-contradictory calls, being more precise and eliminating ambiguity and to make our final identifications consistent with the descriptions we have called.

So this morning we concentrated on aromatic white wines whose primary flavor characteristics are driven by terpenes and we blind tasted:  2 Spanish Albarinos, 2 Alsatian Gewurztraminers, 1 Alsatian Riesling, 2 German Rieslings, a Gruner-Veltliner from Austria and a Napa Valley Viognier. Whew! A serious assault on tooth enamel.

So this post was written at Method Coffee, a new cafĂ© at the corner of Ross and Hall. Forty years ago I drove through this section every day on my way to work and it's just now finally showing signs of gentrification.

 I finished writing with two empty cups of the best espresso I have had in Dallas, a serious contender for top cup ever. The Kenyan beans yielded espresso with a deep, rich crema with a brilliant acidic flourish of baked Meyer lemons. Showy, spectacular stuff.

Not bad for a Monday.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Tasting on a Gray Day in August

Gray days are rare in Dallas in August but it's nice that the predicted rains have held off. Parking at the hotel where Pioneer Wine always holds their annual portfolio tasting is always a bitch. (Though as #4 tells me, valet is available, but my low-rent brain never thinks that way.) So I wasn't parked in a muddy field and that's a good thing.

Portfolio tastings are always fun, a big room filled with great wines and great friends I've met through the now fifteen years in the wine biz. Champagne from Billecart-Salmon filled the first table and the day brightened immediately. The wines were crisp with a bone dry elegance. The Rose is mostly chardonnay which gives it its legendary austerity softened by the final addition of Pinot Noir. Fruit is barely detectable in most red Pinot Noir I've tasted from Champagne. It's always amazing how much more fruit is apparent when it's diluted in the white base wine. The 1999 reserve was the standout with its undercurrents of tart red berries.

One of my favorite wines  I've tasted in a long time is Cartology from Alheit Vineyards from South Africa. An elegant austere blend of Chenin Blanc and Semillon (a new combination for me!) The lean Chenin greets the palate and is lengthened and complicated by the richness of the Semillon. The bright acids of the Chenin hold the complex stone and orchard fruits in suspension through the long finish. A bit pricey, but spectacular.

For me that was the star of the show. (Although the room was filled with great wines.) That and a few old friends.