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!