Although I prefer seeing the bottle label when I’m my writing tasting notes, blind tastings can be fun for what they tell us about wine regions and categories as well as what they tell us about ourselves as wine writers and critics.
Recently, Rob Mann, the winemaker at Cape Mentelle, was in New York to conduct a blind tasting of a recent vintage of Cabernets Sauvignons - one from his winery, some from his neighbors in Margaret River and elsewhere in Australia and a few from Bordeaux, Maremma in costal Tuscany and Napa Valley. Of course, the purpose of such blind tastings is to show that the new cuvee on the block – the one staging the tasting - is competitive with the established icons in the category.
That Cape Mentelle and other wineries in Margaret River can make very good cabs is not surprising. While there are many differences in the regions, Margaret River, Bordeaux, Maremma and Napa Valley all have strong marine influences from oceans that are lapping at their shore lines a few miles to the west. And Mann and Cape Mentelle do make good Cabs, as the tasting and subsequent lunch showed.
None of the Cabs showed poorly, which was no surprise. Thankfully, we tasters took no votes on which wines we liked best, and thus there were no aggregate scores or rankings to boast about.
What interested me was the discussion of the wines after we tasted them. Mann asked for comments on each wine, one by one, in the order tasted. Then he revealed the identity of the wine we had just critiqued.
The dozen or so wine writers all were veterans, having collectively tasted and spit enough wine to irrigate all of Napa Valley, yet none of us were particularly prescient. I had jotted down the wine that turned out to be Cape Mentelle was probably from Bordeaux, and, as Mann noted, none of us won any prizes for consistently guessing the wines’ provenance.
That neither surprised nor dismayed me. Guessing wines in a blind setting is a parlor game at best, assuming anyone still has parlors. (A couple of nights earlier, the relative virgin palates of university grad students participating in the American finals of the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup fared no better.)
Not only couldn’t we guess correctly, we seldom had harmony on what we really liked. Some loved the savory reds and cared little for the fruit-forward ones. Some felt the opposite. High alcohol wines – or those perceived to be – were attacked and defended. Acidity levels, holes in the mid-palate and longevity of taste were debated. Each writer had his or her own tasting profiles of wines preferred.
Which is one reason that I take “scientific” wine ratings and the routine trashing of wines outside a critic’s tasting preferences with a grain of salt – and a gram of acidity.