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Blind tasting Pinot: it’s not easy

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My San Francisco tasting group met again this week, in the room whose big picture window looks out over the Bay, the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island. Sometimes, when I’m pondering what’s in my glass (the tastings are blind, of course), I’ll just zone out on the view and let my subconscious mind take over. In blind tasting, over-thinking will get you in trouble.

This time we were told the wines were all youngish Pinot Noirs from around the world. I assumed that meant they were primarily from Burgundy, California and Oregon, with the possibility of Otago. Our host, Gary Cowen, the proprietor of Fine Wines International, had asked us to think about origin and terroir — could we, as a group, consistently discern differences between the wines? The answer, it turned out, was No.

After sniffing through the 8 wines on a preliminary basis, I determined that there would have to be a warning given upfront: I was rating the wines on a basis of “What’s drinking best now,” as opposed to “What is the wine likely to do in 5, 8 or 10 years?” It’s vital to make this distinction when you’re being asked to rate and rank wines in a blind tasting. A wine that’s not showing well now, because it’s too tannic or mute or undeveloped, may well blossom with bottle age.

So, for example, when I tasted wines 6, 7 and 8, I didn’t score them exceptionally highly, but for each one I wrote “Potentially great.” What were they? Kistler 2004 Cuvee Elizabeth Occidental Vineyard ($375), Louis Latour 2003 Romanee St. Vivant Les Quatres ($260) and Aubert 2005 Reuling Vineyard, a Sonoma Coast wine ($240). Even though each was unique in its own way, each, I wrote, was “tannic…needs time.”

What were my top-scoring wines? Numbers one and two were in a virtual tie: Amisfield 2006 Rocky Knoll Vineyard ($100) from Central Otago and Calera 2004 Mills Vineyard ($55). Both were gloriously aromatic and offered up a rich tapestry of spices, dried fruits and cedar, and both were drinking beautifully at that moment.

Inbetween were the other wines: Drouhin 2004 Grands Echezeaux ($185), Aleth Girardin 2005 Pommard Rugiens ($100) and Sineann 2005 Wyeast ($45), from the Columbia Gorge.

In the discussion that followed our tasting, there was general agreement that Pinot Noirs from all terroirs are becoming more alike at the high end, what with similar viticultural and enological techniques, clones and flying winemaker consultants, not to mention global warming. The most important variable, it seems to me, is ageworthiness. Some great Pinot Noirs need it desperately, and should be cellared, although Gary, who sells all these wines, noted with sadness that 99 percent of them will probably be opened too soon.

  1. “99 percent of them will probably be opened too soon”

    How do we convince a country of wine drinkers (whose wine and wine culture was significantly influenced by a diminutive man who kept his wines under his bed) to hold off and let their wines age and evolve?

    This is even a harder sell when even the wines made to go the long haul offer much appeal in their infancy.

  2. Steve – I find the results from our blind Pinot tastings are the most varied. The styles vary the most. As do the opinions of the reviewers. Personally we think this grape is the hardest to build a consensus of opinions.

  3. Arthur, I think when people aren’t even sure they’ll have a decent retirement, it’s hard to convince them to age wine. “Carpe diem” seems to be the new zeitgeist.

  4. Steve,

    I think the preference for consuming wines before maturity predates the economic woes and concerns about integrity of retirement funds by a decade or two.

    I think that the tendency to consume wines un-aged is more a manifestation of an impatient culture which values convenience and immediate gratification.

  5. Steve!

    I haven’t seen you in too long!

    I hope my oppinion doesn’t rub anyone the wrong way but… I am, very fortunately, a person who has one foot in the old world and one in the new (namely, I live and work part of the year in the US and the other part in Europe).

    There’s a very different way of looking at wine, as well as tempo of life in the US vs. Europe. Here wine is something to quaff, to drink with a buddy, to split over a conversation. Which means not a lot of fore thought goes into its general consumption.

    The European mind is generally , “What will I match with that?” May it be high to low fashion, job with mode of transportation, or wine with dinner.

    In the US we seem to have a “Buy it now, kill it now, cook it now, eat it now mentality. How many of your friends have taken the time to actually prepare a perfect Beef Bourguingnon with hours and hours of preperation and really turn it into a gastronomic event?

    The mentality (and I can only speak from my circle of friends in both lands) seems to be one of “I don’t have time.” in the US vs., “Let’s make the time.” In Europe. People don’t have ‘time’ to lay things down in the US, where Eropean’s take pride in laying down that bottle of Bordeaux. They plan entire meals just around the wine… Sort of hard to do with “Two Dollar Charles.” Don’t you think?

    As for the econony… Germany, Italy, France, etc. ALL have unemployment two to three times higher than the US. They do not let the price of their vices and virtues get in the way. Unfortunately Steve, you are 100% correct! You and I used to talk about this from time to time standing around a wine department. The economic scene from the time you and I last spoke (about a year ago) of US wines has gotten worse. Things that were selling easilly at $22.99 and $29.99 are now gathering dust and customer are buying multiples of $12.99 and $14.99. In fact, there has been a rather large swing of folks that were drinking wine only, now taking home a bottle of vodka, or a nice quiet brandy.

    So my advice… “Carpe Diem” away! But wait a while and look for those $300.00 ’05′ Bordeaux’s to come down to $150.00 because everybody is stuck with them.

  6. Hi Ben, nice to hear from you!

  7. Steve,

    I agree that most red wines are consumed too soon, but beause most consumers do not cellar wine (no patience, time, space or money to do so), more and more winemakers, especially in the U.S., seem to be trying to make red wines for immediate consumption. This may not be true of very high end offerings, but it is true of many wines costing as much as $50 or $70 a bottle. This is not to say such wines should not be cellared at all, or at least opened and decanted well before consumption, but they aren’t made for a long life.

    Your experience with French pinots and tannin reminds me of my experience at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon last year. We tasted well over 100 pinots and those from France were notably more tannic — sometimes to a mouth-pinching degree — than pinots from CA and Oregon.

    Re your tasting, I hope you ate a lot of crackers, or something, between tasting each of those very high end French pinots because as I’m sure you know, tannin builds up in the mouth. This can easily, in the course of a comparative tasting, lead to one to think that subsequent wines are a lot more tannic than they actually are.

    Another thing to think about: a lot of tannin doesn’t mean a wine will age well. It has to be balanced by a lot of fruit. As the tannin breaks down and softens over time, the fruit will also fade. So the balance has to be right down the road. Also, beware of aging red wines that are very high in alcohol. The alcohol may be balanced by a lot of fruit initially, but the fruit fades and the alcohol doesn’t.

    Enjoyed your observations.

    Fowler W. (“Skip”) Martin
    “The Wine Commentator”

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