Blind tasting Pinot: it’s not easy
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.