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A good tasting group is hard to find

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My San Francisco tasting group met again yesterday. We blind-tasted “International Syrahs,” knowing nothing about them except the variety. We didn’t have any information about vintages.

The results were quite interesting. For one thing, there was a high degree of unanimity among the tasters, as I’d predicted even before the results were tallied and group rankings established. That’s because this was one of the most logical, comprehensible tastings we’d ever had. It was crystal clear to me which wines were superior and which were so-so. So obvious, in fact, that I was sure my fellow tasters would arrive at very similar conclusions.

They did. Here are some of the more interesting results.

Nobody much liked the 2003 Colgin IX Estate Syrah. which cost $125 on release and now is listed at $185. It my my 8th ranked, or next-to-worst out of 9, and the group’s 9th-ranked. Everybody agreed it was hot, with faded fruit and a rustic feeling.

When I reviewed that wine, exactly 3 years ago, I scored it 92 points, and praised it for its “massive extract.” Yet I issued no guidelines as to ageworthiness, because I wasn’t sure it was an ager. As it turns out, it wasn’t. Past its prime, the IX Estate, whose official alcohol reading was 15.8%, defined a Colgin / Mark Aubert / Napa cult style that was at its supremecy in 2003. Back then, it was common to wonder if these wines would age. I think we are now finding evidence that they don’t. Wine Spectator, by the way, gave the same wine 98 points.

My favorite, and the group’s overall 3rd favorite, was the Pax 2005 Obsidian Vineyard Syrah, which retails for $93. I instantly recognized it as New World California, and guessed it might be a Pride Mountain. I was close; the Pax comes from Knights Valley mountain fruit. It reminded me of the ‘03 Colgin when I first tasted it: massive, oaky, fruity. Is there a lesson to be learned from the Colgin’s failure to age and Pax’s future? For one thing, the alcohol on the Pax is significantly lower, which might give it a leg up. Still, I’m thinking more and more that these triumphal Syrahs and Cabernets may not have the inherent balance for aging much beyond 4 or 5 years. In the case of the Pax ‘05, we’ll just have to see.

My #2 wine was a surprise that most other tasters loved as well: A 2001 D’Allesandro Il Bosco, from Tuscany, whose current retail price is $75. (I couldn’t find a winery website, but did discover that Alder Yarrow, at Vinography, reviewed it 4 years ago and wrote: 100% Syrah, and the first Syrah I’ve had from Italy that actually tastes like the varietal.” The grapes came from densely-planted hillsides which yield approximately one bottle per vine. I loved its power and dryness, but I wrote “nowhere near ready,” and it’s not. Unlike the Californian Syrahs, this one has the inherent purity and linearity to go the long haul.

Two more wines that nobody particularly cared for (and keep in mind, my group has a wide variety of palates) were older: Guigal’s 1995 “Brune et Blonde” Côte Rôtie ($75) and Jaboulet’s 1998 Hermitage La Chapelle ($92). They were my #6 and #7 wines, respectively. I found the Guigal pleasant enough, but nothing more, while the Jaboulet was clearly past its prime.

The surprise of the tasting, for us all, was an Oregon Syrah, the Cristom 2003 Estate from Willamette Valley ($24). You don’t usually think of Willamette Valley as Syrah country, but this was really a lovely, Northern Rhône-style wine. With its briary, sweet ripe fruit, I guessed it to be California. No surprise, there, as the winemaker was longtime Californian Steve Doerner, who used to work at Calera.

I highly recommend that everyone with a serious interest in wine become part of a tasting group. I realize I’m lucky to be in one that can afford to taste rare and expensive wines. But I wasn’t always. You have to start somewhere.

  1. great post

  2. Ah, Steve, this is the way to evaluate wines, using a tasting panel. You had a range of palates, in your estimation, yet a unanimity of results (made more predictable by this particular flight). This solidifies the value of the findings. But what about tastings where the results diverge, or where the majority opinion differs from yours?

  3. Tom: It is what it is.

  4. Yay for blind tasting groups! We tasted Loire reds and whites at my last tasting group (which has become known as the Wednesday Wine Share) We tasted 3 whites and 4 reds. The whites were fairly easy to guess but the reds.. who knew Cabernet Francs could taste so different from one another! I would have never known that without my wine group.

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