I have been doing wine tastings for a while now. Just locally, nothing fancy. I am not that well- known or known at all to be fair. The Cumbrian Wine Society and the Keswick Wine Circle invited me to do their tastings couple of times. I love doing it and I thought I should commemorate this third occasion there too, because it was an extraordinary situation.
The circumstances were very special indeed. I was rather worried as the Covid-19 pandemic was creeping in and I could see the devastating effect on bookings, so I thought that would have an impact on the planned wine tasting. They had their January event cancelled due to flooding; the venue was covered in two feet of water. Everyone was eager to come this time, although some elderly people decided not to come, quite rightly. The event was just an hour after the announcement of the government about forbidding large outdoor and indoor gatherings. Our gathering was just under fifty people, which was still ok, but my heart stopped. I was driving down to Keswick and the radio was on, when I had heard it. The organiser was still confident of going ahead, so we did.
I have suggested the idea of a blind tasting, because I think it is always more interesting and more to learn and not just about the subject but about yourself. Blind tastings always make me humble. It was not always like that. You realise that decades of wine drinking do not equal wine tasting. You might have a better than normal ability to taste, but there is a technique to learn and there is infinite amount of theory and knowledge to absorb to be better and better at it. It is truly a detective work fit to Sherlock Holmes.
The plan was to taste 8 wines, which came from 4 different grape varieties paired up in twos and the task was to find, out what the grape variety is. All grape varieties were well-known. If you drink wine, you have come across them. No Guatemalan jungle juice were hidden there, no indigenous Swiss grape were on display and no blends either. All of them single grape varietal wines. The two examples of the same grape variety were wildly different, coming from different countries and continents, but sometimes from the same country and region.
I put sticky labels on the bottles to avert people of making decisions by the brand. I think we just cannot help ourselves. It is always enlightening to see that mostly we try to evaluate a wine not by taste, but the bottle shape, region, brand. That is how we usually decide it is good or bad quality.
One of the grapes was the very popular Pinot Grigio, one from Romania and one from Alsace (Pinot Gris). If you know me, you know that it is one of those grapes I am not very fond of as often it is ghastly and relatively expensive. These were two good quality wines, one of them actually very good and both dry. The Romanian is under £10, the French is slightly under £20. Most people, because of the lanky, coloured and fluted bottles put the Alsatian down as a too sweet Riesling. It did not matter that the other one did not fit into the scheme at all. One gentleman was saying that the Alsatian one was a cheap Liebfraumilch. I am not going to go too much details about Liebfraumilch, but it is a mildly sweet blend of Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner, Kerner and other bits and pieces. It is cheap, but usually not much, or no Riesling in it at all, unless it comes from Liebfrauenstift-Kirchstück at Worms where the actual Liebfraumilch name comes from and it is still making good Rieslings, which are incidentally, not cheap.
The other grape was the famous and infamous Chardonnay. One from France, one from the US, both dry and very good and both over £20. Lot of people recognised the Chardonnay grape, but most of them were surprised at the price tag that comes with a full-bodied, new oaked, creamy white, and with a really good Chablis.
The next grape was Pinot Noir from Romania and another one from France. The Romanian is under £10 and the French one is around £20. Although after the initial thoughts I provided with some alternatives for what the grapes might be, the generally lighter style of Pinot Noirs were identified as Merlot and Shiraz at many tables at first. Even with my suggestions, nobody recognised the fabled Burgundy, but some suggested the grape Pinot Noir.
At last we tasted two Malbec, which is very fashionable recently. Both came from France, not very far from each other. One was a good, everyday wine under £10 and the other one is a very good quality one over £15 coming from Cahors. Not surprisingly, one lady who was consistently getting the grapes right, even on occasion the countries right, easily recognised the Cahors. The style of wine she actually detests. That is not bad starting point anyway. I used to start recognising wine styles by the ones I did not like.
As a final thought, I was pleasantly surprised by the guests. The above-mentioned lady in particular, as this little exercise was not easy, no matter what sort of a wine buff you were. It is a great training to see what sort of prejudices, biases and preconceptions we have and see there is more to tasting than it meets the eye. Most of my tutors could not emphasis it enough, that your first though should not be about what the grape was. You should go through the process, find the structural elements, cross-reference it with the theory you have learnt and make your conclusions. Being open-minded is very important! I hope this little analysis is not coming across as negative one, as it is not my intention. My point is first and foremost that tasting is a skill that can be maintained by continuous practice and you should be judging what is in the bottle, not by the way it looks.
Photographs by The Tannin Addict.