Lessons In Blind Tasting

When I first started to learn how to cook, someone gave me the advice to go through my spice cupboard and just taste everything in it: the herbs, the spices, the various oils, vinegars, pastes, etc… Let me tell you, the first time you taste things like Turmeric or Cream of Tartar or oyster sauce on their own… well, it’s interesting. But it really helped me figure out how this flavor and that flavor may work together in a dish. It was one of the smartest (and grossest) things I’ve ever done.

It’s possible to do some of that with wine- I can taste chocolate, berries, stone fruit; I can smell/taste roses, violets, honeysuckle, orange blossoms; I can smell my leather coat, cigars, pencil shavings; I can even go outside and lick limestone paving stones on my patio, chalk, gravel in the driveway… But there are something like 400 “essential” flavors/scents we are likely to identify in a wine. I’m not totally sure my brain can store and instantly recall that many profiles- any chance Apple is working on some kind of smart wearable for that, an iTongue maybe?

So, while I do a pretty good job with a wine tasting- I can usually narrow a wine down to 2-3 options and while I frequently still pick the wrong one, it’s usually the one I didn’t pick that was right… I don’t know if that makes it any better, but I’ll stand by it with only my Level 1 WSET at this point. Oh, and I can pick out a Sauv Blanc in my sleep, while I have a sinus infection- no question. But that’s probably not that special, I should stop bragging about that, huh?

Anyways, so you might know that over the birthday weekend, Bestie and I decided to do a kind of weird blind tasting. When given four bottles of American sparkling, in the $20-30 range, can we pick out which is which? Oh, and we had to make it even harder on ourselves, we had to stick to Methode Champenoise styles, all blends of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. So what? We’re going to be able to pick out from a few online tasting notes which is Carneros vs which is Oregon vs which is Anderson Valley? Did we REALLY think we could ID the one that grew in the foggy CA Mendocino County vs Carneros?

Well, yeah. We did think we could.

So at my suggestion, we tasted first, talking them ourselves- not wanting to be influenced by the winery’s/critics’ opinions. Turns out, I’m a genius for that suggestion. Well, genius-ish. But we’ll get to any fault in my mental processes later.  Don’t worry- I’ll make sure I point out the part that indicates my deficits; well, “ish”. 😉

Alright, velvet-covered bottle at the ready. Bestie made sure that we couldn’t even tell if the bottle was green (one of them was, I couldn’t tell in the velvet sleeve), and I was in charge of pouring- Bestie was really worried about compromising the integrity of our test- he had to trim the foil around the bottles’ necks to make sure he couldn’t pick out a silver vs gold. Seriously, for the two people who used to spend hours talking on the phone while watching Mary Poppins on Disney Channel instead of doing homework, our anal-retentiveness occasionally comes through in some truly surprising ways.

Ok, so as a reminder, the four sparklings we tasted:

  • Argyle Brut Willamette Valley, NV ($25.99)
  • Roederer Estate Brut NV ($26.99)
  • Schramsburg Mirabelle Brut MV ($27.99)
  • Tattinger Domaine Carneros 2013 ($28.99)

So, I poured the first sparkling. It was a lovely, but relatively pale gold- elegant beading. There was a smell of something baked- a battered bread like raisin-nut or spiced? But not a ton of yeast, especially not after the yeastbomb that was the Tattinger we had just enjoyed to help us remember a “benchmark” of fine sparkling. But for me, it was caramel-coated Granny Smith apple that was hitting me hard- toasted, caramel and rich but with some tart, crisp green apple as an almost unexpected backbone. Oh, and let’s not forget the toasted almond involved- it could have bitter or overly acidic, but it was complex and sophisticated, had a long finish and never felt like too much of any one thing.

So, what was it? It felt like the multivintage (MV) from Schramsburg- where they blend in a little bit from the BEST vintages to the lesser vintages to create a steady-to-superior quality. It was balanced and complex, but lacked some of the hedonism and absurd perfection of a true vintage champagne. Put a pin in it, a probable first guess?

Wine two has me asking Bestie,

Me: “Wait, I didn’t think any of these are Prosecco…”

Bestie: “Umm, you think I’d serve you  fucking Prosecco for this tasting? Please.”

(Don’t worry, Fans, dramatic reenactments of this scene will be available on YouTube ASAP).

So, if you haven’t figured it out yet, bottle #2 was exceptionally light, ALMOST more frothy than bubbly, it had a strong nose of blossom, lemon curd, Bosc pear but a relatively light taste. This one was nothing if not ethereal- it seemed to live in the upper registers of our sinuses, it felt like it was floating- like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when they’re just ingesting bubbles and floating on them. You could almost taste the flavor evaporating on your tongue as it soared to the top of your mouth. Obviously, given the flavor, nose and pale straw color, it’s NON vintage.

Bottle #3 was a different beast entirely. This one reminded me of true Champagne. It wasn’t dead on, but the nose had briney qualities- not exactly a day at the beach, but serious maritime/sucking down oysters memories were evoked. There was some sourdough bread rising both on the palate and the nose, some toasty, nuttiness (I’m going with Hazelnut) while still having plenty of baked red apple and baking spice. I started to wonder if there was some anise, but that started to feel like a bridge too far. Oh, but at the very end? Definitely reminded me of the smell of wet limestone on my parent’s patio when I was growing up- smell, taste… it all came together in an awfully visceral way. Given the flavor, the legs, the color, etc- I was pretty positive this was from Oregon (Argyle).

Bottle #4 was pretty Champagne-esque… but didn’t hit the tasting notes for me. It lacked any kind of yeast/nut flavor- but it was gorgeous. There was stone fruit, a more pronounced minerality, it was Champagne-adjacent, it was classic and stunning and gorgeous… but didn’t evoke feelings of Versailles, or velvet, of oysters and caviar.

Ok, so we finally picked.

But in the back of my head I was like… yikes- I feel like based on the various descriptions, #3 is the Argyle… but no- it’s an Oregon sparkling that tastes like Champagne? IMPOSSIBLE! That was the most classic, the truest version, that HAS to be the Tattinger. So, we decided:

  1. Mirabelle
  2. Domaine Carneros
  3. Roederer
  4. Argyle

Guess what? We were SO wrong!!!! We correctly identified number one of them. And the thing that kills me is that in my head I KNEW, I absolutely had identified them correctly in my head- I just didn’t listen to myself.

So, as Shakespeare would say, “Know thyself” and “To thine own self be true.” Because you know how to taste, you know what you’re experiencing, don’t give into that inner bully who is trying to overthink it Let’s face it, if I know how to do anything, it’s drink, taste and understand what is currently in my mouth (I know, I know, dirty)… and I didn’t. Lesson, hopefully learned, from now on, it’s what my tongue says it is… Wait, is there any way to say that and not sound weird?

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