Sunday, February 25, 2018

Hail Cork Master, the Master of the Cork!

I remember my first wine tasting class. My notes went something like this:

Appearance - Red/Gold/Pink 
Nose - Smells like wine
Palate - Tastes like wine
Body - Liquid?
Finish - Glass is empty?

Bordeaux Blend Tasting
My interest in wine started during my consulting years in Northern California. While my palate was not quite discriminate, the proximity to Napa and Sonoma provided many opportunities to try great wines. I became intrigued by how one could train one's palate to get a fuller appreciation of the different types of wines - be they varietals, terroirs, or vintages. There was also the romantic notion of being able to blind taste like a Master Sommelier.

I recall fondly the Frasier episode where Frasier and his brother Niles were vying for the title of Cork Master of their wine club. To break the tie, they had a wine taste-off. I remember thinking, What fine palates they must have to be able to guess the wines with such precision!

I re-watched the episode recently and cracked up at the descriptors used during the taste-off. Now that I know a little more about wine, the descriptors did not make much sense. Neither "ripe, round, and thoroughly seductive"  nor "dark, dusky, and supple" would have helped me identify a wine as Australian Shiraz.

That said, blind tasting is extraordinarily difficult. A lot of sommeliers will say that the underlying criterion for successful blind tasting is typicity. Typicity describes the quality in a wine that is typical of its geographical provenance and the varietal origins from which it is made. Even then, wine experts can be fooled, and the best of them are often humbled by the difficulty of that task.

Pinot Noir Horizontal Blind Tasting
Nonetheless, comparison wine tasting, whether blind or not, can be fun and very educational. Comparison wine tasting is when you put two or more wines that have something in common but also have enough differences so that the different notes picked up can be attributed to those factors.

A few years ago, we did a Pinot Noir tasting where we tasted through different expressions of the grape - Bourgogne (or Burgundy), New Zealand, California, Oregon, and for fun, a ringer bottle from Trader Joe's. Except for the ringer bottle, each wine reflects the typicity of its classification or geographical provenance. To make it easier, we provided the list of wines and corresponding descriptors to help the tasters narrow down the guesses. Still, it was hard, real hard. Most of us could not get even half of the wines right. But we had a blast. We learned a few things and hopefully burned the memory into our palate. New World wines are generally more fruit-forward, and Old World wines are generally more earthy.

Brady Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Vertical Tasting

More recently, we did a vertical tasting of Brady Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon from 2010 to 2014. This time, it was not a blind tasting, and winemaker Kim Brady walked us through the different vintages. The great thing about vertical tasting is that you get to appreciate how wine evolves over time. Younger Cabs tend to be most fruit-forward and full of bold tannins. Older Cabs tend to lose some fruit in exchange for higher complexity and softer tannins. If your palate is not quite ready to pick up the difference, one telltale sign is the color. Older red wines tend to have a brick-ish hue whereas younger red wines tend to be deeper in color.

So you may not have the palate of a Master Somm. You can still have a blast with comparison tasting. Think about what you would like to learn about - the influence of terroir on a grape varietal, the evolution of wine in a bottle over time, or even just tasting different grape varietals from the same geographical area. You will find that the notes on appearance, nose, palate, body, and finish actually make sense, and you may be the next Cork Master of your wine club.