How to Taste Wine: Old School Tasting for New World Wines

Tasting wines blind usually works well…usually. It turns out that bagging and tagging can challenge even the most widely traveled among us. RULES for bagging: Learn to hold onto the bags used at your local wine shop; i.e., Woodland Hills Wine Co. Place the wines in plain brown wine bags. Pull the corks first and put them aside. Use corks from other bottles that occupy an otherwise useless drawer in the kitchen. Tape the bags tightly just below the rims. Send someone else to number the bags.

Problems can also arise when the concept fails. The latter occurred recently when we tried to taste off Pinot Noir wines, all from Santa Rita Hills. We were hoping to discern the differences between winemaker styles: terroir vs. fruit driven, lower vs. higher alcohol levels, New versus Old World preferences. Other “territorial” nuances might have played a role but that would lower this blog to the level of “entertainment” rags like People, US, and OK or some other Rupert Murdoch publication [ed. just ask, he’s itching to gossip if only someone was interested!]. Suffice it to say the SRH Pinot Noir taste-off proved to be more cerebral than distinctive. Given the sameness of outcomes, i.e., all the wines were pretty darn fruity with alcohol levels above 14%, we turn to the science of measurement to present our findings.

Here then is a matching quiz where you THE WELL INFORMED READER will successfully match the label to the description of the wine. Record your matches at the end under COMMENTS. Enter the number for the wine with the letter for the description. If you believe the #1 wine 2010 La Grange aux Belles La Niña matches the letter F description then enter 1F under COMMENTS. Your complete finished answers will read 1F, 2G, 3D…

OK. Pick up your pencils and break the seal on your booklets. Like so. You may begin.


THE 5 WINES..

1. 2010 La Grange aux Belles La Niña (Gamay) 13%
2. 2001 Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial (80% Tempranillo) 13.%
3. 2010 Cold Heaven Peacemaker Pinot Noir 14.75%
4. 2006 D’Alfonso-Curran Pinot Noir Los Hermanas Vineyard, 14.1%
5. 2007 Talley Arroyo Grande Pinot Noir 14.1%

THE NOTES…

A. Fruity, balanced, not overwhelming. Tastes like Sangiovese. Forward cherry fruit. Medium weight. Pretty fresh for older wine. Fan favorite. $30

B. Alcoholic, big wine with peppery nose and flavors. Cherry cola. Powerful, like Syrah. $45

C. Funky nose and flavors. Is this Pinot Noir? Thick, unctuous, vinous. Sweet, cherry Robitussin, tannic. Off balance. $15

D. Sweet flavors. Smells and tastes like Pinot Noir but not distinctive. $25

E. Too big. Lots of alcohol. Hot. Everything wrong with SRH Pinot Noir. Gets more intense with time in the glass. Too focused. $45

Our tasting was undone not only by the lack of distinction among Central Coast Pinot Noir winemakers but also by the entry of two non-Pinot Noir wines. In the end the Spanish wine was most favored [ed. hint hint]. Once again, SRH Pinot Noir wines will go on hiatus. As took place with Paso Robles, we shall turn our attention to Rhone style reds from Santa Barbara. David Corey of CORE Wine Company has made the point in spades that these are the varietals which do best round these parts. In the queue for further testing on that proposition, we have Blair Fox of Blair Fox Cellars and Mikeal Sigouin of Kaena Wine Company; both premium and high rep Rhone style wine makers from the region.

As we observed in Paso Robles White Rhone style wines from SRH are another story. Some local SRH winemakers are doing a bang-up job with Rhone varietals such as Viognier, Rousanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. Kris Curran has been making very popular and luscious Grenache Blanc wines for longer than we can look up. We tasted two Viognier wines recently from producers with whom we were less familiar. We often find the Rousanne/Marsanne/Grenache Blanc blends fairly pleasing. However, we have consistently been unimpressed with Viognier as a varietal in general. Things have changed.

2010 Cold Heaven Sanford & Benedict Viognier $34: This is Morgan Clendenen’s signature wine. The next issue of Elegant Living magazine includes my incredibly perceptive interview/profile of her. This wine has a powerful nose. First flavors are steely, acidic, sharp. There is ferality but none of the dreaded feline quality. With a little more time citric and lemon flavors emerge. Kind of like ripe kiwi. Next stage shows peach. This is getting delicious. Excellent. Check the alcohol. 13.5%

2009 Blair Fox Paradise Road Santa Barbara County Viognier
$24: Another winner. Comes out strong but not beefy. Think Marshall Faulk. A tough, persistent and shifty runner with enough power and strength to carry the ball the entire game. Solid fruit flavors. More peachy than lychee. Also more straight ahead where the Cold Heaven teases and tempts. Like the Cold Heaven version this wine has very good acid to support the fruit. Also featured in the November 2012 issue of EL. Another winner. 14.2%

Although these two wines are not U20 values they are still good value in terms of quality. Keep in mind these are very low production hand-crafted wines made very skilled local winemakers. It shows. If somebody wants to know what to bring to the holiday party suggest one [ed. or both!] of these wines and you will be watching the door. Timing is perfect for bigger red and solid white wines. We especially like these white Rhone varietals with their lighter alcohol levels. The weather will turn cooler and Turkey Day is on the horizon. Stay frosty.

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