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Postgraduate Blind Tasting

So you think it's easy to tell red wine from white?

Try doing it blindfolded sometime.

Some white-wine drinkers who rarely touch red are convinced that the differences between the types are deep and fundamental.

Consider the stereotypes: White wine is light, fruity and refreshing, an anonymous tipple for casual sipping. Red wine is strong, complicated and (although fine for connoisseurs, perhaps) hard to get to know.

Are the stereotypes valid?

Or are the differences overshadowed by the similarities between what are, after all, beverages made from fruit as closely related as red (or blue or purple) and white (or green or golden) grapes?

Prompted by a recent discussion on the subject among several friends communicating with personal computers on the CompuServe Information Service's Wine Forum, I decided to find out by taking the practice of "blind" tasting to its logical extreme.

I usually rate the wines for this column "blind," sampling the week's wine selection from plain, unmarked glasses poured out of my sight.

The point is to ensure that my objectivity is unmarred by prejudice or preconceived ideas. It's easier to be objective if I don't know know which glass contains the $20 boutique wine and which holds the $2.99 jug variety.

It's easy enough to arrange this kind of tasting: All you need is someone to pour the wine. It doesn't matter if you see what's in the glass.

It's a bit more complicated to compare red and white without looking, as a real (if temporary) loss of vision is required. I achieved the effect by asking my wife to wrap a red bandanna around my head.

I used four moderately priced wines - two white and two red - for the test.

I chose two California wines - a red 1981 Inglenook Vineyards Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($5.49) and a white 1985 Gundlach Bundschu Sonoma County (Rhinefarm Vineyards) Gewurztraminer ($6.49) - anticipating that these two wines would display marked characteristics that should be easy to choose.

To mix things up, I added a white 1985 Collavini Grave del Friuli Pinot Grigio from Italy ($5.79) and a red 1983 Premiat Dealul Mare Cabernet Sauvignon from Romania ($2.99), expecting them to be simple, fruity wines that might be more difficult to distinguish without benefit of sight.

The results?

Differences do exist, but they're more subtle than you might expect.

I found it fairly easy to tell the red from the white, but it would have been much more challenging without the benefit of quite a few years' tasting experience. As it was, it wasn't easy pegging all four wines to their specific labels.

Here's a summary of the notes I dictated to a tape recorder during the blind tasting.

Glass No. 1 (the Petite Sirah) was easy. Scents of green olives and black pepper and the mouth-filling, fruity and acidic flavor gave away the grape variety in this gutsy, full-flavored wine, the best wine of the four at a bargain price.

Dry acidity and a hint of oak were the tell-tale signs that Glass No. 3 (the Romanian Cabernet) held the other red wine.

I picked the two remaining glasses as white but misidentified their contents.

Glass No. 2 was obviously white. It could have passed for an inexpensive Rhine wine with a soft, faintly sweet taste. Its musky aroma, reminiscent of overripe canteloupe, wouldn't have been surprising in a Gewurztraminer, but the wine proved to be the Pinot Grigio.

A citrus quality with a faintly bitter aftertaste made clear that Glass No. 4 was white, but, misled by the Italian wine's muskiness, I failed to recognize this wine as "Gewurz;" it lacked the exuberantly spicy quality typical of this flavorful grape in Europe.

It was a useful lesson, and at least I salvaged my ego by correctly identifying all the reds and whites.

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