The early Olympians believed that it wasn't winning but trying that's important, while the famed American football Coach Vince Lombardi took the point of view that winning wasn't just everything, it was the only thing. I propose a moderate middle ground when it comes to the fun of "blind" wine tasting: It's not whether you win but how you try that's important.
That's easy for me to say, as in fact I did in brief comments at Friday's Wine Century Club tasting in New York City last weekend, because - in spite of any resume credits I may claim as a wine "expert" - I'm usually very poor at identifying wines tasted from plain, unmarked glasses, a game that many wine enthusiasts enjoy. I've always got a good reason for my choice, but it's simply not always the right reason.
As it turns out, this pragmatic approach is shared by the Court of Master Sommeliers, which, in its hellishly difficult certification tests, requires considerable blind tasting of sommeliers-in-training but pays most attention to the analytical process that leads them to their response. A random shot that misses the target earns no credit, but a well-crafted analysis may earn praise for its thought process even if it came out in the wrong place.
Why reward a wrong answer? I can't speak for the sommelier organization, but in my mind, the intelligent enjoyment of wine isn't about winning at all costs, it's learning to think about our favorite beverage in a way that helps us learn something about it. Trying to guess the exact variety, region or even producer and vintage of an unknown wine can really focus your attention, especially in competition with friends.
Friday's deliberations, at the cozy Markt restaurant, a Belgian-style bistro near Greenwich Village, featured an offbeat sparkler followed by four unnamed wines served with a choice of dishes to match: Two whites with a seafood dish, and two reds with a meat course. Participants were given a list of 12 possible grape varieties to check off for each color, making this really more of a "near-sighted" tasting than a "blind" one; but it didn't make things much easier - a few math wizards at our table speculated that this placed the odds at hitting all four in a random selection at 225,042 to 1.
In lieu of the usual tasting notes, I thought you'd enjoy a quick diary of my tasting, along with the thought process that led me to, well, 2 1/2 wrong answers out of four.
The first wine, served as an aperitif and not part of the competition, was a sparkler, not foamy but prickly, with intriguing aromas that mingled tart apple cider with an attractive plowed-field minerality, leading into a marked bitter-almond finish. I toyed with the possibility of Italian Franciacorta but decided that the lovely minerality spoke of the Loire. Good guess! It was Thierry Puzelat's Pétillant Naturel Vin Pétillant de France, a wine made in such defiance of the Appellation Controlée regulations that it's labeled merely "French wine" without any more descriptive geographical term. Past vintages have been Chenin Blanc, and I assume this one was, too.
With my first course, a rich and creamy lobster bisque, I pondered the two whites. The first was tartly acidic with good green-apple aromas and a sturdy body and structure, with lots of complexity, a perceptible chalky minerality and a slight bitter finish. It rang a distant bell, reminding me of a Loire white I had enjoyed in the past. Good pick, and it underscores a fundamental of blind tasting: If your subconscious tosses up a clear message, pay attention to it. Your first instinct is often right, if you have the wit to hear it. It was the Romorantin variety, François Cazin 2002 Cour-Cheverny Le Petit Chambord.
The second was an entirely different style of white, aromatic and peachy, also rather full-bodied with just a hint of sweetness. I would have guessed Viognier, but that wasn't on the pick list, so I ticked off Albariño, without great confidence. Nope. It was my first-ever encounter with the Nosiola variety, the Giuseppi Fanti 2003 Trentino Nosiola.
A pair of reds came with my main course of rare grilled entrecôte steak with Belgian-style frites, and they were about as different as two red wines can be. The glass on the right bore a pretty, reddish-purple fluid, so light and bright that it almost looked like a rosé. The other glass approached the opposite end of the red hue, so dark that it looked black in the dim eatery light; holding it close to a table candle revealed a day-glo violet edge. The light-color wine breathed aromas of perfumed red-berry fruit with lots of spice. Its spicy fruitcake character made me think of the Italian Ruché grape, but it's usually a dark wine; this item's pale color and slight herbaceous notes nudged me to guess Dornfelder, a modern German red grape. Wrong again! It's another variety I had never tasted, the unusual Petite Rouge, a wine from the Val d'Aosta in the Northwestern Italian Alps, Grosjean Frères 2003 Torrette Vallee d'Aoste.
The darker wine was strong, robust and earthy, with rather light plummy aromas, black plums and a pretty damp-earth minerality that, reviewing the list, I guessed as Refosco from Northeastern Italy's Friuli. Wrong again ... but not exactly. After dinner, when Century Club co-founder Steve DeLong pulled off the colorful nylon wrappers that had concealed the bottles, he realized to his horror that the wine wasn't the one originally ordered, and in fact wasn't even on the list. Being nothing if not flexible, Steve collared every potential winner and invited them to take another stab, with the hint that it was Italian and was "not that uncommon." OK, then. It had to be Barbera, and indeed it was: Tavijn 2003 Barbera d'Asti.
Two out of four correct answers proved to be enough to win this extremely difficult contest, so much to my somewhat embarrassed surprise, I followed the Lombardi rule and took home the trophy. My original point about process remains, though: Practice blind tasting, think about what you drink, and you'll learn a lot about wine.
For more information about the Wine Century Club, an informal assocation open to wine enthusiasts upon application and a list of at least 100 wine-grape varieties that you've tasted, click to
Whether you're looking for a grape as common as Pinot Noir or as obscure as Hondarrabi Zuri, you'll find them on the Varietal Table, each entry loaded with concise information about the grape, its identifying characteristics, the wines it's used in, and where it's from.
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