Passing the taste test and the paradox of tasting

I’ve heard it called the paradox of tasting – the situation where professional tasters elect a champion wine and then drink anything but the champ during the following discussion.

I don’t why it is, but sometimes a wine that seems terrific at first sip, loses interest while an apparently plainer wine grows in interest with every mouthful. I’ve heard of one tasting group that rates the wines in the order in which they disappear over a meal. Sensible folks.

As a lapsed retailer and veteran of dozens of public tastings, I’ve seen over and again how individual perceptions vary enormously, sometimes fundamentally, and how any number of visual or spoken cues profoundly affect how we perceive and rate wine.

Organised tastings, whether they’re on the sterile white benches of wine shows, in the scramble of a crowded retail store or in a relaxed cellar door atmosphere seem far removed from how we actually drink and enjoy wine – with food in the company of friends.

One of our wine shows, the Sydney International Top 100 acknowledges this by bringing food into the equation during judging. And one of the tasting groups that supplies many of my own recommendations enjoys small flights of masked wines over a meal – yes, actually swallowing the wine and enjoying its affects as well as flavour.

On a larger scale, an event that started as a yearly extended-family holiday now includes broad-ranging tastings during the evening meals. This year, across eight evenings, about 25 adults ranging from 21 to 65 tasted (to be polite) about 150 wines served with everything from snags to scallops.

We had no intention of drawing a list of favourites or rating wines by points or stars. But the diverse opinions flowed – sometimes eloquently, sometimes with a quiet grin or a second glass (politeness again) or a glass untouched.

Surprisingly we couldn’t see any age or gender related preferences. But we did see a couple of broad trends – a very strong bias towards red wine; a notable preference for soft, fleshy reds (shiraz, pinot, grenache, tempranillo) as stand alone drinks; a more catholic appreciation of red styles as the food flowed – including very firm cabernet and savoury sangiovese and nebbiolo; delight in riesling at any time; a preference for sauvignon blanc with petanque; and a mix of surprise and delight at the oak-fermented chardonnays, especially served with local fresh seafood.

From the 150 wines an eclectic and small list of standouts emerged.

Holm Oak Tasmania Sauvignon Blanc 2009 $25
A lovely, pure and understated expression of the style from Tassie’s Tamar Valley. It’ll never be better than it is now – exquisitely fresh.

Scarborough Hunter Valley Chardonnay 2008 $25
Full and juicy with seafood chowder – in the soft but fine and complex Hunter style.

Shelmerdine Heathcote Riesling 2009 $29
An absolute knockout from the Victorian region more renowned for its shiraz.

Shelmerdine Heathcote Viognier 2009 $29
Another winner from the Shelmerdine family – complex, subtle viognier without the fat oiliness generally associated with viognier.

Essenze Waipara Pinot Gris 2009 $21
From Waipara, a little to the north of Christchurch New Zealand – a full-bodied, richly textured pinot gris with matching crisp acidity.

Oyster Bay Marlborough Pinot Noir 2008 $23
An easy drinking pinot showing many of the key good characteristics of this difficult variety – fragrant and fruity with sufficient tannic grip to be a real red – if not the magic of the best.

Stone Dwellers Strathbogie Ranges Pinot Noir 2008 $25
A lovely surprise from the Plunkett and Fowles families – this has the aroma, flavour, elegance and grippy structure of good pinot. Very good at this price. One to watch.

Wyndham Estate George Wyndham Shiraz Grenache McLaren Vale Barossa Valley Shiraz Grenache 2007 $21.59
Probably a lot cheaper on special. A juicy mouthful of ripe, grapey flavours and soft tannins. George Wyndham died a century and a half ago, but they dug him up to sign the label.

Tahbilk Nagambie Lakes Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 $21.50
There’s fabulous value here from the Purbrick family estate – elegant but rich and quite firm in the house style, and oh so good with protein rich food.

Tahbilk Eric Stevens Purbrick Nagambie Lakes Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 $69.95
Savoured alongside the cheaper Tahbilk wine and significantly more concentrated in flavour – a superior wine for long cellaring. Not three times as good, but discernibly better and with quite a pedigree.

Tahbilk Nagambie Lakes Shiraz 2006 $21.50
A tight, savoury, quite tannic shiraz that disappeared very quickly.

Zema Estate Coonawarra Shiraz 2006 $25.95
A contrast to the Tahbilk wine, still in the medium bodied, cool-climate style with Coonawarra’s bright berry flavours and soft tannins.

Domaine Chandon Barrel Selection Shiraz 2006 $49.95
Of unknown origin, but clearly from a cool climate with its medium body, elegance, concentrated flavour and silky, plush texture. A class act.

Turkey Flat Vineyards Barossa Valley Shiraz 2007 $47
A deep and generous, soft and savoury shiraz sourced in part from vines planted in 1847. From Peter and Christie Schulz’s Turkey Flat Vineyard.

Turkey Flat Vineyards Barossa Valley Mourvedre 2007 $35
A wine that divided the crowd – comments ranged from ‘the best wine all week’, to ‘that’s nice’ to ‘yuk, don’t like that one at all’. To my taste it was wonderful – full and savoury with mourvedre’s distinctive, firm tannins.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009