Blind tasting sharpens the senses

Nothing de-romanticises wine like TV footage of white-clad show judges spitting perfectly good wine into buckets. It just seems so far removed from the simple enjoyment of wine with food.

Certainly wine judging holds little appeal for spectators. But for judges it opens the door ever wider on the vast world of wine. And, from experience, the pleasure of drinking wine increases as our frame of reference expands.

Our frame of reference expands every time we taste a new wine. The more adventurous we become, the more we learn. And even in normal drinking situations we can move faster up the ladder by doing little things like serving wine in pairs for comparison. When we do this we become our own wine judges.

And if we conceal the bottles as we serve pairs of wine to our dinner guests, we have a masked tasting – a mini wine show. When we can’t see the bottles, don’t know what’s served and don’t know what the price is, we’re left only with our senses. Do the wines look, smell and taste good? Do they please us? Can we tell if they’re chardonnay or riesling; pinot noir or shiraz; young or old?

It’s a terrific way of widening our exposure to wine in its natural setting with food. And if you’ve like-minded friends, you can take turns hosting wine-tasting dinners. It’s a great way of throwing the wine door wide open.

For a decade now we’ve been part of a tasting group that formed some years earlier. Six couples gather six times a year – each couple hosting one event annually.

The host couple prepares a main meal and select and buy the wine. The others in the group bring a plate and their own glasses and contribute money for the wine. But the wine selection is entirely up to the host. And none of the other guests, and generally the wine buyer’s partner, don’t know what’s on the wine list.

We kick off with an aperitif as people arrive, usually a sparkler or sherry from a masked bottle or decanter. Between the chitchat, we offer comments on the wine, often prompted by questions from the host – simple stuff like “is it Australian or imported?”, “OK, it’s imported, do you think it’s French?” And so it goes until the wrapper comes off.

At the dinner table, the wines arrive in decanters, usually in sets of three but sometimes in pairs. We launch into the food, two or three glasses of wine in front of every person.

By now we’re well into a rollicking dinner party for 12 – and the conversation goes everywhere. Prompted by the host’s questions, though, it eventually returns to wine. We compare the wines, describe them and gradually drill down to what they are, led by the host’s questioning and acknowledgment of correct answers. Some folks pay more attention than others. But it doesn’t matter. We’re all enjoying the wines.

We’re all learning something, too. And we’re all put on the spot, in gentle kind of way: OK, so you have three wines in front of you. What are they? Are they all the same variety? Yes. So what are they, riesling or semillon?

The latter question came up at our most recent gathering. We had in front of us a pair of very dry, acidic whites, the first quite austere, the second a little more fruity. Only one taster spotted riesling (correctly) at first glance and held steady throughout the quiz. The rest of equivocated, thrown off by the austerity of the wines.

The first was Eden Road Canberra District Riesling 2010 – a pale, low-alcohol, bone dry white that may or may not develop richer flavour over time. It’d be an act of faith to expect so. But this is a respected winemaker, so we can’t write off the chances. The second wine was Helm Classic Riesling 2010.

After this unexciting start, though, the second pair of whites threw riesling into perspective. Here was the value of masked tasting, a couple of sniffs and sips bringing instant enlightenment, and huge drinking pleasure.

The first wine offered a beautiful fragrance – floral and excitingly limey at the same time, followed by the most delicate, pure lime-like flavour and zingy, fresh acidity. This was pure, distinctive Watervale – a sub-region of South Australia’s Clare Valley.

Its companion offered a more powerful expression of riesling, less revealing of its fruit flavour but with the structure and fine but intense acid backbone of Polish Hill, another Clare sub-regions.

What classics they were and so readily identifiable – a mark of great regional specialties. The wines were Grosset Springvale Vineyard Watervale Riesling 2010 and Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2010 – Australia’s most revered rieslings.

We moved on to reds and after a pair of mediocre pinot noirs, one from Willamette Valley Oregon, the other from Coal River Valley Tasmania, enjoyed two more pairs of beautiful regional specialties.

The group fairly quickly honed in on the glorious Best’s Bin O Shiraz 2005 and Seppelt St Peter’s Vineyard Shiraz 2005 – spicy, savoury wines from neighbouring vineyards at Great Western, in Victoria’s Grampians region.

Then Cullens elegant, refined Cabernet Merlot 2008 and Moss Wood’s powerful Ribbon Vale Cabernet Merlot 2008 provided contrasting, but recognisable, examples of this great Margaret River style.

Of course, we can drink and enjoy these wines on their own. But serving them in masked pairs or trios, selected by someone else, increases the mystery, sharpens our senses, challenges our assumptions and ultimately widens our experience. Indeed, the more adventurous we become the more we enjoy ourselves.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011