Masked tastings – the palate stripped bare

Masked tastings became part of my life 36 years ago when I joined the liquor trade. The tastings take many forms, involving anything from one or two wines, to competitive wine games, right through to judging hundreds of wines over several days.

Retailing and tasting brought me into contact with many wine lovers outside the trade. Some became life-long friends. Indeed, one group I met through my retail tastings more than twenty years ago, welcomed me, in turn, to their tastings, which they continue to hold every two months.

Needless to say, the people in the group love their wines. But they’re not so dippy that wine nudges everything else aside. So the group’s tastings became dinner parties, attractive even to a few spouses who’d rather drink wine than talk about it.

Everyone brings a plate and their own glasses and chip in for the wine. The host provides a main course and selects and sources the wines. The guests know nothing about the wines being served.

Stripping away the label, bottle and price, leaves tasters little but their senses to rely on. So as the wines come out, the group, prompted by questions from the host, gradually work out what the wines are.

Without the label to guide us, we first note the characteristics of the wine. Whether this leads to identification depends on many factors. Is the wine a good example of its style (better wines are easier to recognise)? Does the wine go beyond our frame of reference, leaving us wondering or guessing? Are our palates in good shape tonight? And, importantly, what do we know about the host’s likes and buying habits?

The latter point comes up in all wine games and naturally becomes part of the fun. But the knowledge can backfire.

In our most recent tasting, we quickly identified the mystery bubbly as Australian, not French and a vintage rather than non-vintage. Where in Australia, asked the host? Well, a wine this fine and delicate had to come from one of the cool-climate specialty areas – not Tasmania as it was too fruity. Tumbarumba became the front-runner, simply because our host almost always spruiks the area.

Wrong, but close he said, derailing our thoughts.  With no sparkling area of note immediately north Tumbarumba, we headed south of the Murray to the Whitlands vineyard, in the high country above the King Valley. Yes, he confirmed, you are drinking Brown Brother Patricia Pinot Noir Chardonnay 2006 ($40). Bingo.

Two very young whites arrived next, the first light, floral and musk-like in its gentle flavour; the second fuller bodied and firmer, with an unappealing touch of grey to the colour. The vintage came easily – 2012– but not the variety, with only one female and no males suggesting the correct answer, riesling.

These were OK wines, from a stellar riesling vintage, but not ones I’d be buying or recommending, although they enjoyed some support from other tasters. They were Peter Lehmann Eden Valley Portrait Riesling 2012 ($15–$19) and Robert Oatley Great Southern Riesling 2012 ($17–$18)

The identity of the next two wines proved equally elusive, explained largely by their obscurity and the cold, wet, difficult, 2011 vintage they came from. We eventually found ourselves in Victoria’s King Valley again, guessing at obscure grape varieties.

With some difficulty (and prompting by the host) we unveiled the first wine as Pizzini King Valley Arneis 2011 ($23) – a dry white with distinctive jube-like fruit flavour and savoury finish. It was OK, but I’ve tried better vintages of this wine.

Gapstead King Valley Petit Manseng 2011 ($22) beat us all. In the 2011 vintage this variety, originally from south-western France, produced a full bodied, deeply coloured sweetish wine with the distinct, and likely unintended, flavour of botrytis. Not my cup of tea at all.

Luckily a thrilling and distinctive bracket of reds followed, instantly recognisable as Canberra district shiraz from the cold 2011 vintage. These were beautiful wines, showing the intense spicy, lightly peppery character of cool-grown shiraz, just on the edge of ripeness – evidenced, too, in the light-to-medium body and fine-boned, tight tannins.

Wines one and three in the group were Nick O’Leary Canberra District Shiraz 2011 ($28) and Nick O’Leary Canberra District Bolaro Shiraz 2011 ($55) – both gold medal winners. Their stories are worth recounting.

Nick O’Leary Canberra District Shiraz 2011 201 $28
O’Leary says this wine demonstrates the benefits of good vineyard management and liaison between the growers and makers. Good growers, especially after the destructive 2011 season, realised the need for intense vineyard management and crop reduction to suit the season. At Nanima vineyard, “driving force of the wine”, a well-drained site helped, but “great also great management” produced the goods, says O’Leary. The Fischers shoot thinned, and at veraison dropped half the fruit off the vines, enabling greater flavour concentration and quicker ripening. He sourced the remaining high quality grapes from Wallaroo Wines, Hall, and Long Rail Gully, Murrumbateman. The wine contains about five per cent viognier, though this is not obvious in the aroma or flavour. Judges awarded a gold medal in Canberra as well as Melbourne.

This is magnificent cool-climate shiraz – revealing Canberra berry fruit, spiciness and even a touch of pepper, emphasised by the cold vintage. The medium bodied palate presents, too, a savoury element and a pleasing, lean, dry palate – though the fine tannins provide adequate flesh.

Nick O’Leary Bolaro Canberra District Shiraz 2011 $55
By a strange quirk of fate, this wine shares more than an equal billing at the Melbourne show with Best’s Great Western Bin 1 Shiraz. O’Leary explained, “In Canberra Hardy’s recommended clones from their experience in South Australia. Most didn’t work. It’s expensive but more suitable once are being introduced”.  In this instance the Fischer’s grafted the Great Western clone onto the roots of a lesser clone. “It’s one of the great shiraz clones for Canberra”, says O’Leary.

And its first outing tends to confirm that. The Melbourne judges ranked it slightly ahead of the standard shiraz –perhaps noting the extra savouriness, flavour depth and firmer structure of a very classy, cellarable wine indeed.  “I made Bolaro for the future”, says O’Leary.

O’Leary’s two wines flanked Alex McKay’s Collector Reserve Canberra District Shiraz 2011 ($58). On its release almost a year ago, the wine showed hints of sulphide character which, at a low-level, complements cool-climate shiraz flavour. At our recent tasting, however, the sulphides initially dominated the aroma, although we all noted the beautiful silky depth of the palate. The sulphides had largely dispersed two hours later, though some tasters still disliked the character.  By this time the wine (sourced from the Kyeema and Fischer vineyards) was unbelievably luscious and silky on the palate – suggesting it simply needs time in bottle, or a very good splash if you’re drinking it now.

On the other hand, cool-grown shiraz, especially one with as a high whole-bunch component as McKay’s, can included an earthy, burned-rubber note not derived from sulhpides. McKay believes this is the case with his very complex wine.

After this the host took us through two very good 2010 vintage Coonawarra cabernet sauvignons (Wynns and Redmans). But the other great and easily identified wine of then night proved to be a sweet, unique German riesling  – Schloss Vollrads Auslese 2009 (half bottle $40). Fragrant, light, delicate and just seven and half per cent alcohol, it could only have come from the Rhine or Mosel Rivers – in this instance from the Rheingau region on the Rhine River.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2013
First published 13 March 2013 in The Canberra Times and