Blind tasting: oh dear. I am not very good at this at all. The last time I seriously had a crack at discerning what was in my glass I was with (a) one of the most important figures in the U.K. wine trade and (b) one of the most influential wine critics in the world. Great.
Bottle one: where were we? The Rhone? Somewhere in Alsace? I was beginning, inexplicably, to think somewhere in Australia before my host put me out of my misery. A single vineyard Condrieu from Andre Perret. I should have got this for three reasons: Condrieu should be pretty easy to spot – it’s got a sort of confection that makes you feel a bit girly when you drink it. I also spent two miserable years working for the company that represents Perret in the UK. Most irritatingly I had shared a bottle of almost the exact same wine (different vintage) about a week previously. No: if “blind tasting” means the ability to divine exactly what is in your glass (region, grower, vintage, etc) then I am not good at this at all, and my performance for the remainder of the evening was equally dire.
So does this make me a crap taster? I think not. Blind tasting is a bit like “Name the Film”. “There are two kinds of people in this world: those that enter a room and turn the television set on, and those that enter the room and turn the television set off”. Name the film that this quote comes from. That’s the game.
It’s partly about memory, and more about the various switches in your brain being able to translate the tastes in your mouth into something that your brain has filed away. My brain simply does not have the wiring for this and, moreover, my brain does not react well to pressure.
You can learn to blind taste. There is a method, one which is largely one of elimination. You can get an idea of age and grape variety from the colour. Pinot is garnet, Cabernet is dark purple. Old Pinot goes brickish-brown and smells of, well, shit, but in a nice way. Old Cabernet goes a slightly brickish-red and smells of, well, to me, old Cabernet, which sums up my weakness.
I did some blind-tasting, or guess the wine, this week. For the first few I just kept my mouth shut and watched one man pick vintages and vineyards successfully, and the remainder of the group just get things wrong. I joined in once. At the end of the week. I was rather full of confidence after a week of tasting where I had not only got through more than 350 wines in four days and lived, but I felt that this week I was really beginning to get rather good at this. I had spotted different methods of vinification without being told, and I had spotted wines that were unfinished in terms of elevage, my thoughts being confirmed by both winemakers and the rather legendary chap that was tasting with me.
The wine was 1996 Latricieres-Chambertin, Domaine Rossignol-Trapet. That we were in the cellars of Rossignol-Trapet rather narrowed it down, as did the fact that I knew I was tasting a grand cru. The lifted style of the wine – a ballet dancer on her toes – had me thinking Latricieres. Chapelle-Chambertin is more meaty, le Chambertin itself more complete. So it was the vintage. In retrospect it should have been easy. One look at the wine in my glass should have told me that it was more than ten years old. The acidity should have helped me with the vintage. A colleague piped up: 2000. Which sort of made sense. 2000s are very forward, silky wines that are drinking beautifully now, even right at the top, and what we were tasting was silky, and perfect. This is what felled me. 2000s didn’t have this acidity. It must be a 2001. Similar to the 2008s that we had been tasting all week in that the 2001s were a tricky lot, derided a little by the critics only because they had not the skill to judge them, if that makes sense. I was going for glory, picking a long odds winner.
What a twat. Any 2001 grand cru of that colour would have had to have been stored on top of the oven. The colour should have told me that it was older, but my lust for glory, for being clever, brought me down.
So. No, I’m not very good at this. Not just because of my South East London childhood (so what exactly does gooseberry smell like?) but mostly because of my insatiable desire to be the cleverest and my lack of ability to do anything under pressure. So I just read the label.