Noir in the Dark

By / Magazine / March 12th, 2010 / 1

Educating yourself about wine has many advantages. For instance, it gives you one more reason to look down upon Australians. Also, learned discourse about wine is an excellent way to bore your relatives. But the most important benefit of memorizing the 1855 Bordeaux classification is that it’s naturally intimidating. I just have to mumble something about gravel soil types and my friends begin squirming like worms dangling from a hook. As that great lover of wine Emperor Caligula once said, “Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.”

But there is one thing about wine that everybody dreads, and connoisseurs most of all: blind tastings. They are unavoidable in the wine world. Tasting blind is not merely the best way of assessing a bottle’s quality — it is a public ritual contrived to expose ignorance and shatter pride. Horror stories about these tastings are a particularly amusing sub-genre of wine writing. For instance, there is the tale of the tasting panel at the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris, whose members bickered throughout the proceedings about which samples were French and which American. More recently, a study of judges at the California State Fair’s prestigious wine competition found that only 10% of them gave the same wine the same rating when it was given to them blind on more than one occasion. Some judges failed a certain sample on one day, and the next day handed it a gold medal.

Everyone has their own miserable story. I was recently at a dinner with the Board of Directors of the Toronto Wine Tasters Society, a club that masochistically specializes in drinking blind. The half-dozen directors communally possess about 250 years of experience with fine wine and some of them have won awards for their ability to pinpoint a bottle in the dark. Yet this evening, after nosing and slurping an anonymous bottle, no one at the table correctly guessed that it was a Chardonnay or that it was from California, the single most popular varietal from the single most popular region in the North American market.

How do you get good at blind tasting? If you think that you can improve through practice and experience, then I have bad news for you. Many wine writers believe that experience actually makes you less accurate. In her memoir, Tasting Pleasure (1997), Jancis Robinson says, “I have never been as good at identifying wines as I was in the late 1970s when my palate memory (and actual memory) were uncluttered by accumulation … Then, as we accumulate more experience, more impressions and increasingly discover exceptions to the rules that seemed so simple at first, our poor old palates and memories become increasingly befuddled.”

Some people believe that that the best wine tasters are genetically different than the rest of us, with better noses and more sensitive tongues. Robert Parker has claimed that he has a “privileged” sensory capacity, and as a result, he has insured his nose for $1,000,000 in case it should ever come to harm. But the science here is iffy. Physiologists are still trying to understand the way humans perceive flavour, but one fact seems to be clear: it isn’t our nose or our tongue that does the heavy lifting when it comes to wine tasting — it is the brain. It is true that experiments have identified some people as so-called supertasters, who have a heightened capacity to detect flavours because they possess more taste buds. But apparently supertasters aren’t any better at tasting wine — in fact, the tannic bitterness and alcoholic heat can overwhelm and repulse them.

If experience doesn’t help and neither does biology, a wine lover has only two defences when confronted with a blind tasting. The first of these is dumb luck. The second is having the good sense to widely publicize it when you do manage to guess correctly. Bernard Ginestet, a former owner of Château Margaux, once said, “I know of tasters who live by a reputation forged on the basis of two or three inspired guesses.”

If even seasoned professionals wince at tasting blind, imagine how terrifying they are for a hack such as myself. Therefore, you can understand my jitters when I was invited to a blind tasting of premium Pinot Noir by the Lifford Wine Agency in Toronto. They set it up like a game, with the 20 or so tasters competing to correctly identify the country of origin of each bottle. After all, what could be more fun than embarrassing yourself in front of a large audience of industry professionals and journalistic peers?

Pinot Noir is both the best and the worst varietal for blind tasting. On the one hand, it is a grape famous for its inconstancy — even the same famed producer can move fluidly between glory and mediocrity in the space of a vintage. In Burgundy especially, Pinot Noir is an elusive target that dodges easy identification. The geographic difference between a sublime Romanée-Conti and an over-priced imitator may only be a few meters. And even a cellared bottle of the best Grand Cru will move in irregular cycles, declining and then suddenly improving from one year to the next.

Although it is maddening to identify specific Pinots, it is actually one of the easiest grapes for the kind of country-by-country guessing game that I was facing. Wine connoisseurs don’t rhapsodize about Pinot because of its intrinsic flavour — in some ways, it is a flawed grape, with its pallor and predominant acidity. However, Pinot Noir does one thing better than any other varietal: it expresses terroir with a nearly perfect transparency. Pinot is supposed to taste of place and time, not of grape and oak. It is especially sensitive to climate so that even minor regional variations become greatly amplified.

So how do you decide in a blind tasting whether a Pinot comes from the historical vineyards of the Côte D’Or or the foggy hills of Santa Barbara? The best place to start is with an examination of your wine’s quality of fruit.

Cool climates like Burgundy and Ontario create the classic Pinot Noir, with crisp flavours of marginally ripe cherries or strawberries. Conversely, warmer regions like Australia or California impart the juicier character of fat, farmed raspberries or plums. Pinot Noir is unusually sensitive to heat in the short period between ripeness and harvest. Even a little too much sun and it becomes downright jammy; in extreme cases, it melts into a candied flavour that resembles nothing so much as Coca-Cola. You can easily pick out cheap Aussie Pinots if they taste like they could accommodate a shot of rum and a cocktail umbrella.

Once you have the basic climactic range, it’s time to search for more interesting clues. For example, the cool Pinot of New Zealand is typically light, but it has some unique character of its own. During my blind tasting, I managed to identify the Carrick 2006 Pinot Noir as coming from Central Otago in New Zealand. The Carrick turned out to be both the best and cheapest bottle on offer. Its flavours are raw and unripe, but also complex, textured and constantly evolving. Because it had flecks of celery salt and white pepper, I deduced it had to be a Kiwi, as their Pinots often display these idiosyncratic flavours.

Similarly, I pegged another bottle as being Australian — the Kooyong Estate 2006 Pinot Noir from Mornington Peninsula. This was tricky insofar that Mornington is perhaps the coolest region in Australia — it juts out into the Pacific Ocean, southeast of Melbourne, and so the fruit was admirably restrained. Nevertheless, it had an engaging richness, which immediately identified it as coming from the New World; plenty of tannins and a deep colour. I guessed it was from Australia mainly because it had a telltale hint of mint, which is common to many Australian reds.

False modesty is not one of my many vices, so I will admit that I managed to identify all the other wines correctly too. Unfortunately, my character flaws do involve pride and a gluttony for punishment. Reflexively, I wanted to see if I could duplicate this parlour trick if more wines were one offer. So I invited a number of my friends over and asked them to blind taste a series of seven Pinot Noirs from around the world. To ensure that I had no idea what we were drinking, I asked my girlfriend to do all the pouring. We kept her on her feet all evening, but she did all right once she remembered to put out a tip jar.

Perhaps the easiest to identify was the Spanish bottle, a Miguel Torres 2007 Mas Borràs Pinot Noir from Penedès. This varietal is new to Spain, and as Tidings’ Contributing Editor Tod Stewart observed, “This doesn’t come from a place that knows what Pinot is supposed to be.” That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t tasty, but merely that it was oaked so powerfully that it had morphed into a different grape. It had chewy flavours of black liquorice, toast and baked blueberries. The Spanish are famous for the barrel-heavy style of winemaking, and it made this one a bit of a give-away.

The Helvetica 2008 Pinot Noir stood out as an excellent value at $18. It was smoky on the nose, with the vibrant acidity of pink grapefruit that suggested a wine caught between the subtlety of Burgundy and the approachability of the New World. However, no one was sure it was Swiss until a friend of mine pointed out that it was the tartest of the wines. “Yes,” I thought to myself, “It tastes like Calvinism.”

The best wine of the night was Nicolas Potel’s 2005 Vieilles Vignes Morey-Saint-Denis from Nuits-Saint-Georges in Burgundy. The young négociant Nicolas Potel is a rising star, and this (relatively) inexpensive delight shows why. Tasted blind, it was immediately recognizable as Burgundian because of all our samples, it was the one that still tasted young, with dark flavours still unfolding into fruit and rich spice. It was also the earthiest, with a distinctly French nose of a moist cigar. Delicious.

At the end of the evening, we revealed the labels. I was astounded to discover that collectively, we had correctly identified the country of origin for every bottle. Though we drank in the dark, each Pinot had betrayed its homeland by speaking to us in a thick accent. I was not only taken aback, I was deeply disappointed. I had wanted to write about this night. But who wants a happy ending? Wouldn’t abject failure make a better story? What will my readers think? Well, I guess blind tasting is a mug’s game — and this time, I got unlucky.


Matthew Sullivan lives in Toronto. Besides writing about wine, he is a lawyer practicing public law, which helps pay the bar tab. His weekly wine column for Precedent Magazine can be found at

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