Wine Tasting Challenge

By / Magazine / January 19th, 2011 / 3

When Dionysus descends for the final judgment Steven Spurrier will have a lot to answer for. Spurrier, you may recall, initiated the now ubiquitous phenomenon of pitting wines from different regions against each other in a blind tasting competition.

In 1976, he matched California Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons against white Burgundy and red Bordeaux (in both categories Napa Valley triumphed — much to the chagrin of the French experts who participated). The Judgment of Paris, as it grandly came to be known, spawned a rather bad movie in 2008 entitled Bottle Shock.

This form of wine baiting invariably has a marketing agenda. Put your wines up against the acknowledged leaders in the field and see if the experts can rank them higher or at least on par with renowned wines. Another version of this party game is to throw a ringer into a flight of wines from the same region. In Montreal last year, Le Clos Jordanne Chardonnay Claystone Vineyard 2005 was judged best wine in a flight of white Burgundies. This result prompted Bill Redelmeier, proprietor of Southbook Vineyards, to lead a parade of 40 Ontario Chardonnays to London to open the eyes — and the minds — of the British wine press.

Over the years I have participated in several of these blind tasting events, which have included such extravaganzas as matching flagship Errazuriz wines against the icons of France, Italy and California; Ontario Cabernet blends versus red Bordeaux; Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves going head-to-head with First Growth Bordeaux and the launch of Chile’s first icon wine Seña at which First Growth Bordeaux and Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve were in the starting line-up.

This form of oenological challenge is not reserved to the Americas. This past June, I sat down to a tasting of Australian wines called “Trade Comparative Masterclass.”

There were four flights of wines — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Shiraz/Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon and in each there were a couple of ringers. The assembled tasters were asked to rank the wines in preference and to determine which were Australian and where the ringers came from.

My favourite wine was the first of the flight of five. It had that smoky, toasty, barnyard note that I associate with Burgundy. On the palate it showed lemony, green apple flavours and driving acidity, which pushed me towards a Grand Cru Chablis. It turned out to be Xanadu Limited Release Chardonnay 2008 from Margaret River. One point behind was another wine I put in Burgundy — Shaw & Smith Chardonnay 2006 from the Adelaide Hills. Mark two up for the Aussies. The ringers were Louis Latour Meursault 2007 and the blowsy Cakebread Chardonnay Reserve 2006 from Napa.

Pinot Noir
James Gosper, the regional director of Wine Australia, in talking about the flight, used a term I had not heard before: “Pinosity,” which I took to mean the Aristotelian form for Pinot Noir. Again, my favourite was the first wine of the flight of five. It was the lightest and most elegant of the group with a minerally, raspberry flavour. I pegged is as a red Burgundy, possibly Volnay. It turned out to be a Bouchard Père et Fils Savigny-lès-Beaune 2007. The three Australian Pinots were very good too, tying for second place on my scorecard were Yabby Lake Pinot Noir 2008 from Mornington Peninsula and Bay of Fires 2008 from Tasmania.

There were six wines in this flight. My top wine was Kangarilla Road Shiraz 2007 from McLaren Vale, which I guessed was Australian. Sweet juicy blackberry, liquorice and fresh mushroom flavours with a savoury finish. The Rhône contender, Domaine du Coulet 2006 was faulty. The other ringer was MacRostie Wildcat Mountain Syrah from Sonoma.

Cabernet Sauvignon
My vote went to the oldest wine in the flight, Thomas Hardy Eileen Hardy Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 from Margaret River. Elegant, perfumed, red and black currant flavours, firmly structured with ripe tannins. The ringers were Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 from Napa (2nd for me, tied with Vasse Felix 2005 from Margaret River) and in last place, Château Lagrange 2006.

And what did I learn from this experience? That my preference for the wines of Margaret River was reinforced, and that I have a healthy respect for the new young winemakers down under who are practicing a new mantra, “The best thing a winemaker can do is to do nothing.” In other words, if the fruit is good, don’t mess with it.


Tony Aspler, Order of Canada recipient, has been writing about wine since 1975. He is the author of 18 wine books, including The Wine Atlas of Canada and three wine murder mystery novels. The best concert he ever attended was Rush with the Tragically Hip as the opening band. His favourite comfort food is milk chocolate and his cocktail of choice is a Kir Royale. At home, he drinks wine (lots of wine).

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