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Blind Tasting the Rhone

I currently have a lot of samples stacked up for tasting, and most of the bottles hail from the Rhône Valley, although Austria, Portugal and New Zealand are all represented.

When I have a large backlog of samples like this it is always tempting to open a dozen or more and just taste through them, especially when I have a busy period coming up (Bordeaux 2011 – my trip next week, plus all the writing up that will be required immediately on my return). But I resent doing this, because this turns an opportunity for a more thorough examination of the wine, taking my time over it, taking a second pour as required, into nothing better than a slurp’n’spit tasting. What’s the point of a busy winemaker in the Douro or Kamptal sending me a pile of bottles if that’s all I’m going to do?

What I’ve been doing instead is comparing and contrasting, blind tasting two bottles at a time, so that I get something out of the bottles (some useful palate education), but they get something out of me (some focused time). And because my family have been joining in the tasting and assessments (and I’m blown away by the tasting ability of all my three offspring, but my daughter especially – she wipes the floor with her two brothers) I’ve tried to pick out some easy contrasts. Here are the most recent two:

A 2010 Côte-Rôtie vs. 2010 Châteauneuf du Pape (both barrel samples)
This was meant to be easy, and it was. The only possible confusion might have come from the very primary nature of the fruit in both wines, but as both seemed true to (a) the varieties involved and (b) the climate the differentiation didn’t challenge anybody. My three teenagers don’t know their Rôtie from their Pape (yet) but once I gave some hints at which flavours (there was a classically sweet, brown-sugar crumble edge to the Syrah blackberry vs. the roasted-cherry Grenache) and texture (much more viscous in the warmer climate wine) then the wines were identified.

A 2010 Condrieu vs. 2010 Châteauneuf du Pape Blanc
Well, here is a pair that demonstrates the humbling effect of blind tasting; I hoped this would be another very easy comparison, but it was not, and indeed I backtracked on my first impressions. The textures were very similar, the acidities low, the aromas and flavours both reticent, at first at least. The Condrieu showed a lick of alcohol that made me think of the south, whereas the Châteauneuf showed a peachy character at first, which made me think of Viognier. But with a little time in the glass the Condrieu opened out to reveal certain aromatic Viognier characteristics, and the Châteauneuf hunkered down into a savage, savoury, rather wild character. I switched around, and got it right. My daughter, of course, once given some hints on Viognier aromas and flavours, spotted it without a hitch.

So this is fun, but also constructive and instructive, on several levels. Not only do I remind myself of the need to be analytical and precise when tasting (which blind tasting encourages I think), I also continue to show my children alcohol as something akin to music, art, theatre, film or whatever, to be enjoyed, mused over, investigated, discussed and respected, rather than as fuel for a binge-derived ‘high’. In each case we have tasted along with dinner, not a role for alcohol I was introduced to as a younger man. Will this mean their teenage years see different interactions with alcohol to those I ‘enjoyed’, one or two of which were very negative indeed? Who knows? I hope so.

The growers were Pierre Gaillard, La Ferme du Mont, François Villard and Domaine de Cristia by the way. Obviously I will write up all the wines as soon as possible, somewhere in the midst of a huge Bordeaux 2011 I suppose!

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