Most people avoid blind tasting like the plague, and trust me when I say that I understand completely. The fear of failing in front of your peers and of possible ridicule can keep even the most knowledgeable wine drinker away from a blind tasting.
However, the fact is that blind tasting is a skill like any other, and one that needs to be fine-tuned in order to excel at. You can be the most knowledgeable wine lover anyone knows and still call blind wines wrong over and over again. It’s only with practice of drinking wine blind that you begin to really understand it. And what’s more, if the group you’re blind tasting with reacts with anything other than playful humor and coaching each other for future success—then you are simply with the wrong group of people. You don’t need people like that.
In the end, blind tasting is something that should be fun, and there’s nothing like getting a group of friends together to spend an evening tasting great wine. For me, it’s the unveiling that provides the biggest kick, especially when the group is split over what will be pulled from the bag. Each failure is nothing more than a learning experience, and each success feels like a great accomplishment.
Looking back at your notes when the wines are unveiled provides amazing insights into your own preferences, preconceptions, and palate. What’s more, how the expression of a grape can change so much from being planted in California versus France, aged in oak or not, and even down to the details of diversity of soils.
Start small, pick a grape, and have everyone bring their favorite bottle or pick a region. In the end, you’ll be calling wines correctly before you know it. It really does come quick. However, don’t be surprised when you get something wrong, even years into blind tasting. Sometimes, the universe just doesn’t behave the way we expect it to.
Below is the recounting of a recent blind tasting that I enjoyed with a group of friends. And even though these were some pretty serious wines, the evening never felt like anything more than a bunch of wine lovers having a really great time. What’s even more interesting was how some of these wines confused the entire group.
On to the notes:
Bravo to blind tasting, and a group that not only called this an Amarone-style wine about 15-20 years on it, but also called it Quintarelli. Unveilings like this are what make blind tasting so much fun.
1996 Giuseppe Quintarelli Rosso del Bepi Veneto IGT – Served blind, and what a result, as half of our table guessed it was Quintarelli (but not quite Amarone). The nose was gorgeous and luxurious yet with that finesse and sweet floral spice that only Quintarelli seems to be able to achieve. Spiced cherry, undergrowth, crushed flowers; exotic spice, raw beef and sweet herbs all came together to form a bouquet that was truly seductive. On the palate, it was fleshy–BIG–yet perfectly balanced, displaying ripe cherry, confectionary spice, inner floral and earth tones. It finished on a mix of dried fruits and spice, lacking only on an expected note of dark chocolate. It was long and satisfying in every way. (94 points)
We knew is was Bordeaux, but what we didn’t realize was that it was over 30 years old. What an amazing expression of perfect maturity. If memory serves, the bottle was purchased upon release and stayed in one cellar its entire life.
1982 Château L’Evangile – The ’82 L’Evangile was in beautiful form and perfectly mature. The nose showed an inviting mix of dried cherry, plum, blueberry, dried flowers, dusty minerals and graphite. It was feminine, seeming to hover on the palate, displaying completely resolved tannin with dried red fruits, hints of spice, earth and pepper. The finish displayed a mix of dried fruits, smoke and savory spice. This is in a perfect place today, and I can’t see it getting any better. (95 points)
For most tasters, the L’Evangile was the wine of the night; but for me, this was it. I did go back and forth between Bordeaux and a high-end California Bordeaux blend from the eighties (from a time when California was trying to compete with Bordeaux, and not vice-versa).
1985 Château Haut-Brion – Descriptors are almost meaningless on the ’85 Haut Brion, as the wine was nearly perfect. The nose was dark and rich, showing red and blackberry fruits, smoke, animal musk, minerals and a distinct note of menthol. On the palate, it was like silk drawn across your senses, and it was perfectly balanced with rich dark fruit, inner floral tones, and pronounced saline-minerality. The finish was long with dried cherry, minerals, smoke and hints of spice. This is a drop-dead gorgeous, mature Haut Brion that was hard to put down—and it’s in a perfect place today. (98 points)
Red Burgundy with about 15+ years on it was the consensus. Not being a Burgundy-centric group, this was really all we could expect. Calling out the producer or vineyard is probably a little beyond our means, but all that mattered is that it was an absolutely amazing bottle of wine.
1996 Hubert Lignier Clos de la Roche – This is one of those wines that could sway anyone’s heart to the allure of Red Burgundy. The nose was feminine and refined, showing deep layers of rich, dark red fruit, blueberries, earth, minerals, brown spices, and sweet floral tones. On the palate, I found silky textures matched by vibrant acidity and crunchy minerality with notes of raspberry, earth, game and crushed stone. It seemed to coat the senses with dark fruits and fine tannin, finishing on dried cherries and earth with sweet inner floral tones and hints of smoke lingering long. (95 points) Find it at Morrell
Here’s where blind tasting can really throw you for a loop, as nearly the entire group thought this was a California Cabernet. The big question is, was the 1998 Le Pergole Torte varietally correct, or was it the entire group? We did well with the age, calling mid-nineties, but Cabernet??? It was only after the unveiling that I found any of that textbook leather and acidity that might have tipped me off to this being Sangiovese.
1998 Azienda Agricola Montevertine Le Pergole Torte Toscana IGT – This was tasted blind, and what an odd surprise, as a table of Italian wine lovers believed this to be from California. Imagine the response when we found Le Pergole Torte instead. The nose showed a mix of rich fruits, raspberry and black cherry, along with hauntingly dark floral tones, mint, and notes of tobacco. On the palate, I found silky textures with intense, dark red fruit, and chewy tannin. It finished dry and grippy with hints of tart berry. (92 points)
Bordeaux Blanc was the consensus here, but without the ability to place it beyond that. Everyone was very happy when they saw the Ygrec emerge from the bag. What a gorgeous wine.
2013 Château d’Yquem “Y” – The nose was rich yet wonderfully perfumed with notes of ripe pear, mango, spiced apple, tart citrus, exotic floral tones, and hints of cut grass. On the palate, I found an intense display of ripe stone fruits, ginger and sweet herbs with a soft and luxurious mouthfeel and underpinning of brisk acidity. The finish lasted remarkably long with notes of lemon curd and tropical fruits. This is a stunning Bordeaux Blanc. (95 points) Find it at Morrell
The fact that this was Riesling was unmistakeable among the group, as well as that it was most likely Spatlese. However, I don’t recall anyone calling out the producer, age or region. I for one don’t count myself as knowing enough about mature Riesling, of course there are many people who would argue that this is not yet mature. No matter, because the wine was simply stunning.
2002 Dönnhoff Norheimer Kirschheck Riesling Spätlese – The color was white-gold. The nose was incredibly rich and layered yet fresh, with notes of ripe pear, apple, mango, ginger, mint leaf, fresh cream and crushed stone minerality. Weighty textures like heavy silk caressed the senses, as notes of spiced apple, mango, sweet herbs, and hints of orange saturated the palate. Its sweetness was perceptible, yet there was a brisk acidity keeping the experience fresh and lively. It finished floral and refreshing with ripe stone fruits, citrus rind and hints of ginger lingering long. (93 points)
Article, Photos and Tasting Notes by: Eric Guido
There’s a lot of talk about the 2013 vintage in Napa Valley. Many winemakers are saying that they have created their best wines to date from this near-perfect vintage. One winery in particular, which has already received 100-point scores from critics for their 2013 vintage, is Dominus. In fact, Dominus is now one of a small number of estates that forms the First Growths of Napa Valley. However, the success of Dominus and its rise to eminence goes far deeper than just a single great vintage.
This brings me to the historic Napanook vineyard and the esteemed owner of Dominus estate, Christian Moueix. Christian was born into a vinous lineage of Bordeaux wine merchants (you may have heard of Chateau Petrus), yet he didn’t rest upon past laurels in pursuit of his vision. A viticulturist at heart, Christian began his journey studying agricultural engineering in Paris, yet it was his time at the University of California at Davis in the 1960s which truly sparked his belief in Napa Valley terroir. He returned to France and the family business of Ets Jean-Piere Moueix in 1970, cutting his teeth in the vineyards and wineries of Bordeaux; yet in 1982, he returned to Napa Valley to create Dominus.
The first step was the vineyard, where much has changed over the last three decades. The historic Napanook vineyard was one of the first plots chosen for Napa Valley vine-growing in the 19th century and was used to produce the legendary Inglenook wines. It was also the ideal location to practice the dry farming techniques that Christian Moueix depends on for creating fruit of tremendous depth. Here at the foot of the Mayacamas range, rainwater collects on the mountainside and works its way into the soil until it comes in contact with a nearly impenetrable layer of clay. It’s this clay that works as an underground slide, delivering deep-water reserves below Napanook’s soil. Forcing the vine roots to dig deep in search of these reserves is a huge benefit for creating great wines in nearly every vintage.
Another huge step forward at Dominus was the addition of Tod Mostero as director of Viticulture. Tod was a veteran of the industry, with experience at Haut-Brion, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, and Rothschild’s Almaviva project in Chile. Christian brought Tod onto the team, explaining that his goal was to create a perfect wine. With the ideal location already secured, Tod’s real mission was to understand what perfection in wine really meant.
The answer he arrived at was balance, purity and complexity. However, it was realized that the real work that needed to be done was all in the vineyard, which is something you hear about more often in Europe than in Napa. A change in planting of the vines to run east to west, versus north to south, had already been underway, as well as a focus on Cabernet Sauvignon.
Therefore, the answer lay more in organic practices, such as the use of cover crops and wildflowers, judging not just each block, but each vine individually, as well as the most important factor: ideal ripeness. At Napanook vineyard, vines on the south side of a row receive different treatment than vines on the north. Fruit from the end of a row will be thought of very differently than those from vines throughout the vineyard.
The most interesting thing that I believe I’ve learned about Dominus is how their “second’ wine, Napanook, is really not a second wine after all. The reality is that Napanook is a wine that was created to be a different expression of the vineyard, not a bottling that would receive the fruit that didn’t make the cut for Dominus. In fact, in some vintages, the younger vines are used to create balance in Dominus, while the older vines find their way into Napanook. In the end, the work that Christian Moueix and Tod Mostero have put in to create their “perfect” wine is a monument to Napa Valley winemaking.
Elegance, complexity, balance and longevity are words often associated with a bottle of Dominus. It’s a classic wine and a testament to how old world experience, using the best materials Napa Valley has to offer, can result in greatness.
We now see those 100-point scores awarded to the 2013 vintage of Dominus, and having tasted it myself, I must say that it is a wine of tremendous depth and beauty.
The following notes are from a vertical tasting hosted by Tod Mostero. It was an eye-opening experience, showing a 14-year evolution that has taken place.
On to the tasting notes:
2001 Dominus Estate – The 2001 Dominus is simply stunning. The bouquet was an intense mix of gorgeous dark red fruit, soaring floral tones, plums, tobacco, minerals and hints of parchment. On the palate, I found soft, silky textures, ripe red berries, blueberry skins and hints of spice, all in perfect balance. The finish was long with palate-coating dark fruit, licorice, minerals and inner floral tones. This is in a beautiful place today, yet there’s no rush. (95 points)
2005 Dominus Estate – The nose was very pretty, showing crush red berries, floral tones, and undergrowth, gaining richness over time. On the palate, I found soft and inviting textures with ripe red fruits, sweet herbs and minerals. The finish was long with a mix of wild berry and inner floral tones. This was such a pretty wine and completely ready to enjoy today. (94 points)
2009 Dominus Estate – The 2009 Dominus is like a ball of pent up energy, waiting to explode. The nose was dark and polished, yet with remarkable freshness to its mix of raspberry and blackberry fruit. Hints of tobacco added depth. On the palate, it was dense with intense dark fruits followed by lifting inner floral notes. The finish was long, dark and saturating to the senses. There’s so much more here that’s buried beneath this wine’s youthful state. It’s a sleeper wine. (96 points)
2011 Dominus Estate – The 2011 Dominus continues to be a mysterious wine that is constantly evolving in the glass. The nose showed crush blackberry, raspberry, and spice with chalky minerality and hints of pepper. On the palate, I found silky textures ushering in dark red fruit, plum, and savory spice. The finish was long with tart berries, black licorice, and haunting violet floral tones. (93 points) @Morrell
2013 Dominus Estate – It’s hard to bend my brain around the 2013 Dominus at this time, as there’s so much going on, and it’s so primary and densely packed, that the best anyone can be expected to do is imagine how amazing this will be as all the pieces fall into place. The nose was a multi-layered display of blackberry, black cherry, plum, sweet herbs, hints of tobacco and crushed stone. On the palate, it was dark yet perfectly polished, with dense, silky textures saturating the senses in dark fruits with hints of licorice and herbs. It’s saturating black fruits coated the palate throughout the finish with a tinge of minerality and dark floral tones. There is so much potential here, but it will take years before we can really understand it. In other words, it may be deserving of a higher score down the road. (97 points)
2013 Dominus Napanook Red – The nose showed ripe red and black berries, hints of savory herbs, minerals and fresh floral tones. With time in the glass, it seemed to turn sweeter and rich, yet all the while remaining bright and energetic. Silky, palate-coating textures soothed the senses as notes of dark red fruit and sweet herbs washed across the senses. It finished on lingering dark fruits, hints of bitters and inner floral tones. This is already accessible today, but it should continue to improve for a decade. It’s amazing to think that the 2013 Napanook is a second wine. Wow! (94 points)
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