Hosting less experienced wine drinkers to easily replicated and structured tasting formats appeals to my ritual instincts for making wine more accessible to more people. On the one hand, it’s a refreshing personal break from the usual “club” and a way to strip away the bravado and bias brought to tasting tables by hardened wine aficionados. On the other hand, it is a chance for me to witness the joyous personal discovery that learning about wine is simple and just a little knowledge can remove years of intimidation that heretofore may have restricted a deepening appreciation. I recently had this opportunity again fulfilling a charity obligation with an organized tasting for 14 people who, for the most part, would not consider themselves overly experienced wine consumers. They were a smart and open group of really decent people seeking a fun evening doped with reasonable levels of education. Perfect!
Here are the twelve wines we tasted in four flights of three, with all flights served blind except for the first flight of whites:
2007 Burgans Albarino
2001 Kerpen Riesling Spatlese Bernkastler Bratenhofchen
2007 Pierson Meyer Chardonnay Charles Heintz
2000 Columbia Crest Grand Estates
1985 William Hill Reserve
1994 Chateau Margaux
Mencia Grape (Bierzo, Spain):
2007 Losada 07
2007 Jose Palacios Petalos
2007 El Cayado
1999 Guigal Brune et Blonde Cote Rotie
2006 MollyDooker Boxer
2006 Pax Griffin’s Lair
As you can see from the lineup it was an unusual tasting, with a broad array of vintages and regions served in varied flight formats. We started the night with a sparkling wine reception that included a simple Pinot Noir based Cava and California Brut. The first sit down flight was an open look at three dramatically different white grapes, regions, and vintages. All three wines are wonderful in their own right but didn’t show especially well in the context of each other. The group voted the Pierson Meyer Charles Heintz Chardonnay as their favorite. In full agreement, I deeply admired the eight year old Kerpen Riesling and how well the acidity had mellowed and the wonderful mouthfeel and advancing flavors it created.
As we moved to the second flight, things started to get a bit more serious and we showcased Cabernet Sauvignon from three great geographies including Margaux, Napa, and Columbia Valley. Vintages ranged from 1985 to 1994 to 2000. The 85 William Hill was disappointing and while technically alive, has given up all its fruit and is totally dried out. The first growth 94 Chateau Margaux was strutting its stuff with smoke and lead pencil streaming out of the glass and classic currant flavors dominating this wonderfully balanced wine that is starting to really become accessible. I bought some 1994 first growths in the futures market since they seemed like great bargains at just under $1200 a case in this unheralded vintage. It was my favorite wine of the night…blind.
The group, for reasons I totally understood, voted the $10 Columbia Crest Grand Estates as their favorite. Without exaggeration, I went through 8 cases of this wine in the earlier part of the decade. I never acquired and consumed that much of any one wine before in my life. I continue to think of it as one of the most delicious and rewarding $10 wine values I have ever stumbled across. Credit goes to Dr. Stephen Jones, a long time wino friend and early east coast fan of Washington State wines, for providing that tip. Subsequent vintages have also been excellent values with characteristically true Washington State bones, but none as good again as the 2000. This tasting proved that the wine does not age gracefully and its flavors get flat and muddier instead of advancing. Still, the mocha aromas that were an intoxicating component of the wine in its earlier stages were still perceptible, and the round mouthfeel was also noticeable, but the richness of velvet fruit has become seriously muted. Yet there were no flaws in the wine and the great accessibility of this wine’s style won the group over and they voted it as the flight’s favorite.
As I have mentioned before here and here again, I have fallen in love with the Mencia grape from Bierzo and this evening was a good chance to taste three 2007 versions blind. Unfortunately we had a corked bottle of the Petalos, which in non blind tastings has proven itself to be a wine of great finesse and structure. Of the two remaining bottles, the wines were quite different in style and the El Cayado edged out the Losada as a favorite. Both were wonderful wines and continue to push me to explore this grape and region with mounting vigor.
The last flight was really interesting since it showcased three Syrahs of varied styles from Cote Rotie, Sonoma, and Australia. In a validating moment proving less experienced groups can make legitimate personal preference decisions, they threw out the Mollydooker Boxer as something that did not feel representative of Syrah sensing that there must be something awry with the racy and overblown nature of this highly extracted wine. If anyone continues to wonder why Australian wines have been failing miserably as of late in the American market, this small flight of three wines is a microcosm of the answer. The 99 Guigal Brune et Blonde showed wonderfully soft grace and a classic bacon fat and floral nose, but the group legitimately favored the Pax Griffin’s Lair which was quite close to the Northern Rhone entry in overall style, but offered more power and intensity from its recent vintage. Both were absolutely delicious and along with the Margaux, were the three wines I went back to for a last taste at the night’s conclusion.
We finished off the evening with some special deserts and a bottle of Lustau East India Solera Sherry while we celebrated a great evening of fun and learning. The tasting gave everyone something to build on and replicate for more discovery and wine education. I grabbed my 60 wine glasses and left everyone feeling a little more confident in tasting and discussing wines that grab their palate in all ways.
p.s. Thanks to Doug Shattuck for taking some special photos (included in the post and here) while nobody was looking and to Betsy and Dan Kravitz for helping with the work of the tasting. Also, thanks to Jesse and Valerie for hosting the evening and to everyone else for bringing your palates, open minds, easy ways, and wonderful food to accompany the wines.