We kicked off our Boston blind tasting group’s 2011 season comparing a dozen chenin blancs mostly from the Loire Valley. A fascination with blind tasting connects all the way back with my earliest attempts to learn about wine twenty five years ago. There is no easier way for for me to identify the unique characteristics of any single wine besides tasting it in direct comparison to a bunch of its vintage, appellation, and varietal cousins. I was brimming with excitement thinking how some of my favorite chenin blanc producers would show in broad company. Just like the advantages of viewing twin siblings side by side to pinpoint physical distinctions, the same is true with wines produced from related conditions, timing, variety, and place. But, can critical blind tasting also inform gustatory enjoyment? Just when you think it very well can, a chenin blanc tasting like this rolls along to obliterate the connection beween blind tasting results and what’s best to drink with dinner.
I was excited to organize this tasting because of my love affair with chenin blanc’s multiplicity of sweet to dry profiles, alluring textures, and characteristic acidity. While I envisioned showcasing a tight scope of wines from one vintage or appellation, I ended up pulling together a wider range of chenin to include favorite producers like Rougeard and Chidaine, controversies like Joly and Testalonga, and curiosities like Angeli and Belliviere. Hints at residual sugars in some, and appellation variability from Savennieres to Montlouis and Jasnieres made this tasting less of a comparative dissection of hard-to-tell-apart wines and more of a chance to cast a ballot for a favorite chenin style. Complicating matters further, just in case you preferred an oxidized, nutty, oily styled wine with dinner, a citrus filled chenin with hard working acidity just might demote your favorite dinner chenin to the bottom of the list. When this happens, I try to overcome creeping insecurities by remembering I drink only one wine at a time in the context of food at dinner, but an onslaught of wines in the context of each other at blind tastings. The differences are profound enough to discourage, or at least temper, transferring blind tasting knowledge to the dinner table.
The group selected 2009 Belliviere Premices from the upper Loire appellation of Jasnieres as its favorite. It is a first hint at how these wines would show off next to each other. The Belliviere was the first of many chenins with sweet fruit aromatics and residual sugars to capture the attention of the group. This particular wine presented aromas reminding me of bubble gum to go along with its steely profile and peach and passion fruit flavors. A very sexy wine with lots going on to capture your attention. I liked it as well, but never considered it for my top three wines in either flight. 2008 Aubuisieres Les Giradieres garnered the second most votes for its overly expressive nose of crisp apples, grapefruit, and tangerine neatly complemented by resins and a borderline large dose of residual sugar. It all hangs together to create a riveting glass of wine. It was also my second favorite wine of the evening.
Two wines tied for third place and one of them is a complete puzzle to me. The 2008 Chidaine Les Argiles from Vouvray was lightest in color, showed some decent slate character, but was completely restrained, light on aromatic expressiveness, and just the least impressive wine in the first flight of six. Others loved it and that’s the beauty of group tastings and personal style preferences. I had this wine with dinner before and was disappointed; especially since Chidaine is a favorite producer. Thankfully, the Clos Habert showed extremely well in this tasting. Still, the Les Argiles is the only wine the group favored and that I shied away from. I managed to protect my self esteem on the strength of its lackluster impression. The other wine that tied for third place was my favorite of the night; 2009 Huet Clos du Bourg (Sec) from Vouvray. Back in April Eric Asimov wrote about a similar Chenin tasting and this Huet Sec was his group’s favorite wine of the twenty tasted. It’s a pretty wine, with lemon, apple, and steel on the nose. Everything is in great balance, including the touch of residual sugar tamed by the strength of the wine’s acidity even though the bottle is labeled “sec”.
So here’s the rub. Wines I have swooned over with dinners including the sole South African wine 2009 Testalonga El Bandito (the obvious new world wine) from Swartland, 2005 Joly Coulee De Serrant and 2005 Closel Clos du Papillion from Savannieres showed poorly in comparison to fresher, more citric, floral, and brightly fruited wines. The Clos Rougeard “Breze” is from my favorite cabernet franc producer in the world, and it just did not show well with its darker color, creme caramel and baked apple aromas, and flabbier finish than all others. The wines that won smelled like “ladies of the night” next to the oxidative, mealy apple, looser constructions of these other great wines. Joly can push chenin to controversial limits, Testalonga’s Craig Hawkins is experimenting with whole fruit fermentation and making chenin as you would make red wine, and the Joly and Closel both have a few years on these other wines. But the fact of the matter is that I enjoyed, no-loved, these other wines on separate occasions with dinner. Yet if I relied on the results of this tasting I would have never drank them with a meal and would have missed those exciting and rewarding moments.
The winners of blind tastings seem to be just that. Transferring that new knowledge to the dinner table is dicey business. So, just drink and experiment with the wines you want to try with dinner. How much simpler can wine appreciation get?