Saturday, January 5, 2013

Blind tasting at Ridge

There's nothing like a blind tasting to make you think about how difficult tasting and describing wine is. When you look at a label there's a certain expectation, which may be met or may not. Even when the professional critics have their blind tastings for publications they know up front at least something about the wines in front of them - they are all new releases and they know the region and grape varieties.

When Christopher Watkins hosts blind tastings for bloggers at Ridge he loves to test his audience. Just before Christmas a group of us were invited to a tasting that he titled 'Three Blind Mice'. The rules were simple: three flights, of three wines each. Identify what the wines had in common as well as what differentiated them. Then finally identify the common thread between the 9 wines. Sounds simple enough.

In a corner of the room stood 9 bottles, covered in paper bags, and 9 decanters. I noticed something different about the fill level of one of the decanters but thought nothing of it at the time. That was unfortunate, as it turned out to have been a vital clue.
So, on to the wines. The first flight seemed easy enough. The first wine had a bright purple colour, indicative of a very young wine, possibly a barrel sample. The nose was smoky and dusty, the palate had some lean berry fruit, but it was almost painfully young. I guessed the Estate Cabernet - probably 2010 or maybe even 2011.
The second seemed more polished. It had a similar smoky, dusty nose but with more black fruit and the tannin was very evident on the finish. The colour was less purple, so clearly it was older. I guessed 2009 Estate Cabernet.
The third wine was darker still and the nose seemed riper and more mature. It was rich and smooth, with more tart black fruit and a smoother finish. So I guessed 2007 Estate Cabernet.

We didn't find out until the end, but the wines were in fact all 2009 Estate Cabernet served in three different formats! The first was from magnum and the last from a half bottle (the clue I'd missed earlier). I've never had such a clear demonstration of the difference that bottle size makes to the maturation of a wine - if you get the chance to try this at home I highly recommend it.

Having (incorrectly, and unknowingly) concluded that the first flight was a vertical, we moved on to the second. Here the differences were even starker. The first wine was clearly older; the colour had gone to that lovely brick red and there was significant sediment. The nose had leather and dried cherry and the fruit and tannins were mature. I guessed an Estate Cabernet at around 10 years of age.
The second was also mature, but seemed younger than the first. The nose had a hint of balsamico but the palate was long and sweet blackcurrant fruit - absolutely delicious.
The third seemed younger still; higher in acidity but with loads of complexity.
So my first thought was another vertical of the Estate Cabernets, but knowing Christopher it wouldn't be anything so simple. I was so sure that the first flight had been a vertical that I had to come up with an alternate explanation. Maybe a horizontal? Ridge doesn't usually make more than 2 Cabernets in a vintage, but it does happen occasionally, such as 2002. It didn't seem quite right; none of the wines had the depth of Monte Bello, but it was worth a try.

Should have stayed with my first guess. The wines were 2004, 2005 and 2006 Estate Cabernets respectively. The 2004 (I DID say it was about 10 years old) is as good as it's likely to get; a nice example of a Cabernet from what was my least-favourite vintage of the decade. The 2005 is a lovely wine that could be drunk now or held  for a few years longer. The 2006 is a wine that needs time - it'll be stunning in a few years, but it's not ready yet.

For the final flight all three wines seemed very similar. The first had a raspberry component that I hadn't detected in any of the previous wines, leading me to suspect that this might be a Zinfandel. It shared some of the brambly mountain fruit  hallmarks as the estate cabernet. Now Ridge makes many Zinfandels but only one - the Jimsomare - comes from estate fruit. It's pretty low production and although I have a few bottles in my cellar I haven't tasted it very often. The second had the same raspberry and bramble flavours, with the nose showing lots of coffee and a savoury Bovril note, and not as lean as the first. The third didn't seem to have much of a nose, but the flavour profile was nearly identical to the second; perhaps a little richer. I could tell that Christopher was playing a trick, but I wasn't sure what it was, so I guessed a vertical of Jimsomare Zinfandel.

Wrong. All three wines were exactly the same - the 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from three different 750ml bottles. The only differences were in our heads. The first glass tasted slightly different perhaps because I'd eaten some cheese just prior to tasting it (I try to avoid eating anything but bread while I'm tasting, but I'd not had lunch). The nose on the third seemed shy because our olfactory senses are designed to detect changes; if you smell the same thing within about 30 seconds the brain doesn't properly register the second time. A mean trick which caught out most of the tasters, but a very effective lesson.

So what did I learn? The biggest lesson for me was that bottle format makes much more of a difference to a wine than I'd realised, even in the short term. I just wish that half bottles were more readily available; even the best wine stores usually have a rather small selection.

Another key takeaway is just how good Ridge's second label cabernet is. The 2005 and 2006 vintages in particular were excellent wines that really punch above their $40 price point. 

And finally - blind tasting is tough!