What Do You Get When Five Master Sommeliers Walk Into A Room…

A lot of chummy restaurant-industry inside jokes and a load of tips for blind tasting.

At Taste Washington this last weekend in Seattle, the event I was most looking forward to was the blind tasting with five Master Sommeliers. The Four Seasons set us up in a grand ballroom overlooking the Puget Sound. Presiding over the tasting was Greg Harrington, MS of Gramercy Cellars who said that being a winemaker is much like being a pilot. The latter not having to act unless the plane is going down and the former not having to interject unless the harvest is problematic and the wine needs some manipulation to be put back on course. He must take a hands-off approach to winemaking.

Tasting with the Masters 1

Panelists included: Thomas Price, MS now at Jackson Family Fine Wines with whom I chatted at the end. Matt Stamp, MS, an educator, a.k.a. The Smart One, of the Guild of Sommeliers who punctuated each tasting comment with a detail that only serious wine nerds would appreciate. Rob Bigelow, MS of Château Ste Michelle Wine Estates, the biggest producer of riesling in the world. And, John Ragan, MS of the Union Square Hospitality Group (Gramercy Tavern, The Modern).

Tasting with the Masters 2

We got 12 wines, six from Washington and six comparative wines from around the world. Each MS would evaluate two wines at a time starting with the visual. Blind tasting sharpens your analytical skills. It disciplines a serious wine student and pushes us to categorize wine. Do judge a book by its cover. The color, the shades, the tones and the glints can begin to tell us something about its provenance and winemaking. The masters  said that they all have different ways of approaching a blind tasting, but they agreed that it is an exercise in deductive reasoning. Ah yes, the ole process of elimination. I passed many high school multiple choice exams based on process of elimination.

Tasting with the Masters 3

Visual:

  • After giving the wine a vigorous spin in the glass, take note. Are the tears thick and viscous? It has more alcohol and/or sugar –> Wine probably comes from a warmer climate. Are the tears thin and pale? Sugar and alcohol will not be protagonists in this wine –> Wine comes from a cooler climate or high elevation. Mr. Bigelow pointed out that color in the tears themselves indicate a thick skin.
  • Give it another swirl, tip it down over some white background with text, look. Can you see the text clearly through the deepest part of the glass? You can see it clearly –> Grape had a thin skin, . You cannot see it at all, color is deep –> Grape skin was thick due possibly to a warmer or windy climate. It needed the thickness to protect itself from the elements.
  • If you see brown edges in a red wine, the wine spent some time in oak.
  • If you see green glints in a white wine, mentally start browsing your cool climate varietals.
  • If the color is deep, consider that the color is extracted by lots of skin contact. Where in the world could this style of winemaking happen?

Nose:

  • This is where you can develop 90% of the blind tasting analysis.
  • All masters agreed, first determine the intensity then the fruit. Is the aroma come out of the glass and hitting you in the face? If yes, then it is a highly aromatic varietal. If not, eliminate all aromatic wines like riesling or albariño.
  • Give the glass another swirl and pick out the fruit. Here the masters agreed that it is a bit ridiculous to try and list 75 characteristics at once. Instead, think warmth. Citrus? Stone fruit? Tropical? And within those broad categories, are they underripe lemon peel or candied Meyer lemon zest? Again, the conclusions will point us to warm or cool climates.
  • Check out any secondary aromas like herbal, floral or mineral. Here we can start to think about Old World or New World. Old World styles are more earthy with more minerality. The latter style stresses fruit and winemaking like use of oak (unless you are in Rioja where coconutty American oak dominates then all bets are off).

Palate:

  • Is there consistency between what you see, what you smell and what you taste? Then it is a well made wine.
  • As it goes down, think about if the fruit is fresh or has “seen the sun” as one master put a jammy wine. Is the thick jamminess balanced by tannin and acidity?
  • Old world wines finish sour/tart
  • New World wines finish sweet
  • American oak hits the back of the mouth and French oak is a softer, all over mouth feel.
  • Always taste twice.

Tasting with the Masters 4

Wines Tasted:

  1. Tempus, 2013 Riesling Evergreen Vineyard Ancient Lakes and Darting 2012 Riesling Kabinett Trocken Pfalz. Master guessed Rhineland. I’d give him credit for being within 60 miles of actual place.
  2. L’Ecole no. 41, 2013 Chardonnay Columbia Valley and Liocco 2012 Chardonnay Russian River Valley
  3. Dumas Station 2012 Merlot Walla Walla and Chateau de Chantegrive 2009 Merlot Graves. Lots of pencil shavings. Graves = pencil shavings.
  4.  Sparkman, 2012 Stella Mae Red Wine Columbia Valley and Yalumba The Signature 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz Barossa. Master said Coonawarra but let’s not split hairs. I thought California so I was not even in the right hemisphere.
  5. Passing Time, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills and Stag’s Leap Bordeaux Blend. Wet potter’s clay said it all.
  6. EFESTE, 2012 Jolie Bouche Syrah Yakima Valley and Nicolas Perrin 2011 Côte-Rôtie. The Rhône Valley brought out the worst of the somms. No consensus could be reached. Chaos!

In conclusion, I must hang out with more Master Sommeliers.

Tasting with the Masters 5

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