2015 Casas del Bosque Sauvignon Blanc, 2015 Mayu Pedro Ximenez, 2014 Brisandes Sauvignon Blanc, 2013 Nuevo Mundo Carmenere, 2013 Anakena Carmenere Tana Vineyards Selection, 2013 Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon
One Tuesday a month I have my blind tasting group. There are blind tasting masters — people who can simply smell a wine and tell you it is a 2001 Clos De Papes, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and maybe even tell you what row in the vineyard its grapes came from. I am not one of those people. Just last night, for example, I mistook an Amarone for a Cabernet Franc. For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, this is bad — in the neighborhood of mistaking a poodle for a sea lion.
Because I am not all that talented at blind tasting I had this idea I was going to compensate by writing a responsible, orderly, intelligent account of my blind tasting group. Then I woke up Wednesday morning with a sore throat and a headache. It was not alcohol related — people do not drink a lot at blind tastings, as much of what is tasted is spit out. (Though there are always individuals who eschew this practice, like our friend Mike’s dad, who, should you ever attend a blind tasting with him, you can depend upon being quite fearless on the subject of the New York Islanders.)
At any rate, I spent all of Wednesday in bed listening to the absolutely perfect novel, Snobs, by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. It more or less wiped my mind clean so when I woke up again on Thursday I was like, “WTF happened at my blind tasting.”
As I predicted, my notes were no help. I am not a huge note taker. I tend to prefer memory, and it’s also just not how I learn. But it’s mostly that proper note-taking runs counter to my most marked personality trait: managing to combine ruthless ambition and mordant self-regard with having all the get up and go of a bag of sloths. I was already feeling bad about this when I happened to see a promotion for “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” in which Kris Jenner brags she is “obsessed with books” and in fact reading one about “Le Courvoisier, which is an architect.”
Even though this particular clip was meant to poke fun at anti-intellectualism, it was also sort of celebrating it, calling it cute. I feared if I wrote an account of my blind tasting which didn’t Properly Recount What Happened I would be no better than Kris Jenner.
I was going to get in touch with Vanessa and Jack, who co-founded and run the group, and ask them to recreate their experience for me and then fake an account of the evening. Then I went to two hot Vinyasa yoga classes in a row. If the middle of the second class, I thought about how Jack and Vanessa both had real jobs and families and how they probably didn’t have time for nonsense like that, and that it was probably better to just work with what I had and suffer the consequences.
We had wines from Chile: three whites, and three reds. There were only four of us there — there are often as many as ten, but fall is a busy time for the restaurant people and winemakers who comprise our group, so it was a slow week. Present were, as I mentioned above, Jack, a winemaker, Vanessa, a wine distributor, and her husband, Matt, who is a chef. Jack and Vanessa are also both certified sommeliers, which basically means that when I say something like “this smells like apples” I know they’re going to say something like “This smells like apples that just fell from the tree after it snowed and your mom came to visit and you weren’t sure you wanted her there but then in the end you were glad.”
You always start with white because it is lighter and you want your palate to work up to the heavier, bigger flavors in reds. We set a timer for four minutes and spend that time tasting and smelling the wine. Then we roll a die, and starting with whose ever number comes up, go in clockwise order discussing the sight, the nose, the palate, and then, finally, what kind of grape the wine might be made of and where it might come from. Since we were doing Chile, and none of us were experts on its distinct regions, this was not going to come up except in the form of a joke wherein one self-importantly swirls one’s glass and declares pompously “This wine is from Chile.”
I knew the first one was mine because I remembered the bright blue top. That said, even if I hadn’t known it was Sauvignon Blanc, it smelled unmistakably of Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc, in my opinion, like Pinot Noir, is a varietal you put up to your nose and you’re like, “OK, I know what that is” and if you don’t you probably will never give a shit about wine. (This is arguably not true.) But I was still supposed to go through the motions of figuring out why this might be Sauvignon Blanc even though I already knew it.
So. It was straw colored (luckily I went first so this was basically all I had to say, other than like, some easy bullshit about the rim variation), it was light to medium-bodied, it smelled like green peppers and artichokes. It really smelled like green peppers. We made a lot of jokes about how much it smelled like green peppers, and you are just going to have to believe me that they were good.
The next wine was straw colored — I got that far! And then I was so convinced it smelled and tasted like Chardonnay I couldn’t get past that. I tried to figure out things it smelled or tasted like, and I had this whole elaborate cheat sheet at my disposal with descriptors like yuzu and juniper and lager, and I was just like “Uh, this is Chardonnay. Right?” as if having that thought rendered entire mind incapable of having another thought. The bell went off and I was like “Thank God that is over.”
The next one—well, again, you could take one whiff of it and know that it was Sauvignon Blanc. Its smell was a little different from the first one; it had a little bit more melon. I was pleased this was easily detectable because I had to talk about the nose and was like, “melon” which put me in the “not impressive but not embarrassing” category I strive for when blind tasting. A type of French melon called a Charentais — which I had never heard of — was cited, prompting a series of predictable jokes: a melon wearing a beret, a melon smoking a cigarette, a melon with a mistress, etc.
The wines were unmasked. Indeed, two Sauvignon Blancs. But the middle one was not a Chardonnay. It was a grape variety called Pedro Ximenez, which is usually used for making Sherry but, at higher elevations, yields less sweet grapes suitable for dry white wine. “Think Pinot Grigio with more interesting qualities,” I read about it later, thinking, well, I have mistaken Pinot Grigio for Chardonnay before, so I am at least failing laterally.
The first wine was just massive. I wrote down the things I was supposed to write down, like “purple.” Then I wrote down tobacco and blood. Apparently its blood-like qualities made quite an impression on me:
Matt said the wine smelled like a steak’s charred crust. Then Jack said “This is a six-ton truck of a wine.” And that’s really all there was to say about it. It did kind of taste like a steak. The next wine tasted similarly but even weirder. It has a cough syrup vibe.
The last wine was also massive but smoother. “Male cougar juice,” Jack said. “A wine you open for a woman twenty years younger than you. In your Porsche.”
“Playing Dire Straits,” Matt added.
We uncloaked the wines. The first two were Carmenere — very dark, rich wines with a lot of herbal qualities and, as I assiduously catalogued, a lot of blood qualities. The last one was a Cabernet Sauvignon. I decided they were kind of all male cougar juice but Carmenere was for male cougars who read The New York Review of Books and the Cabernet was for male cougars who read Tim Ferriss.
Here is what I think I learned about Chilean wines: they are kind of like California wines but with a green pepper-heavy salad mixed in. If it’s red wine, imagine that this is a steak salad. I would not blame you for refusing to buy into this assessment hook, line and sinker, but I think you should at least consider it.
Despite my anxieties, there was only one thing from the night truly worth remembering. This was the moment where Matt re-tasted the Cabernet, floated the idea that the man who deployed this wine as a seduction aide might indeed be shameless enough to additionally deploy not merely Dire Straits but also Mark Knopfler’s solo work, and all present exploded into delighted agreement.