Vinous tricksters have confronted me for decades. I never mind because I have a strategy that usually works.
These are episodes where some smart-alecky self-proclaimed wine “expert” hands me a glass of a wine and, trying not to sound arrogant (as if!), asks me to identify it. When I guess and am wrong, I often suggest the wine isn’t as great an example of what it is supposed to be as the trickster believed. (It rarely is. Florida Zinfandel anyone?).
This is usually a prelude to a discussion of what I see as the mystery wine’s distinctiveness — or how it often diverges from what we expect and still gives pleasure. Self-anointed wine experts generally don’t like philosophical discussions of wine authenticity.
In the late 1980s, I subjected myself to potential humiliation. I offered to do a seminar for 150 persons. I asked a large wholesale company to test me by serving 10 red wines, its choice, to me blind. I said I’d identify them — in front of an audience that had the wines and the correct answers in front of them.
Despite some serious curveballs thrown at me by the wholesale company hosting the South Florida Wine Festival in Miami, I got 6½ correct.
The crowd had fun (at my expense) when I was wrong, mainly because in all cases I explained my reasoning for how I deduced what each wine was.
Even though my guesses were wrong in three (and ½) cases, the wholesaler had to admit that my logic was valid. (For details on how I “cheated,” send an email, with “blind” in the subject box, to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
When confronted with a “What’s this?” scenario, there are various strategies one can use. Former New York Times wine columnist Terry Robards revealed a trick he used to foil a wine trickster in one of his books.
One obscure way I identify wine is by trying guess where a wine came from.
A wine’s terroir (its sense of place) can often be a clue to unlocking its identity. Varietal character also is helpful, but with so many red wines being harvested later to generate higher alcohols and more intensity, it’s harder and harder to use the varietal as a clue.
The regional elements of many wines are their most enduring charms. The ability to show off the area in which the grapes were grown is a special ability some wines have.
This is illustrated better in Germany, Italy, and France than in many other European wine regions. I sense less reliance on terroir in Spain, for example.
Terroir also is vital in many areas of New Zealand and some areas of Australia.
The popular “international” style of winemaking can mute or obliterate issues of terroir. In some obvious cases, this tactic is employed intentionally so the wine can gain a higher score.
I’m captivated by wines’ ability to show regionality.
And so does local sommelier and all-around Sonoma County wine lover Chris Sawyer.
Sawyer staged a small, industry-only tasting last week to explore the many ways Sauvignon Blanc can display various elements of diversity. Of nine wines Sawyer chose, all were fabulous in one way or another.
The first wine served (none identified until later) was clearly from New Zealand. What happened to me next was a curious synapse trick; it wasn’t conscious: As soon as I tasted the wine, it hit me this was the 2017 Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough.
An hour later, when all the wines were revealed, wine No. 1 was indeed the Nautilus, a most impressive wine. It didn’t hurt that I had just spent three weeks touring four districts in New Zealand’s wine areas, and that I had recently tasted the wine.
But the point Sawyer made in his event had nothing to do with identifying wine. It was all about diversity in Sauvignon Blanc from area to area.
His message was well-taken by all tasters. Widely respected varietals planted in different regions display unique charms that defy the use of a single number to portray quality. Of the nine wines, each was an exemplary instance of how terroir plays a different role in wines from the same grape.
In terms of identifying what a wine is, it’s almost mandatory to have broad experience tasting varying styles and types. Each region, vintage, producer, and variation in technique offers yet another perspective on even widely recognized grapes.
One of wine’s endless fascinations is how chameleon-like it can be, and those who persist in using numbers to identify alleged quality are merely hamstringing themselves and missing the greater message.
Discovery of the Week: 2017 Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($16) – The aroma of this dramatic version is slightly more exotic than most New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. In addition to the expected new mown hay, gooseberry, pear, and grapefruit, there is a faint mineral note that I first thought was a bit like the faintest hint of iodine! The wine is simply sensational in its varietal persistence, but also in the fact that it is very dry – drier than most of its countrymen. Often discounted to $13 or so.