I admire anyone who tastes wine blind or who submits their wine for others to assess unseen. Most of the world's top producers are wary of entering blind tastings for the simple reason that they can't control the environment, or the order, in which their wines are sampled. I have huge respect for top winemakers who are happy to see their wines judged alongside those of their peers and live with the results.
So hats off to Craggy Range, one of New Zealand's leading wineries, for organising a blind tasting of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs in London recently and giving it a provocative title:
Sauvignon for Grown-ups . Steve Smith MW, the company's managing director, had arrived with a point to prove about his country's most celebrated wine style. "There are at least four styles of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand," he told us, "but only one
- the most intoxicating
- is consistently rewarded by wine judges and journalists." The one he had in mind was what the Kiwi journalist Bob Campbell MW once described as a "bungee jump into a gooseberry bush".
Smith's contention is that Craggy's Sauvignons are more discreet on the nose than many of their competitors and so miss out in comparative tastings. "Too many people value a single style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc based on what I call the intensity of ripeness," he continued. "Wines with textural components only come to the fore with food."
tasting prove Smith's point? Funnily enough, it did
- at least to me.
Without food, my rankings were as follows: Astrolabe 2006,
Kim Crawford Spitfire 2006,
S t Clair 2006,
Craggy Range Old Renwick Bridge 2006,
Wild Rock Infamous Goose 2006 and Craggy Range Te Muna Road 2006. With food, the order was very different: Kim Crawford, Craggy Range Old Renwick Bridge, Craggy Range Te Muna Road, Wild Rock Infamous Goose, Astrolabe and St Clair.
In other words, my top wine finished second to last, my third bottom and my least favourite moved up to third. Craggy's wines showed far
better with food.
I'm not sure what the solution is to this particular problem, short of providing something for tasters to munch on while they are deliberating. There is one competition in Australia, the Sydney Top 100, that does this very thing, but it must be a logistical nightmare, not to mention a good way to put on a stone if you're a panel member. All the same, it's a laudable attempt to show wines in their true context: that's to say, with a meal.
Does this raise broader issues about the way most of us taste wine? I think it does. The more time people have to taste, the more likely they are to notice subtler wines. If they're in a hurry (and most people are, most of the time) they are more likely to be impressed by wines that shout at them, rather than those that whisper in their ear.
So if you want to give subtle wines their due, restrict the number of wines you sample in a day, taste slowly ... and cook yourself a plate of food.