Blind Tasting

Guessing it right and guessing it wrong
(but for the right reasons)
by Clive Coates MW

I am not a very good blind taster. Perhaps, simply, I do not have that sort of memory. Certainly, faced with a beady eye and a 'what is it?', I get confused, intimidated. I am liable to jump in, the mouth open before the brain has been engaged. I get it wrong, far more often than I get it right – but, I aver, at least sometimes for the right reasons.

What I do think I can do, with some competence, is, confronted with a range of wines, place them in order of quality and pronounce on where they will be in five or ten years time. That was my main job when I was a wine merchant, and that was the chief objective when I published The Vine. There is a further element to this. And that is assessing the particular wine's success within its aspiration and within the vintage. How well has it done, given its reputation, the price asked for it, and the context of the climatic conditions?

There are two ways of guessing blind what a wine is. The first is by logic. The second is by intuition. Sadly the ray of light out of the blue - the inspiration – does not occur often. So we have to fall back to brain power. Here, however, it is very easy to come unstuck. Is a very good (but not absolutely brilliant) wine not 'great' because it is a not a great vintage, or because it is a third growth or a Burgundy premier cru rather than a grand cru? Naturally the finer the wine, because the very finest are the most distinctive, are the easiest to remember, and to nail on the head.

Several years ago I was invited to a winey Sunday lunch. There were several wine connoisseurs round the table, even Masters of Wine; I forget. The first red wine was served, and as happens so often, I was asked to pronounce before anyone else. 'Ah, a fine grand cru Côte de Nuits, mid-1960s', I said. The wine was Château Cheval-Blanc, 1964. Much ribaldry around the table. Comments such as 'These Masters of Wine know nothing', and all the rest of it. I failed to tell them the, perhaps apocryphal, tale of the late, great Harry Waugh, who, once asked if he had ever confused Bordeaux with Burgundy, replied, 'Not since lunch'. And I did, at least to the comfort of my amour propre, get the next two wines spot on: Hermitage, La Chapelle, 1961, and Yquem, 1967.

The great Harry Waugh, bless his memory, was mild, modest to the extreme, and had absolutely so sense of self-importance. Others are the opposite. They have big egos, reputations to live up to. They are prima donnas, and they must on no account get it wrong. When they are asked to guess before anyone else, they will demur: 'Oh I haven't really tasted it yet.' So it is left to others round the table to go into bat first. Only when everyone else has got it wrong, and eliminated most of the possibilities, will they pounce. And with the alternatives out of the way, they are likely to be on the button. Everyone applauds. More medals on their chests. If, of course, someone else in the interim gets the wine, they just murmur (in a loud enough voice for all to hear): 'Well, of course, that was what I was going to say.'

I've learnt my lesson now. Keep schtum. Let the others go first.Then go in for the kill.

In Britain there is a custom, when the vintage Port is circulated at the end of a wine-trade meal, for one to be given a little piece of paper on which to write down one's guess. There is no discussion. It is an unwritten rule that both shipper and vintage are classic, which means that the wine will be from one of the top British houses (plus Quinta do Noval) and vintages such as 1963, 1966, 1970, 1977 and so on.

In the centre of the table is a money-box to the benefit of the Wine Benevolent Trust, the trade society. Everyone profers a pound coin. If somebody gets both vintage and shipper correctly, they scoop the pool. If not, the charity gets the money. I have probably donated the best part of £200 to the Benevolent over the years. I have guessed the shipper, or the vintage, on numerous occasions. But I have never got both at the same time. But I have only twice seen both guessed correctly by others.

Logic and immediate memory can get you far. Ghislaine Barthod in Chambolle-Musigny will offer you no fewer than eight first growths of the village. In every vintage, whether hot or cold, dry or wet, large or small, each premier cru is different in its own special way from the others. The Cras will always be the most austere, will have the most finesse; the Charmes will be the softest, the most cuddly; the Beaux-Bruns will have a touch of the rustic, and so on. One by one they'd be difficult to pin-point. Taste the range and you can define the origins. In Burgundy it would be rare to sample the complete series of a second vintage after having tasted a first. But I'm sure most of you would be able to scratch your memory and get the second flight more or less right if you were lucky enough to have the opprtunity chez Barthod. I've done this in Alsace with Olivier Humbrecht. Here you have a wide range of Rieslings from different soil structures to taste: limestone rock, granite, volcanic debris, marl, grés (a sort of purple sandstone), slate and so on. They all taste different. Sample the basic range, and then ask Olivier to serve you the Reserve quality wines in a different order. I'll bet most of you will get most of them right. You don't have to be the world's greatest expert......

Incidentally, it was chez Barthod that, for once, I had an inspired moment. It was quite some time ago. Her father, Gaston, was still alive, and he was obviously curious to meet one of this new breed of wine critic who came down to the domaine to taste the wines in barrel. After Ghislaine and I had finished looking at the new wines, he produced a bottle and poured us a sample. The quizzical eye again. 'I think it's a Charmes.' I said. 'And could it be 1971?' I was fortunately exact on both accounts.

But my greatest performance - they've been so few that I remember them – was once in Bordeaux on a Sunday morning. I was at Château Doisy-Daene in Barsac, supplier then and now of the best of the deuxièmes crus of the Sauternais, to do a vertical tasting. The tasting over, all now relaxed, we repaired for a glass of champagne followed by Sunday lunch. Red wine number one is served, and it is so delicious, and also familiar (for I have some at home) that I am just about to say 'Is this....?' when Pierre Castéja announces that it is Ducru-Beaucaillou, 1961. Oh, bother, I say to myself. The one time in a blue moon when I would have been spot on. Sod's law wins again.

We proceed to the cheese. I am, of course, seated next to Madame Castéja, who tells me that the Bordelais can now acquire good English cheddar from a maitre fromagier in the city. I recognise it as Montgomery. While Madame and I are discussing cheese, red wine number two is poured. I casually sniff it without realising what I am doing; I'm telling Madame about Montgomery and its competitors.

'Lafite, 1953,' I pronounce, without thinking, without a drop entering my mouth. Everyone is amazed. 'But you didn't even taste it!' says Pierre. I, too, have no idea how I did it. All I can say is that Lafite, 1953, is one of the very great wines ever produced, and that it is so distinctive that one can guess it by instinct.

Two days later I am at Duhart-Milon, the Lafite-Rothschild fourth growth in Pauillac, again to make a blind tasting. The Rothschilds have decided to make this an occasion. Thirty of the good and the great in Bordeaux have been invited to participate. Lunch follows. One of those present is Pierre-Antoine Castéja, son of Pierre and boss of Joanne, and important merchant. He had been with us on Sunday. I see him chatting with the Baron. I know they are discussing what happened on the week-end. The Baron invites me to sit next to him at lunch. 'We were going to serve the 1953,' he says. 'But as you seem to be so familiar with it I've decided to pour the 1949 instead, followed by the 1929.'

This Article first appeared in the Quarterly Review of Wines,
Spring 2008. (qrw.com)