The Cabernet Conundrum: return of blind-tasting hell

Harpers Wine and Spirit Weekly magazine staged a blind tasting event they called “The Great Cabernet Conundrum”, in conjunction with The International Wine and Spirit Competition, and Warren Winiarski, owner of Stag’s Leap Cellars in the Napa Valley. Partly this was to commemorate a famous event in 1976, when top Californian Cabernets were pitted against the best of France in a blind tasting, and the results sent reverberations around the world: Stag’s Leap beat Mouton, Latour and the rest of the aristocratic Bordeaux pack.

Some of the world’s top Cabernet producers came together for this event, including Warren Winiarski, Bob Mondavi, May-Eliane de Lencquesaing (Château Pichon-Lalande) and Paul Pontallier (Château Margaux). Following a ‘double blind’ tasting of 35 unidentified Cabernet-based wines from across the globe. The wines carried retail prices of between £3.99 and £150.00, and tasters were given a couple of hours to taste the wines and try to guess a) where they came from, and b) their retail value. Regular wine-pages visitors might recall that I attended a similar tasting of Chardonnay wines, the object of the exercise being to establish if regional variations still exist, and whether the most exalted wines deserve their premium prices.

Once our tasting sheets had been handed in, crib-sheets were given out that finally revealed the wines. When Harper’s published the full statistics from the event, I was happy to see that my performance had been pretty good. The tasters comprised 30 wine professionals, including Masters of Wine, and most holding WSET Diplomas or Advanced Certificates.

I can say that I found this event an easier, less frustrating challenge than the Chardonnays last year. It was still very tricky of course, but overall results showed tasters performing better than a year earlier, particularly in relation to price. Last year, one third of tasters failed to nail a single wine in terms of both country and price. This year, guessing country was still not easy, suggesting there is a homogeneity of style. My own scores for this event were:

country right = 12 out of 35
price right = 17 out of 35
both right = 08 out of 35

Breaking my performance down a bit, it was very much boosted by Bordeaux, Australia and California: these three accounted for seven of my eight all-correct answers, and more of my correct country guesses. It is always fun to see what the most embarrassing mistakes were too, and my confession is: identifying a £65 Italian as a £5-£10 Chilean, and a £70 Spanish wine as a £5-£10 French wine. I did spot the cheapest wine, a £3.99 Bulgarian, as sub-£5, but not as Bulgarian (I put France).

According to the statistics, the most identifiable wine of all was Château Cos d’Estournel, for which 8 tasters got both country and price correct, including me. The least identifiable wine was the £23 San Leonardo from Italy. Only one person guessed it was Italian, and nobody got the price band right. I guessed it as Chilean, £5 – £10 pounds. Vergelegen was a significant over-achiever, which the vast majority priced too highly (including me).

The table below shows the identity, country and retail price for all 35 wines. The other three columns are: PR=the number who got the price right, CR=the number who got the country right, BR=the number who got both right.

wine country price PR CR BR
1. 1998 Vergelegen, Stellenbosch South Africa £5.99 13 2 1
2. 1997 San Leonardo, Vallagarina, IGT Italy £23.33 0 1 0
3. 1999 Mas de Daumas Gassac France £16.95 1 13 1
4. 1998 Montes Alpha, Santa Cruz Chile £9.99 13 2 6
5. 1996 Enate Reserva, Somontano Spain £10.40 7 0 0
6. 1997 Bodega Norton Argentina £10.99 18 1 1
7. 1998 d’Yvigne, Le Petit Prince France £7.50 12 3 2
8. 1999 Cullen, Margaret River Australia £24.95 5 14 2
9. 1995 Darmaji, Gaja, DOC Italy £64.50 8 1 0
10. 1998 Jordan, Stellenbosch South Africa £9.99 7 1 2
11. 2000 Blueridge, Boyar Estates Bulgaria £3.99 19 1 6
12. 1996 Cyril Henschke, Eden Valley Australia £35.25 3 6 3
13. 1997 Catena Zapata Argentina £38.09 17 2 0
14. 1997 Ridge Montebello California £80.00 2 5 2
15. 1994 Château Latour, Bordeaux France £90.00 1 19 4
16. 1998 Villa Maria New Zealand £14.99 4 0 1
17. 1999 Coastal Cellar, Graham Beck South Africa £7.99 12 0 2
18. 1997 Eméritus, Marques de Griñon Spain £29.00 6 1 0
19. 1996 Penley Estate, Coonawarra Australia £18.95 5 9 6
20. 1996 Château Talbot, Bordeaux France £28.00 3 12 8
21. 1998 C.J. Pask, Hawke’s Bay New Zealand £12.95 18 0 2
22. 1998 Hardy’s Tintara Australia £9.99 11 6 3
23. 1997 Torres Reserva Real Spain £69.99 11 0 1
24. 1998 Penfolds Bin 707 Australia £39.99 6 11 6
25. 1998 Don Maximiano, Errazuriz Chile £19.99 14 4 3
26. 1996 Château Cos d’Estournel, Bordeaux France £49.99 2 16 8
27. 1998 St. Francis, Sonoma California £12.99 9 2 1
28. 1997 Planeta, Sicilia Italy £16.99 15 1 1
29. 1998 Bowen, Coonawarra Australia £13.99 9 2 5
30. 1996 Château Lynch Bages, Bordeaux France £45.99 1 14 6
31. 1997 Laurel Glen, Sonoma Mountain California £46.99 2 4 4
32. 2000 35 South, Viña San Pedro Chile £4.79 14 3 5
33. 1997 Cask 23, Stag’s Leap, Napa California £150.00 11 6 4
34. 1994 Castello di Monsanto, Tuscany Italy £19.99 7 2 2
35. 1995 E&J Gallo, Barrelli Creek California £11.99 11 5 6

My notes follow, exactly as written.

1. 1998 Vergelegen, Stellenbosch, South Africa (£5.99)

Juicy, slightly minty nose with concentrated blackcurrant, a little plummy note and good depth. Focused, sweet, concentrated palate; ripe black fruit, medium-body and a nice savoury lick of tannin and acids. Guess: USA, £10-£20

2. 1997 San Leonardo, Vallagarina, IGT, Italy (Armit £23.33)

Much less intense. Rather dull, nutty nose. Good black fruit emerges, with subtle toffee oak. Modest black fruit on the palate, with medium body, spice and some oaky tannins. Guess: Chile, £5-£10

3. 1999 Mas de Daumas Gassac, France (Adnams £16.95)

Bright, lightly herbal nose. Smoky, with hints of minerals. Tight, tannic palate with rather modest fruit layered with vanilla. A jammy blackcurrant emerges in the finish. Guess: France, £5-£10

4. 1998 Montes Alpha, Santa Cruz, Chile (HwCg £9.99)

Meaty, leathery, raspberry-fruited nose. There’s a background depth of chocolate and tobacco. Ripe, good-quality fruit on the palate, with chocolaty nuances and a good mouth-feel. Mouth-coating tannins and impressive, saturated length. Guess: France, £20+

5. 1996 Enate Reserva, Somontano, Spain (Hallgarten £10.40)

Slightly dank note on the nose. Modest, herbal fruit. Palate is quite bright and juicy, with raspberry and a little savoury plum and damson. Nice sour notes, and good tannins and acidity. Guess: New Zealand, £10-£15

6. 1997 Bodega Norton, Argentina (Berkmann £10.99)

Bold, bright, juicy blackcurrant nose. Serious stuff, with a lovely palate showing quality black fruit, silky texture and good ripeness of tannins. Long and quite fine. Guess: USA, £20+

7. 1998 d’Yvigne, Le Petit Prince, France (J&B £7.50)

Mineral nose, with firm, gravelly black fruit. Juicy and savoury on the palate, with hints of black olive and bitter dark cherries. Quite long, and good. French maybe? Guess: Chile, £5-£10

8. 1999 Cullen, Margaret River, Australia (Adnams £24.95)

Bright, forward and commercial nose; blackcurrant, chocolate and mint. Rich, chocolaty palate with fine ripeness and fruit sweetness. Some bittersweetness, with ripe, savoury tannins. Guess: Australia, £20+

9. 1995 Darmaji, Gaja, DOC, Italy (L&W £64.50)

Rich, ripe, fruity nose with hints of overripeness. There are chocolaty hints and a little bit of complex, vegetal quality. Modest on the palate, and though quite classy sweetness and ripeness, no great length. Guess: Chile, £10-£20

10. 1998 Jordan, Stellenbosch, SA (Aus. Wineries £9.99)

Big, deep, expensively toasty nose of French oak; coffee and toast, and deep, plummy fruit. Rich palate is full-bodied with layers of plum and sweet, creamy fruit. Silky and fine, with good tannins and balance. Guess: USA, £20+

11. 2000 Blueridge, Boyar Estates, Bulgaria (£3.99)

Light, modest, gravel and blackcurrant nose. Commercial. Good, juicy, fruity and enjoyable palate, with some tannins. Nice commercial stuff. Guess: France, under £5

12. 1996 Cyril Henschke, Eden Valley, Australia (L&W £35.25)

Very minty and intense. Ripe, with mulberry and eucalyptus that is giveaway Oz. Lovely big, solid core of fruit on the palate with creamy oak and plenty of stuffing. Typical. Guess: Australia, £20+

13. 1997 Catena Zapata, Argentina (Bibendum £38.09)

Lovely, concentrated nose of juicy black fruit, with some hints of complex earth and minerals. Mostly solid, ripe, black fruit onto the palate. Concentrated, with a rich mouth-feel, power and length. Guess: Spain, £20+

An interesting one this. In 2001 Zapata triumphed in a blind tasting against top wines. I had wanted to taste it, and was glad I’d recognised it as £20+ quality. I plumped for Spain on this because it reminded me somewhat of Pesquera or other modern Ribera del Duero wines. Interestingly, of all the £20+ wines, this was the one that the most tasters recognised as such (17) whilst, for example, only four people recognised the £80 Ridge Montebello as a £20+ wine.

14. 1997 Ridge Montebello, California, USA (M&V £80)

Bright, fruity, berry and cherry nose with vanillin and plenty of lush, concentrated fruit. Massive slick of mouth-coating tannins and good, ripe, rich, weighty black fruit. Very nice. Guess: USA, £20+

15. 1994 Château Latour, Bordeaux (Farr £90)

Big, coffee-ground and espresso-bean, high-toast French oak nose. Mouton maybe? Rather fierce tannins and a muscular, mouth-coating texture in this powerful wine. Juicy black cherry fruit and serious structure. Guess: France, £20+

16. 1998 Villa Maria, New Zealand (Hatch £14.99)

Distinct cherry and redcurrant nose; light and bright. There are some creamier, blackcurrant and vanillin notes. Fresh and clean, the palate has crisp blackcurrant and raspberry. Fresh, with plenty of tingling acidity and crunchy tannin. Guess: Chile, £5-£10

17. 1999 Coastal Cellar, Graham Beck, SA (Bibendum £7.93)

Modest, lightly-oaked nose of black fruit. Juicy black cherry and olive palate with plenty of savoury bite. Good tannins, and a nice hint of chocolaty depth. Maybe Washington State? Guess: USA, £10-£20

18. 1997 Eméritus, Marques de Griñon, Spain (£29)

Slightly ozoney note on top of firm cherry fruit aromas. There is a more solid blackcurrant core beneath, even a hint of plum and chocolate. Palate is good, with blue/black fruit, ripeness and sweetness, and smooth tannins. Guess: Chile, £10-£20

19. 1996 Penley Estate, Coonawarra, Australia (L&W £18.95)

Another big, minty, ripe eucalyptus nose that screams Australia. There’s more ripe mulberry fruit, leading on to cassis and plum with juicy acidity and nice smooth tannins. Commercial, but very good quality. Guess: Australia £5-£10

20. 1996 Château Talbot, Bordeaux (Farr £27)

Very nice sour, savoury nose with cedary oak and decent fruit quality. Very claret-like. Juicy, sour plum and cherry fruit on palate. Quite modest, with a nice balance of oak, tannins and acidity. Guess: France, £5-£10

21. 1998 C.J. Pask, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand (L&W £12.95)

Ripe, slightly minty, New World nose. Glossy cassis fruit, hints of mulberry and cloves. The palate is savoury and nicely sour, with lots of black cherry and lovely structure. Good length too. Too cool-climate for Australia probably? Guess: USA, £20+

22. 1998 Hardy’s Tintara, South Australia (BRL Hardy £9.99)

Very subdued nose here. Might it be a little corky? Some black fruit and a little oaky influence. Juicy palate, with reasonable fruit and balance. Not sure. Guess: France, under £5

23. 1997 Torres Reserva Real, Spain (Torres £69.99)

Sour, savoury, quite gamy. Blackcurrant and black plum onto a light-weight palate with big, dry tannins and modest fruit. Quite lean and Old Worldy, really quite nice of its style. Guess: France, £5-£10

24. 1998 Penfolds Bin 707, Australia (Southcorp £39.99)

Sweet, ripe, very ripe and flashy, with mint-humbuggy new American oak and sweet cassis fruit. Californian I think. The palate is balanced and nicely weighted, quite rich and concentrated with loads of depth. Impressive. Guess: USA, £20+

25. 1998 Don Maximiano, Errazuriz, Chile (Hatch £19.99)

Slightly soapy note on the nose. A tiny bit confected, with jammy black fruit. Modest palate of savoury blackcurrant and black olive, but a touch lean and reserved. Really needs food. Guess: Spain, £5-£10

26. 1996 Château Cos d’Estournel, Bordeaux (£50)

Big, toasty, coffee-bean French oak nose. Quite earthy and animal beneath, with hints of blood and cedary complexity. Must be a classy claret. Earthy, deep and bittersweet on the palate with plummy depth and length. Very good Bordeaux. Guess: France, £20+

27. 1998 St. Francis, Sonoma, California, USA (Hatch £12.99)

Another modest nose of sinewy black fruit and a slightly over-extracted, slightly inky fruit quality on the palate. Guess: Bulgaria, under £5

28. 1997 Planeta, Sicilia, Italy (Enotria £16.99)

Quite subdued red and black cherry fruit on the nose, with a tiny herbal note. Quite cool and minty on the palate, with decent blackcurrant fruit and a certain creaminess developing. Firm, tight and juicy, with good structure. Guess: France, £10-£20

29. 1998 Bowen, Coonawarra, Australia (AWA £13.99)

Big, sweet, minty ripeness here with tiny floral hints and some firm, violet blue/black fruit quality. Good fruit on the palate; very juicy cherry flavours. Balanced and good. Guess: USA, £10-£20

30. 1996 Château Lynch Bages, Bordeaux (Farr £45)

Big, stinky, coffee-bean and cedar nose. Animal notes are distinctly Bordeaux-like. Cedar and blackcurrant flood the palate with plenty of savoury depth and structure. Long. Guess: France, £20+

31. 1997 Laurel Glen, Sonoma Mountain, USA (Enotria £46.99)

Big, ripe, juicy and sweet nose. Cedary again, and has savoury appeal. Another serious wine with a little more ripeness but still good structure. Concentrated and powerful, this has some complexity. Guess: Italy, £20+

32. 2000 35 South, Viña San Pedro, Chile (Buckingham £4.79)

Ripe, fruity, modest berry nose with a palate of summery, earthy, berry fruit. A nice juicy bite on the finish and rounded, commercial appeal. Guess: Chile, under £5

33. 1997 Cask 23, Stag’s Leap, Napa, California (£150)

Intense, concentrated, pure fruit nose. Very sweet, ripe and focused with a classy underpinning of vanillin oak. Very concentrated and powerful on the palate, with fine tannins and good structure. Guess: USA, £20+

34. 1994 Castello di Monsanto, Tuscany, Italy (Ciborio £19.99)

Sour black plum and cherry fruit. Really quite intense on the palate with liquorice and bittersweetness. Very Italianate, with sour cherry acidity and a dark, quite pithy finish. Guess: Italy, £5-£10

35. 1995 E&J Gallo, Barrelli Creek, USA (Gallo £11.99)

Solid, ripe, sweet black fruit. Dense and glossy this has great appeal. Quite serious and tight on the palate, with smooth, juicy flavours, good acidity and a punchy style. Guess: Australia, £10-£20