Thursday, July 11, 2013

Building a Better Wine Tasting

Recently I was invited to the best educational wine tasting I’ve ever experienced, and I wanted to pass on some great lessons we can all use when planning wine tastings at home.

This seminar and tasting event was hosted by Banfi wines and their winemaker Rudy Buratti.  He explained Banfi’s research into the various clones of the Sangiovese grape which are blended into their Brunello di Montalcino wine.  Sangiovese has many different clones, and each one has different characteristics.  Mr. Buratti explained that in order to produce the best quality Brunello, Banfi has spent 30 years researching these clones to isolate which characteristics each clone would bring to the final blend, and how each clone would perform in each of their vineyards’ different soil types. (By the way, many Banfi wines are available at Spec’s, including their excellent Brunellos.  Try some!)

To illustrate the research and testing, we tasted 3 wines made from 3 different clones, grown in the same vineyard in the same year.  This way the only difference in taste was due to the particular clone.  Then we tasted a blend of all 3 clones from 3 different vineyards from the same year.  Finally, we tasted 3 vintages of the final Brunello blend, combining the characteristics of all the clones and all the vineyards.  (Another attendee wrote a nice summary of the experience here, including some tasting notes and a picture.)

Here’s a diagram to help this make sense:

When I attend a wine tasting, I want to learn something beyond whether or not I like that particular wine.  I also love organizing wine tastings at my house for friends.  The key to creating an educational wine tasting is comparison and contrast.  Notice how each round of the Banfi tasting kept 2 elements the same and isolated 1 factor impacting the wine.  That way when you taste, you know which differences in the wine are due to which factor – whether grapes, vineyard/soil, or vintage.

Most of us can’t organize a tasting like Banfi's because we don’t have access to those building blocks of wine that winemakers use to craft their final products.  However, we can use this same technique to organize better wine tastings ourselves.

To use this concept to create your own unique, educational tastings, focus on the main factors that make 1 wine different from another:  climate, soil, grape, vintage, and winemaker style.  (I’ve written about these factors before, here.)  Try to find several wines that have most of those factors in common, isolating just 1 or 2 differences, for example:
  • Wines from one producer in one region which are made from different grapes – This helps to isolate different grape characteristics.
  • Wines from one producer, made from the same grape, from different years – This is called a vertical tasting and allows you to see the influence of weather variations from year to year.
  • Wines from the same grapes in same region, but from different vineyards and producers, such as Pinot Noirs from Sonoma or Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand – This shows you soil variation and winemaker influence.
  • Wines from one grape produced in regions all around the world, such as Cabernet Sauvignon from California, Washington State, France, South Africa, Australia, and Argentina – This demonstrates the effect of regional climate and soil differences.

It’s amazing what you can learn from these types of tastings.  When I attended a French Wine Scholar prep class, we tasted several different Beaujolais Crus (the Crus are the top 10 winemaking areas in the French region of Beaujolais), and noticed significant differences between them, despite the fact that the area encompassing all Beaujolais Crus is only about 6,500 hectares, or roughly 16,000 acres, or 25 square miles.

If you taste this way, I guarantee you will learn something interesting.  Please let me know if you try this at home – I’d love to hear what you did and how it turned out!

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