Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Nebbiolo Prima: My Thoughts on the Blind Tastings

In case the name doesn't make it crystal clear, Nebbiolo Prima was devoted at heart to rolling out the most recent vintages of Nebbiolo, specifically from the Albeisi zones of Barolo, Barbaresco and the Roero. Though the participating wineries all grow other wines, from Dolcetto to Freisa, Arneis to Nascetta, and were able to show such wines during estate visits, at walk-around tastings and/or over dinner, the big blind tastings that constituted the prime focus of each day were devoted exclusively to the Nebbiolo. Nothing but Nebbiolo.

With 189 participating wineries and over 320 wines in the mix, that meant that we on the press side of the event were in for some serious oral pain to begin each day. Four hours (or less, for those fleet of palate) of blind tasting, four days in a row, with an average of just over 80 high acid, high tannin wines per sitting. It was highly educational in a broad sense, but fun it was not. This was work, my friends, no matter how you sliced it.

As you can see from my shot above, the tasting was not 100% blind. We were provided with a basic spreadsheet indicating where and from what vintage each bottling originated. Tasting order was broken up by commune, with Riserva bottlings always saved for last within each major regional grouping. I must say whoever put together the order did a fine job of ensuring both a sensible progression and, equally important, an unpredictable curve in terms of style and quality.

There was nothing sensible, however, about pouring 80+ wines at a sitting. Even the most battle practiced tasters in the room, as well as the most enthusiastic, concurred that those numbers, and their cumulative effect on one's palate, were simply daunting. Adding a fifth day, something the promoters have already promised to do starting next year (and something I understand had been the norm in past editions of the Alba Wine Exhibition), would go a long way to easing the pain and to creating the possibility of enough time in the day for journalists to get a little on-site "live blogging" or correspondence done.

All of that tasting – 80 wines a day for 70 people spread throughout three rooms – could never have come together as well as it did if not for the fine and quietly anonymous work done by the participating members of the Associazione Italiana Sommeliers. These guys and gals, just a few of whom are pictured above, managed to make sense of my weak attempts to speak Italian, to pour by the numbers, to work on their feet for hours at a time each morning, and to do it all while wearing smiles (albeit subtle ones).

I've said it here before but it bears repeating: tasting this many wines at one sitting is no way to really get to know any one wine. A system of basic check marks and quick, concise notes are about the best I could realistically put into practice. For me, that meant recording my honest, immediate impressions of each wine, and placing a star next to the wines that really captured my attention so that I could return for a second look to ensure my first impressions carried through.

What I was looking for really shouldn't surprise any of you. Not power and opulence, not ferocious tannins that theoretically promise longevity, but rather finesse, balance, drinkability (whether now or later) and voice. If the wine spoke to me and I enjoyed what I heard, great. If not, then on to the next wine I went.

Does that mean I missed some good wines? Absolutely. I can promise that's the case for every taster in attendance, regardless of their personal preferences or the thoroughness of their note taking.

What large scale, rapid-fire blind tasting is good for, especially in a focused format such as this, is getting a handle on vintage characteristics and the commonalities of expression (if any) from area to area. I'm generally not one to pronounce on vintage, as I find the influence of the producer to be much more important – and vintage proclamations to be a crutch used by the major wine press and major marketing organizations to help sell units, be they wine or magazine subscriptions. Of course, vintage does play a role in defining the qualities of honestly made wine and, tasting dozens of wines from the same place and vintage in one sitting is a sure way for vintage and terroir to make their qualities known.

What's my point? I find it important to lay down groundwork, to make my approach clear, so that when I do post notes and/or general observations about specific wines, vintages or regions, readers here — newcomers and veterans alike — will have as full a sense as possible of where I'm coming from.

I'd originally intended for this post to include my thoughts on the wines tasted during day one of Nebbiolo Prima; however, given the length of my prelude, I think it best to save those impressions for a separate post. So, please forgive me my ramblings and consider this the introduction to what's to come in the next couple of articles: my reactions to 2007 in Roero and Barbaresco, and 2006 in Barolo.

(PS: I'd love to be able to attach names to the faces of the sommeliers pictured above. If anyone out there knows or can identify any of them, please do let me know.)

No comments:

Blog Widget by LinkWithin