Thursday, August 27, 2009

Barolo Tasted Blind with the Wine and Spirits Tasting Panel

Though an evening spent at The Ten Bells may have been the chief pleasure of a long day trip to New York last week, the primary impetus for the commute was an invitation to participate in a panel tasting of new/current releases from Piemonte at Wine & Spirits Magazine. I’d read about these tastings on the blogs of W&S editors Wolfgang Weber and Peter Liem, as well as on the pages of my estimable blogging colleague, Brooklynguy. This was my first opportunity to participate so, jazzed at the idea of a day spent tasting tons of wines from Piedmont, I jumped at it.

Recently, I’ve read a couple of good albeit polarizing pieces about blind tasting. Guilhaume Gerard, for instance, f***ing hates it – not blind tasting, per se, so much as the idea of rapid fire sipping, spitting and analyzing, like choosing your life partner based on a single speed dating event. Brooklynguy, on the other hand, sees true merit in the educational aspects of the practice, so much so that he’s put together his own succinct, all-star blind tasting panel. It should be noted, though, that his new group tasted just a few wines in their first outing and, I’m guessing, spent a reasonable amount of time contemplating each one.

At the Wine & Spirits Piemonte panel, though, we tasted blind and in rapid-fire succession – 35 Barolo in the two-hour morning session and 33 Barbera after a break for lunch – in flights ranging anywhere from three to eight wines at a time. It’s no way to really get to know any one wine. And it’s definitely work, not pleasure (though it does help that I like my work). That said, the format – we were not doling out points, just giving a basic yea, nay or undecided about each wine – is not without merit.

It forced me to assess each wine honestly and quickly. Did I like it? Was it balanced? Was it flawed in any way? Was it typical? Elegant or brutish? Drinkable or built to impress?

It’s an interesting way to get a sense of common character (or lack thereof) across a vintage and/or a particular region. It’s also a test of your own steadiness, your ability not to be swayed by the opinions of the other tasters around the table. Perhaps the hardest part, at least for me, was judging each wine on its own merits rather than on its relative performance. The old opulent versus subtle issue wasn’t the problem; I like to think I put that one to rest a long time ago. Rather, I occasionally found myself wanting to vote “yes” for a wine not so much because I liked it as because I found it far less crappy than the wine(s) that had immediately preceded it. Suffice it to say it’s a tough job, but I was more than happy to have the opportunity and would gladly participate again.

So, “What about the wines?” you’re probably asking at this point. After a single, rather lackluster 1999 Barolo from Erbaluna (participants were given a list of the wines at the completion of the tasting), things kicked off in earnest with a string of 19 Barolos from the 2005 vintage, divided into five flights based on their commune of origin. The wines were all over the place, showing the variability in the vintage from commune to commune, where there were issues with hail, rain at harvest and a relatively cool growing season. In a way, that variability made the ‘05s more interesting than the ‘04s to come but 2005 is definitely a vintage where it will pay to know your producers.

From the panel’s majority perspective, the clear standouts among the Barolo producers represented were Renato Ratti and Vietti, with Vietti’s 2005 Barolo “Lazzarito” being the only wine to receive a unanimously positive vote. It’s important to note, though, that the panel’s decision can vary significantly from that of any one taster. All four of Vietti’s entries received “yea” votes from the panel, while I liked only the Lazzarito. I voted yes on nine of the nineteen wines, while the panel ixnayed only three wines in the entire lineup. Most surprising to me was the fact that I liked two of the three wines from Michele Chiarlo, a producer whose wines I’ve normally been inclined to write off as commercial and lacking in character.

After tasting through fifteen Barolo from 2004, which is the primary vintage available on the current market, I think it’s fair to say that it’s a far more consistent vintage than 2005. The wines were more complete, showing much more typical and fully developed aromatic profiles. However, that consistency came with its own problem: alcoholic heat. Over and over again, my notes from the 2004 flights read “hot,” “touch of heat,” or “aggressive.” This time around I found something positive to say about only six of the fifteen wines, while the panel too was more circumspect, giving the thumbs up nine times. Brezza and Boroli both performed solidly, while Ceretto was a clear loser. My favorite wine of the 2004s, though, came from a producer that’s new to me, Serradenari.

I’m running short on time, so my thoughts on the afternoon Barbera session will have to wait....

In closing, as educational as I found the panel tasting experience, it hasn’t changed my mind much about Barolo. Just in case you weren’t sure, I love Barolo. But it should be obvious that I didn’t find all that much to like on this day. Of the 35 wines we tasted, there were only a couple, maybe three, that I’d go out of my way to buy and drink. Where were my favorite producers? No Vajra, no Mascarello, no Giacomo Conterno, no Elio Grasso, no Luigi Baudana… the list goes on. Without them in the field, I can’t help but feel the day’s findings were at least a little incomplete.


Joe Manekin said...

Sounds like good work if you can get it. I don't taste or drink Barolo too often, though I would agree that an informed horizontal would absolutely need to include the producers you mentioned, along with Giuseppe Rinaldi and others as well.

David McDuff said...

I considered myself lucky and happy to get the call-up, Joe, something for which I really have Wolfgang to thank. So thanks, Wolfgang!

Blog Widget by LinkWithin