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Blind tasting and the Dubai Wine Club

March 23, 2013
Dubai Wine Club

Image courtesy of Servicexcellence – Sofie Pickhard

Blind tasting and identifying wine can seem like a magician’s trick. Its mystique keeps people intrigued and enthralled. Some people have exceptional taste memories – a photographic memory of the palate – Oz Clark is someone who has a recollection of every bottle of wine he’s every tasted. I would think this is huge over claim had I not spent some time in his company and seen him apply the same facility of recall with people’s names coupled with an encyclopaedic general knowledge.  I’ve never seen him blind taste a wine but I should think he would be pretty impressive.

Then there are the super-tasters; 35% of women and 15% of men have a heightened sense of taste and experience flavours with greater intensity than normal and being able to accurately discern minute variations would also be a distinct advantage.

Wine Kat, a wine profession with a blog that I follow, documented her Master of Wine mock exam tasting the other day. She was incredibly self-critical but it was with jaw-dropping awe I read about the nuances that MW students are expected to detect combined with a vast knowledge in order to pass this eminent qualification.

As for the rest of us mere mortals, what role does blind tasting play in wine appreciation? In our highly competitive world market, the branding and marketing is at least as important and the making of a wine. Most of us stick within a narrow range of what we are familiar with. Wine is still perceived as a complex topic and who can wonder with the many layered appellations in Europe, especially France and Italy and the complexity of German labelling for instance. And history, tradition, fashion, snobbery and those clever wine labels have a powerful effect over our perceptions.

There have been several blind tastings which have gone down in history as blowing apart received wisdom, pitching ‘old world’ wine making against new. The first is known as the ‘Judgement of Paris’; organised by British wine merchant Stephen Spurrier in 1976, it pitched some of the best vintages of the finest wines in France (then considered the best producers of wine in the world) against wines from the (then completely obscure) Napa Valley in California. The all-French panel of nine judges ranked two Californian wines as top. It was a pivotal moment in the world order of wine.

Berlin Tasting Dubai

Berlin Tasting at the Armani Hotel Dubai

Here in Dubai, last weekend, there was a re-run of something now known as ‘the Berlin’ tasting. The first was in 2004, when 36 of Europe’s most highly regarded wine experts met in Berlin to blind taste 16 top wines from Chilean, France and Italy. Two Chilean wines came top above classics like Château Lafite, Château Margaux and Château Latour. In Dubai, 40 wine lovers and experts did the tasting (alas I wasn’t one of them) and Chilean wines took the top three places (Seña 2010,  Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve 2009, Seña 2009) above iconic wines of Bordeaux (including Château Margaux 2004 and Château Mouton Rothschild 2001) and legendary Californian Opus One (2003).

To cap it all, a recent article in Life Hacker cites experiments which show how easily experts are swayed by labels. The contents of cheap and expensive wine bottles were swapped but the tasting notes reflected what people thought they were tasting. When a white wine was coloured red, the experts imagined they were detecting berry fruit flavours in contrast to the unadulterated white.

Dubai Wine Club

Image courtesy of Servicexcellence – Sofie Pickhard

At the Dubai Wine Club we taste blind but no guesswork is required. The only decision we have to make is which wine we like best and which wine we like second-best. That’s it.

To keep up my wine knowledge from my Wines and Spirit Education Trust courses, I try to guess what they are but usually fall a bit wide of the mark. I love how people enjoy wines at these session they normally wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole e.g. a Spanish Chardonnay.

This month we were at the newly opened JW Marriot Marquis, now the tallest hotel in Dubai. It’s very sleek and the enormous room we were in had reflective panels so I kept thinking there were other rooms of wine tasters adjacent to us. For various reasons there was enough wine for 100 of us but there were 110 people so Kevin and Catherine cleverly got an extra table together for us using wine from the hotel menu. The ten people on our table ranged from an eminent health care professional visiting Dubai (who knew quite a bit about wine I suspect), to someone from the construction industry contemplating a move to Saudi, to a qualified hairdresser and included at least 5 nationalities. One gentleman saw me sniffing, swirling and making notes and said “you look like you know a lot about wine”. “I’m just a wine nerd” I replied. With my abysmal performance in trying to identify them, I need more practise!:

The whites

Wine A was extremely pale in colour, light, fruity and refreshing with tropical aromas and a dominant flavour of apple (think Pink Lady rather than Granny Smith). I thought it was most likely to be a Gewürztraminer but wasn’t sure. I certainly didn’t guess Pinot Grigio which I profess to dislike (there’s those preconceptions again). It wasn’t a very complex wine but would be great with Asian food. This Italia 2012 Pinot Grigio from the Veneto region of Italy was the second most favourite wine of our table. The freshness of the fruit is due to the youth of the wine. If you get a bottle of this, don’t leave it in the cupboard i.e. drink now.

Wine B – I guessed a new world Sauvignon Blanc and it was just that. Mont Gras Sauvignon Blanc from Chile. I didn’t see a vintage when the cover of the bottle was whipped off (and it’s not on my photograph) but suspect this wine was probably past its best. A blowsy tropical nose and rather flabby on the palate, lacking in freshness and a bit syrupy.

Wine C – my neighbour suggested an unoaked Chardonnay, but there was something on the nose that was a bit petroly which confused me and I couldn’t decide on anything. I think it was either a fault with this bottle or an excess of sulphur now I know what it was. Jinda-lee 2012 Chardonnay from Australia.

The reds

Wine D – Oh dear – nought out of ten for me guessing a Merlot when it was Rioja. The lighting in the room was all over the place but I thought it was ruby in colour which should have given me a clue and I wrote ‘tobacco’ in my tasting notes too. Back to school for me – and I’d now like to taste this again – 2009 Viña Collada Rioja by Marqués de Riscal (the oldest Rioja house producing wines since 1858).

Wine E – I thought this was a Cabernet Sauvignon blend  and I was correct but any black pepper or spice notes that might lead me to a Shiraz rather than a Merlot passed me by.  It was rounded and full with deep black fruit, soft tannins and perfectly balanced. Argentina is one of the most dynamic wine producers in the world, and the wines are often very good value; this was voted favourite on our table including me. This 2011 Fuzion Shiraz Cabernet comes from the Zuccardi family wine making company – owners of one of Mendoza’s biggest wineries and a mass producer of fine wines for export.

Wine F – I guessed cool climate Cabernet Sauvignon due to some very forward tannins and green notes on the palate. It was actually from Bordeaux – so blended with Merlot. This was my second favourite but it needed food to soften the slightly forward tannins. La Grande Chapelle  2011 from Antoine Moueix – Appellation Bordeaux Controlée

The reds were far better than the whites and as our canapés were excellent but rather delicate we were all quite jolly by the end of the evening (as six bottles of wine consumed between ten of us).

This monthly event is informal, friendly and relaxed as no-one is under any pressure. I do think that sometimes your attitude to wine depends on how you are feeling on the day too. To quote the organiser of the Paris judgement Steven Spurrier, “The results of a blind tasting cannot be predicted and will not even be reproduced the next day by the same panel tasting the same wines.”

Anyone can come to The Dubai Wine Club which meets on the third Thursday of each month – more details here. They are setting up something similar in Abu Dhabi soon – keep an eye on my Facebook page for more information.

Have you tasted blind? Or are you part of a tasting group? How do you choose the wines you drink?

P.S. I used my iphone 4 for all these images. The lights in the room changed from subtle pink to subtle blue. This is nice for ambiance but not great for wine tasting when you want to see the colour – or for photography. I’ve tried to correct some of the images but they remain lurid!

  1. permalink
    March 23, 2013 1:29 pm

    LOL, I’ve done this at home…on a much more informal basis! We usually fail when we get to the reds because no one spits the whites. Well, that’s MY excuse anywayl;)

    • March 23, 2013 5:39 pm

      No spitting going on here either….my handwriting deteriorates considerably by the end…can’t read my own notes 🙂

  2. March 23, 2013 1:55 pm

    Blind tasting wines and identifying them isn’t an easy task…



    • March 23, 2013 4:26 pm

      It certainly isn’t! Thanks Rosa

  3. crasterkipper permalink
    March 23, 2013 2:28 pm

    Sally this really is fascinating, you really should be running a wine tasting evening class (so I could go!). You have really changed my appreciation of wine…

  4. March 23, 2013 4:30 pm

    Sounds really good, would love to attend something much simpler, Monica

    • March 23, 2013 5:06 pm

      I may have mislead you Monica. The blind tasting and identifying was my own choice. All you do for the Wine Club is vote for your top two favourites. That’s it.

  5. March 23, 2013 10:14 pm

    This made me miss home a bit. One of my favorite ways to spend a Saturday (before moving here) was wine tasting at the Oregon vineyards (a little too much pinot noir for me, but fun none-the-less). Might have to look into this Wine Club. Thanks for sharing!

    • March 24, 2013 8:01 am

      Now very envious of your Pinot tasting Andrea. Do give it a go. I usually go on my own – it’s a very friendly bunch. And you don’t have to commit – just try one session and see how you like it.

      • March 24, 2013 3:30 pm

        Aw, well maybe one day there will be a Oregon theme at a Dubai Wine Club event. 🙂 I signed up for the Meet Up group, hope to make it to an event soon! Thanks for sharing.

  6. March 24, 2013 12:09 am

    I was at Wine Club on Thursday – I’ll look out for you next time…

    • March 24, 2013 7:59 am

      Yes do – it would be great to compare notes 🙂

  7. March 24, 2013 11:02 am

    I will do a blind tasting only if I have to rate the wines from I like to I don’t like. I would never be able to guess varietals or Terroir!

  8. March 24, 2013 2:12 pm

    I am like Tandy! This sounds difficult to do!

    • March 24, 2013 3:33 pm

      That’s all we do at the wine club – it’s just me that’s the nerdy one!

  9. March 24, 2013 9:37 pm

    Blind wine tastings to me feel a little like an exam where you really want to mumble the whatever you think is the answer, hoping nobody hears in case it’s the wrong one. Raymond used to organise blind tastings a couple of years ago, I always felt a little out of my league. Make that a lot! Great post!

    • March 25, 2013 8:56 am

      I don’t want to sit by Raymond in a blind tasting either – he’s a wine nerd of an altogether different stratosphere!

  10. pinkpolkad0tfood permalink
    March 25, 2013 12:40 am

    Wow, this sounds great!! Great post!

  11. March 25, 2013 2:48 am

    Your wine club sounds like a great deal of fun! I would be trying to guess as well.

    • March 25, 2013 8:53 am

      So easy to get it wrong – but rewarding when right 🙂

  12. March 25, 2013 8:49 am

    Great post Wine nerd! It does sound like a lot of fun (for some!) but I’ll be the one to ‘mumble’ as Francine has described it so nicely. I’ve never attended blind tasting. Not that I’m averse to it but I’m still in the ‘learning’ phase, so let me pass the test first with my eyes open! Your IPhone is clicking very well:)

    • March 25, 2013 8:52 am

      I do have to stress that the rest of the table/ tables just voted for their first and second favourites. It does take the pressure off. It’s fun – honestly!!

  13. March 26, 2013 6:08 pm

    With all this information and precision, I would say you are much more than a wine “nerd”!

  14. Ben permalink
    August 29, 2013 2:59 pm

    Hi Sally,

    Great post, I’d like to invite you as my guest to a wine tasting evening at Cavalli Club if you are free anytime on a Tuesday evening in the next few weeks?

    Feel free to get in touch anytime on the email provided.

    Keep up the good work!



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