The leveling power of Blind Tasting

As vineyards have sprung out all over the world, wineries in the so-called ‘New World’ have used the traditional wine styles of Europe as a benchmark to aim towards, and to depart from. It was once the case when these New World wines were pre-occupied with their own unique style in opposition to those of Europe – a strategy that has worked very well commercially. However, some wineries are increasingly trying to emulate the great European styles, and starting to succeed admirably.

This was illustrated quite clearly at an informal tasting at the Summertown Wine Café in Oxford. I tasted blind a pale straw coloured white, with buttery notes and ripe apricots on the nose. The alcohol seemed highish, but well-integrated, and acidity was ‘medium’ in the overall scale of things. Toasted nuts came through on the palate, and the wine had an impressively long finish. This indicated, to both my tasting companion and me, a well-made Chardonnay, oaked (the ‘buttery-ness’ and toasted nuts on the palate), from a warm climate (the ‘ripe apricot’ note and the highish alcohol vs the lower acidity). In particular we placed the wine in southern Burgundy, France (perhaps from the Côte de Beaune).

We were right about the Chardonnay, and the climate to some extent, but in fact the wine was from South Africa – specifically Journey’s End ‘Haystack’ Chardonnay 2009, from the Stellenbosch Region.

I suppose on retrospective tasting, I could convince myself there was a slight smokiness in the aroma profile which might have given it away as South African. That will be something I look out for in the future when tasting similar Chardonnays, however it illustrates my point that New World wineries are producing wines of the quality and the style of the Old World. And also that blind tasting is the ultimate leveler of wines (and of egos)!

As a postscript, if you’re in the Oxford area and missing the activities of the various wine societies, why not try a tasting at the Summertown Wine Café? For £8 you can select 12 wines to taste off their menu. And if you’re really daring, you can ask to taste a selection blind!

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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7 Responses to The leveling power of Blind Tasting

  1. Neel Burton says:

    James, good post. You’ve told us everything but the price… how much does the Journey’s End cost? Given that it drinks like a fine Burgundy, it is probably very good value for money.

    • James says:

      Excellent point. The Summertown Wine Cafe is currently selling it at £9.50 / bottle. It is excellent value indeed. (£9.50 is also the cheapest non-trade price I’ve found online too.)

  2. Rumbi says:

    Another great post! I didn’t realize ‘smokiness’ on the nose was characteristic of South African Chardonnays (South African wines in general?). What do you think is the cause of this- the oak?

    • James says:

      ‘Smokiness’ can be an indicator of South African wines in general. The old cliché is that South African wines smelled of ‘burnt rubber’. This rather awful characteristic is fortunately no longer present in the best wines from the region, but some say a smokiness is a vestige of this. As to where the aroma comes from, it’s a complex business this defining of aromas and what to attribute them to. It could be the oak, but the terroir and wine-making process have influences too.

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  4. beyondanomie says:

    Had a couple of glasses of this last night. Surprisingly classical, as you say, and definitely a bargain at under a tenner. Nice recommendation!

    I remember having some Journey’s End Shiraz a few years ago. By contrast to what they’ve done with this Chardonnay, that was a fairly rustic rendition – big, bold & spicy.

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