This week at the Oxford Course on Blind Tasting we looked at classic red grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
I mentioned a ‘fruit spectrum’ for the aromas of white wines; for reds it can be helpful to differentiate between red fruits and black fruits. Is the wine more strawberry, raspberry, cherry, or blackcurrant, Doris plum, blackberry? For non-fruit aromas we can get minerality and vegetation similar to whites, however ‘animal’ smells (‘farmyardy’, wool/fur, even manure) are also characteristic of reds. I find oak in red wines is more present as a ‘nutty’ rather than ‘butter/toast’ note, however, licorice, molasses and caramel can also be found. Vanilla and coconut are classic indicators of new French and American oak on young red wines.
The big important difference between red and white wines is the presence of tannins. Tannins are chemicals found in the grape skin and stalk. During the winemaking process, red wines see a lot more contact with the skin and stalk and thus there is more opportunity for these chemicals to be imparted into the wine. Tannins have the effect of ‘drying’ or ‘puckering’ the mouth, and are most notable on the inner cheeks, lips and tongue. It is hard to qualify tannins thus I try to simplify things by giving a quantity (few to many) and a quality (fine, soft, grainy, grippy, chewy, coarse).
We tasted two Pinot Noir – one from Burgundy, one from Auckland, New Zealand. Pinots are notable from the other three classic reds in their lighter colour and fine tannins. In a classic New World/Old World divide, the Burgundian pinot was more restrained and complex, while still retaining a purity of red(ish) fruit characteristic of young pinots. The Auckland example was all right, however I think Central Otago makes better Kiwi pinot.
Syrah is called Shiraz in Australia, and anywhere else in the New World that wants to make a bolshy, full-bodied, fruit-bomb Aussie style wine, rather than a restrained Rhone-esque wine. The grape brings characteristics of black pepper, ripe blackcurrant, and a somewhat medicinal/licorice quality. Australian Shiraz is generally higher in alcohol, lower in acidity and more linear, fruit-driven than Rhone counterparts, where more complex animal and vegetable flavours complement the fruit. The Billi Billi Shiraz, 2006, is an excellent, good-value example of Aussie Shiraz – fruity and full without being overbearing.We also tasted a South African example, notable mainly for a note of ‘burnt rubber’ – a classic indicator of South African wine.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the ‘Bordeaux’ grapes, being the dominant grapes in Bordeaux blends. They are now found all over the world, in both classic Bordeaux blend imitations and single varietal wines. Both grapes bring prominent tannins and decent acidity to a wine. Merlot classically has notes of plums, chocolate and spice cake, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon has blackcurrant, green pepper and cedar wood. The stand-out wine from this tasting for me was Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon, 2003, from Mendoza, Argentina. The wine was intensely opaque – typical of an Argentinian red – but had attractive aged notes from the seven years bottle age along with ripe fruit, green peppers and a balanced body.
We were very privileged to host Sebastian Payne MW, Chief Buyer for the Wine Society on Wednesday – certainly a highlight tasting. Mr Payne brought four flights of three wines for our degustation and identification pleasure. My personal stand out wine was the 1990 Domaine Dujac. This wine was almost entirely brown(!), with just a hint of ruby. Very long gradient. The French oak was notable but well-integrated. Highly aromatic with tertiary bottle-age aromas of gunpowder, beef stock, menthol tobacco, mushrooms and woodland undergrowth. Jammy black fruit (1990 was a hot vintage) was notable, but now on the periphery of the aroma profile. Highish alcohol, moderate body and acidity, forward, subtle tannins and an incredibly long finish, which you’d hope for from a wine at over £600 a bottle!