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The Great Grape Shootout

What's your favorite varietal -- really? If Americans weren't looking
at labels, would they still insist on Chard, Cab and Merlot? Surprise! Two
of these three kings were dethroned in a recent blind tasting.

(June 11, 2005) Who's king of the reds -- Cab or Syrah? Will Americans ever swoon for Riesling, or will Chard reign supreme forever? Does Tempranillo stand a chance of becoming a mainstream favorite?

A generous friend held a tasting recently to find out what we really, truly like. He served 14 top-rated wines, representing 13 different varietals (or in one case, a blend), in the most fiendish blind-tasting format I've ever encountered. Here's how it worked:

1. For each flight, we were given a card listing the wines in front of us, plus tasting notes from well-known reviewers. Each wine was among the most favorably reviewed in its category...

2. But we were not told which wine was which...

3. And to make things even more difficult, each of the first two flights also included an unidentified "mystery wine." (This ingenious little zinger defeated any attempts to identify wines through process of elimination.)

4. At the end of each flight, we were then asked to name the wine we liked the best -- and the one we liked least. Those who cared to do so could also attempt to identify the wines.

Thirty people were tasting. With the exception of me, they weren't fanatics, but educated folks who like to dine out and order wine. You can see how we voted at the end of this article. For now, let me observe:

Chardonnay still rules the whites. Kongsgaard 2001 Napa Valley Chardonnay was the clear winner of the white flight, and only two people liked it least.

But there's hope for Riesling. The rock 'em, sock 'em Zind Humbrecht 2001 Brand Riesling finished a strong second. Admittedly, it's an almost-unworldly example of what this grape can do.

Marsanne's got an uphill battle. Most tasters detested the dense, minerally Chapoutier 1999 Ermitage L'Ermite Blanc. Bob Parker may have given it 100 points, but 23 voters ranked it worst of the whites, making it by far the most unpopular wine of the evening. It was liked best by one lone voter -- me.

Cabernet Sauvignon did not win the red flight. In fact, a pristine bottle of 1990 Latour won the vote for worst red wine! On the other hand, seven (including me) judged it the best. You might call it the evening's most polarizing wine. (Latour does have a very distinctive Bordelaise character, which may account for this result.)

Tempranillo trounced Merlot, and this particular Merlot was no slouch. The delicious 2001 Paloma Spring Mountain Merlot may have been Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year, but only three folks at this tasting liked it best -- while twice as many voted for Aalto 2001 Pagos Seleccionados. (The latter taste so juicy and sweet, I mistook it for the Paloma.)

Syrah stomped all comers. An opulent Ozzie I'd never heard of before, Dowie Doole 2001 Reserve Shiraz, led the red flight with eight "best" votes. Only three folks liked it least.

     Now for the blow-by-blow and my tasting notes:


White 1. As soon as the honeysuckle hits your nose, you're swept away. Some comment that it seems sweet, but I don't think so -- just amazingly fragrant, slippery and juicy. There's not even a hint of diesel, so I decide it can't be Riesling. Wrong. Turns out to be ***+Zind Humbrecht 2001 Brand Reisling. If you think dry Riesling has to be austere, think again. Awesome stuff even for ZH, but this is a very strong flight. My third favorite.

White 2. Oak aromas and tropical fruits on the palate shout "California Chardonnay." Tasty attack and impressive length, but not quite as long or complex as another likely Chard in this flight. I decide it's Chardonnay and the Mystery Wine, and I'm right on both counts. It's **Solitude 2001 Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay. Excellent juice, but my fourth in this flight.

White 3. I could swear this is Riesling, even now. Lemon-lime, grapefruit and what is that, petrol? Yes! Pretty acidic, but in balance. The only thing else it could possibly be is Sauvignon Blanc, and there's none listed in this flight. It turns out to be Paza De Sonorans 2001 "Seleccion de Anada" Albarino. All I can say in my defense is that this is the most Riesling-like Albarino I've ever tasted.

White 4. Citrus, high acid, good texture, so what. Leaves me cold compared to the others. I can smell cat pee, so I guess Gruner Veltliner and I'm correct. It's Hirtzberger 2001 "Hongvogl" Gruner Veltliner. My least favorite of the flight, but I'm the only one who really dislikes it.

White 5. Wow, what a Chard! No doubt about the varietal, and this is a major leaguer. Kumquat and honey galore, plus plenty of mineral on the finish. Smiles light up around me. Women especially take to it. Keeps opening as the minutes tick by. It's not rocket science to guess this is ***+Kongsgaard 2001 Napa Valley Chardonnay. Big favorite for best of the flight, but my second choice. I prefer...

Wine 6. This all about purity and intensity. Aromas of wet stones wrinkle some noses, but wait it out, folks. Apricots on the palate, joined by white peaches and mineral flavors. And here comes the finish, like rolling thunder. Practically endless. You have to munch your crackers before trying anything else. Not much doubt this is ***+Chapoutier 1999 "Ermitage L'Ermite" Marsanne. My favorite, but nearly everyone else can't stand it. Maybe after 5 more years in the cellar, it might please a few more.


Wine 1. Cherries, blackcurrants and oak, so beautifully balanced, I'm certain its Europe. Thinking back, the chocolatey finish should have tipped me off to Merlot. It's ***+Paloma 2001 Spring Mountain Merlot, and my fourth favorite of the flight.

Wine 2. This one's easy. Lead pencil, minerals, blackberry, tobacco, BIG finish. If this ain't ***+1990 Latour, there's no justice in heaven. Thank heaven, there is. I'm not surprised that a wine this distinctive doesn't win a standing ovation, but I am a bit startled to see so many folks rank it their dog of the flight. My favorite, the group's second-favorite and also the least favorite. Like I said, polarizing.

Wine 3. Thick essence of ultra-ripe black fruit. Port-like. Delicious. Gotta be Oz Shiraz. But what I don't guess is that it's ***+Dowie Doole 2001 Reserve Shiraz. Never heard of it, but won't forget it! Miles ahead of the widely-hyped Clarendon Astralis, noted below.

Wine 4. Shows layers of black cherry, raisin and prune. Good stuff, but what is it? I decide from the black cherries that it must be Malbec, but I lose. It's *++Le Corte 2001 "Re" Negro Amaro, which I rank sixth in the flight.

Wine 5. Bramble berries, coffee and some harshly handled oak suggest Primitivo to me, but it turns out to be *-Archaval Ferrer 2002 Finca Altamira Malbec. I've had better Argentine Malbec, and rank this seventh in the flight.

Wine 6. Whenever I read glowing reviews about Clarendon Astralis, I shake my head and wonder if the bottles I've tasted could have been mishandled. But I've tasted it over a dozen times by now, so that's unlikely. Not that I dislike it, but I just don't get the hoopla. Ranked fifth by me, **+Clarendon Hills 2001 Astralis Shiraz is well-made, elegant and deep, but can't hold a candle to the Dowie Doole, reviewed above. And it's blown away by...

Wine 7. If you love California fruit bombs, don't cock a snoot at Tempranillo. ***+Aalto 2001 "Pagos Seleccionados" Tempranillo plays the hedonist game to near-perfection. Blueberries, raspberries, spice and a texture so rich, you could spread it on muffins. I'm not the only one who decides it has to be the Paloma Merlot. My second favorite of the flight.


Wine 1#. To be fair, **+1996 Chateau d'Yquem needs more time to strut its stuff. 10 years from now, it's bound to taste more complex. As it is, the wine is penetrating and long, with loads of botrytis. It's classic d'Yequem and not hard for me to identify. But tonight it's upstaged by...

Wine #2. Sensory fireworks shoot out of the glass before you even take a sip of ***+2001 Chateau Rieussec. Even in its youth, this wine sings to the skies. Creme brulee, marmalade, apricot jam and even more botrytis than the D'Yquem. The former may finish a little longer, but the ranking is no contest. My favorite of the flight and possibly wine of the evening.

Voting Results


Votes for the WHITE wine LIKED MOST

12 Kongsgaard Napa Valley Chardonnay 2001 (USA)

7 Zind-Humbrecht “Brand Vineyard” Riesling 2001 (France)

4 Hirtzberger “Hongvogl” Gruner Veltliner 2001(Austria)

3  Solitude “Sangiacomo Vineyard” Chardonnay 2001 (THE MYSTERY WHITE WINE) (USA)

3  Pazo de Senorans “Seleccion de Anada” Albarino 2001 (Spain)

1 Chapoutier “Ermitage L’Ermite” Marsanne 1999 (France)


Votes for the WHITE wine LIKED LEAST

23 Chapoutier “Ermitage L’Ermite” Marsanne 1999 (France)

3 Zind-Humbrecht “Brand Vineyard” Riesling 2001 (France)

2 Kongsgaard Napa Valley Chardonnay 2001 (USA)

1  Pazo de Senorans “Seleccion de Anada” Albarino 2001 (Spain)

1 Hirtzberger “Hongvogl” Gruner Veltliner 2001 (Austria)

0  Solitude “Sangiacomo Vineyard” Chardonnay 2001 (THE MYSTERY WHITE WINE) (USA)


Votes for the RED wine LIKED MOST

8 Dowie Doole “Reserve” Shiraz 2001 (THE MYSTERY RED WINE) (Australia)

7 Chateau Latour Cabernet Sauvignon 1990 (France)

6 Aalto “Pagos Seleccionados” Tempranillo 2001 (Spain)

3 Paloma “ Spring Mountain ” Merlot 2001 (USA)

2 Clarendon Hills “Astralis” Shiraz 2001 (Australia)

1 La Corte “Re” Negro Amaro 2001 (Italy)


Votes for the RED wine LIKED LEAST

8 Chateau Latour Cabernet Sauvignon 1990 (France)

5 La Corte “Re” Negro Amaro 2001 (Italy)

4 Archaval  Ferrer “Finca Altamira ” Malbec 2002 (Argentina)

3 Dowie Doole “Reserve” Shiraz 2001 (THE MYSTERY RED WINE) (Australia)

3 Clarendon Hills “Astralis” Shiraz 2001 (Australia)

2 Aalto “Pagos Seleccionados” Tempranillo 2001 (Spain)

1 Paloma “ Spring Mountain ” Merlot 2001 (USA)

Latour is typically a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot, plus 5% Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

‡Predominantly Negro Amaro, this wine was also blended with a small amount of Primitivo.



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