Over the years, the more I have learned about wine, the more questions I ask. I do this not just because I find it educational but also because I find it fun. While the list of questions keeps growing, there are several I always think about when evaluating a wine. For example, how similar or dissimilar are the wines from one region compared to the wines from another? Does the specific area the wine comes from express itself or not? Does the variety express itself? For example, if I try a Syrah from the Rhone Valley, how does it compare to a Syrah from, say, Sonoma? What about the effects of the winemaker? Is there a ‘house style’ that comes through on each of the wines? Do any of these variables dominate or is it a delicate dance between them?
These are often difficult questions to answer, especially in isolation. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “This wine tastes like another wine I had several months ago,” but often wonder, “Does it really?” And if the wines are in fact similar, how are they different?
The best – and most fun – way to answer these questions is by comparative tasting, evaluating wines side-by-side. If one wants to make it even more interesting and educational, the way to do it is to taste the wines blind, withholding full knowledge of the origins of the wine. Unfortunately for most of us, it is prohibitively expensive to open two or more wines on any given night let alone to deal with blinding the wines. This is why I find tasting events and like the series recently conducted at Seattle’s The Local Vine so enjoyable. For the cost of a (potentially mediocre) bottle of wine, one can try several different wines side by side, some of which might be transcendent.
The recent series was titled “Washington vs. The World.” For the series, sommelier Cole Sisson added an intriguing twist to the questions above. What if you take a winemaker from one area – for example Australia’s Barossa Valley – and have them make wines in another area such as Washington’s Columbia Valley? Can you distinguish the area? What about the winemaker? Better yet, can you do it blind?
Sisson chose winemakers who had become famous making wines in regions around the world and subsequently began making wines in Washington State. Each tasting began with an introduction to the wineries and regions being tasted followed by time to individually sample through the wines and a discussion. For the series, attendees were able to compare a high-end series of wines including:
* Claude Gros’ La Fleur Morange St-Emilion Grand Cru compared to his Bookwalter Merlot
For people new to wine – let alone people who have been tasting wine for many years – approaching such questions can often be intimidating. Sisson, who approaches wine tasting with aplomb and enthusiasm, solved this by providing background about the regions being sampled as well as his take on the wines. The tastings were far from formal. Rather, the environment allowed people to learn and draw their own conclusions. Printouts about the wine regions and the specific wines being tasted were provided as well.
So what did I find out at these tastings? Was it the region? The winemaker? The variety? As always, the answers to these questions were complex and intriguing, part of what makes wine so fun. For example, on the La Fleur Morange, Bordeaux leapt from the glass as it so frequently does. Some differences in region, however, were less immediately obvious. For example, the Folonari’s Italian Tenute del Cabreo ‘Il Borgo’ and their Long Shadows Columbia Valley ‘Saggi’ showed some intriguing similarities. But was this because of the winemaker expressing himself? Was it because of the varieties used in the blend? Or was it something more nefarious like the ‘Parkerization’ of wines around the world?
The only way to ferret out the answers is to keep traveling down the wine trail. Hats off to The Local Vine for helping us along in the journey.