Wine Blind Tasting Guide Part 1: Why Blind Taste Wine?

Originally posted on The Oxford Wine Blog:

James Flewellen, my co-author on The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, has kindly invited me to write a series of blog posts on wine blind tasting.

As you may be aware, James and I are keen to promote blind tasting, and to encourage and support those who are taking their first steps into the sometimes intimidating and obscurantist world of wine.

James and I met at the University of Oxford, which, for historical reasons, has a very strong culture of wine—no doubt one of a small handful of institutions with a dedicated blind tasting coach!

Simply turning up to almost daily tastings enabled to acquire, as if by osmosis, the knowledge and skills which are required to blind taste, and which we now wish to pass on to others—one of the major motivators for writing our book.

But first, you might be asking yourself, why bother at…

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Jura Wines

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With less than 2000ha, the Jura is a small yet diverse wine region. The vineyards sit in the foothills of the Jura, ~80km (50mi) east of Burgundy and not far from Switzerland. The climate is cooler than in Burgundy, although the summers are fairly hot and sunny. The soils, which are rich in fossils, are clay and limestone with outcrops of marl. Five grape varieties are planted: Chardonnay and Savagnin for whites, and Poulsard, Trousseau (which thrives in the gravelly vineyards around Arbois), and Pinot Noir for reds—which, though vinified as reds, tend to be rather more salmon than actually red.

The relative isolation of the Jura has led to the preservation of a number of distinctive wine styles. Most notable is Vin Jaune made from very ripe Savagnin, which is left to mature under a flor-like strain of yeast for six or more years before being bottled in a 62cl clavelin. This process leads to oxidative nutty aromas similar to those of Sherry— although, unlike Sherry, Vin Jaune is not fortified. Other aromas include walnuts, honey, and “curry”. Vin Jaune can be produced under the Arbois, Etoile, and Côtes du Jura appellations, but the richest examples are produced under the exclusive Château-Chalon appellation, which is home to top producers Jean Macle and Domaine Berthet-Bondet. Vin Jaune can potentially last for decades, if not centuries.

Also notable is a straw wine, Vin de Paille, which, like Vin Jaune, can be produced under the Arbois, Etoile, and Côtes du Jura appellations. This blend of Chardonnay, Poulsard, and Savagnin is pressed, normally in January, from dried grapes and aged in oak for at least three years. It is rich and complex with high alcohol and dominant notes of honey and dried or confected fruits.
Macvin du Jura AOC, which can be white (Chardonnay and Savagnin) or red (Poulsard, Trousseau, and Pinot Noir), is a vin de liqueur or mistelle made from the must of late harvest grapes. The must is oak-aged for 12 months without prior fermentation. Marc du Jura is then added in a ratio of 1:2, thereby halting fermentation and preserving the natural sugars. Further oak ageing finishes the process by harmonizing the flavours.

To round up on the six Jura appellations: any style of wine can be made under the Arbois and Côtes du Jura appellations, which are the most quantitatively important. In contrast, only white wines (including Vin Jaune and Vin de Paille) can be made under the Etoile appellation, and only Vin Jaune under the Château-Chalon appellation. Macvin du Jura is a regional appellation, as is Crémant du Jura AOC. This sparkling wine is made by the traditional method, most commonly from 100% Chardonnay.

Of the still ‘regular’ wines, the whites enjoy a greater reputation than the reds. These whites, which can be very terroir driven, are made from Chardonnay and/or Savagnin, either by the classic method (employed in other regions) or by the more oxidative regional and traditional method whereby the barrels are not topped up to compensate for evaporation. This oxidative style has long been the signature of this beautiful but isolated and often neglected wine region.

Adapted from the newly published Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Corks: For or Against?

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Cork, the traditional closing method for wine bottles, is harvested from the cork oak tree (Quercus suber) and is elastic and watertight. It allows a tiny amount of air exchange, which is thought to prevent the development of reductive odours as the wine matures. Problems with cork hygiene from the 1960s when the wine industry was booming led to an increase in the frequency of cork taint.

True cork taint is due to 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), formed when certain phenolic compounds react with chlorine-containing compounds used as disinfectants. This need not result from the cork, as TCA is also found in barrels and other winery equipment.

If there is a high degree of cork taint, the wine smells musty (‘like wet cardboard’) and falls flat on the palate, without fruit or vibrancy. Some people are very sensitive to cork taint, others less so.

The increased frequency of cork taint prompted the development of alternative closures such as stoppers made from reconstituted cork, synthetic ‘corks’, aluminium screw caps, and glass stoppers with a plastic washer seal.

There continues to be a lot of debate and research into the ‘best’ closure. Some of the world’s most prestigious producers are carrying out longitudinal studies with a single wine under multiple closures. As the finest wines can take decades to mature, a definitive answer may have to wait a bit longer.

Meanwhile, the quality of cork is improving and instances of cork taint are less common than in the past. For many purists, the aesthetics of the customs, movements, and sounds associated with uncorking a bottle, and the quasi-Pavlovian association with care and quality, easily outweigh the small risk of cork taint.

Today more than ever, the presence of a true cork is an indication of a quality wine intended to improve with age.

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