Tag Archives: Blind Tasting

1984/1985 Napa Vintages: Comparative Blind Tasting

Recently, I attended a single-blind* tasting with a group of wine collectors whom I regularly meet to share interesting wine. While it has lately become popular to bash the direction of Napa reds and the influence of Robert Parker on the Napa wine industry, here was a chance to evaluate the longevity of Napa wines, BEFORE the wine style began to change. I will try to walk you thru the mindset of a single-blind tasting and wine evaluation. Hopefully, you will find it interesting. Hitch-up your britches, pour a glass of wine and let’s git after it…

(*”Single-blind” is the term used when you are provided with only general information, say: growing region and vintage, or Bordeaux blend and cool climate vineyard. With a minimum of information for context, you must then determine as much about the wine as possible, such as: grape varietal(s), winery – maybe even winemaker, etc. “Double-blind” tasting would include no information about the wine prior to tasting.)


I always enjoy starting a wine evening off with bubbly, but 1983 Dom Perignon? What a start to a great evening. The Dom still had medium+ acidity, was well balanced, but had moved beyond nutty to more of a brown butter component. The age on the wine gave it a beautiful texture. For those who have not drunk aged Champagne, the texture can be so gorgeous, it is worth tasting for the mouthfeel alone. The young Veuve Clicquot was bright and bracing as it should be.

The Cat (Wine) is Out of the Bag

Out of the bag quite literally… Here are the pics of the bottles out of their paper bags, after we wrote our tasting notes and had attempted to select which bottles matched which producer. Our host served charcuterie, bread and some beautiful pate I really enjoyed to clear/accompany the palate.

1974 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Very balanced wine, but reaching its limit. Still with medium acidity and medium-minus tannins, this drank reasonably well, but the oxidation had taken over the fruit and was a few years beyond its drinking window. The fruit had moved to more prune and raisin, than fresh fruit flavors. This would have drunk better at around 35 years of age, around 10 years ago. The brownish color around the rim and prune flavors gave it away, almost all of us identified this wine correctly.

1984 Diamond Creek Vineyard Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon

This wine still had strong tannins. It was a little watery with a very restrained nose and palate. Diamond Mountain region wines in the past have tasted big, tannic, with subdued fruit and without much nuance (IMO)… but with age, developed great mouthfeel. Exactly how this wine tasted. This was an easy tell, with some tasting history to reference.

1985 Silver Oak Alexander Valley (Sonoma) Cabernet Sauvignon

This was the fruitiest of the bunch and had the most obvious oak.  This was the surprise of the evening (IMO). Recent vintages of Silver Oak Cab Sauv are not generally viewed as being able to stand up to extended aging, but this 80’s era vintage was balanced and still fruity. A nice wine with tremendous character for 30+ years of age. With the most obvious oak on the nose and palate, this fit the Silver Oak tasting profile, making for a high probability of accuracy.

1984 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

I mistook the next two for each other. I have always had an odd relationship with BV as a producer. I have not really cared for their lower priced wines, having only a minimum of value (IMO), while their famous Georges de Latour release every year is good, but over-priced. They also seem to develop complex flavors in their higher priced wine, some flavors of which I don’t care for. So, I may have gone into this tasting with preconceived notions… which is always an interesting aspect of blind tasting. I guessed this wine was the Joseph Phelps, mostly because I enjoyed this wine as having the most balanced profile of the wines tasted and having the most gorgeous mouthfeel. Frankly, I didn’t think a BV wine could be this good. (buzzer sound) Well, I blew that one! Chalk one up for having a closed mind.

1985 Joseph Phelps Backus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

I described this one in my notes with the typical wine industry generic term, “food friendly”. The kiss of the death for uninteresting wine in a tasting note in the U.S. This was the most acidic of the bunch. Which was amazing, since this wine was 33 years old. It was a little vegetal with a touch of tomato, but no green bell pepper… both characteristics of under-ripe Cab Sauv. Hard to believe this wine was from a warm vintage. This could only happen in a Napa vintage before 1995. No self-respecting Napa producer would ever harvest Cab this early in a warm year today. I enjoyed this wine the least of the bunch. Poor balance and “interesting”, but not particularly pleasant flavor profile.

1988 Lynch Bages Bordeaux Blend

This was smokey, with medium+ acidity and medium tannin. This was another example of an aged Bordeaux showing balance after extended aging. The flavor profile included an earthiness, that when you taste enough of 1st-5th growth Bordeaux wine, you come to recognize. Still with fresh fruit (blackberry) and stewed currants, the fruit was forward on the palate. I am not a huge fan of Pauillac region wines. I prefer the St. Estephe and Margaux regions in Bordeaux, but this was drinking nicely at 30 years and was a strong representative of Left Bank Bordeaux.

The Finish

IMG Port Btl

Just WOW!

This aged, vintage port was exceptional! The fruit had lasted very well. Not too sweet, tasting like a more recent vintage… but for a port, this wine was so balanced… integrated alcohol, good acidity, soft & full mouthfeel. All of us agreed, this was the outstanding wine of the evening. I wish I could hold on to ports this long. This one was worth the wait.


Well, there you have it. A great evening! I hope you enjoyed the personal perspective and found insight into blind tasting methodology. I think you can see, blind tasting accuracy is mostly: having tasted a lot of wine labels and being able to hold them in your memory. These were all exceptional wines, wines I would score from 90-99 on the Parker scale. We definitely proved the point, most collectors can easily identify Bordeaux in a line-up of Napa Cabs. All of us guessed the Lynch Bages correctly.

Napa Cab Sauv: Now & Back Then

Not many are allowed the opportunity to taste a selection of Napa Cabs from the 70’s & 80’s. This was a great experience. I will reiterate comments made before about Napa in the last 30+ years… Prior to 1995 Napa made true Bordeaux style wines: structured, leaner, lower alcohol and well-suited for extended aging. 1995 to 2003 was an interim period, where Napa Cabs were fruitier and more ripe than before, but still able to handle 10-20 years in the bottle. 2004 and after, most of the wine was produced for optimum drinking windows in the 5-10 year range. This is just a gross generality. There are individual exceptions with both shorter and longer aging windows, but in general, I have found this evaluation to hold true.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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Filed under Alexander Valley, Bordeaux, Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, French Wine, Napa Valley, Sonoma County, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine by Varietal, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

New Year’s Eve Bubbly – Let’s Have a Party!

If you are looking for a fun idea for a New Year’s Eve Wine Party, think bubbly!  Most people will drink it, even if they are not big wine fans and it adds to the festive atmosphere!  There is a funny beer related surprise at the end too!

'She was a party girl!'

How to Hold a Blind Bubbly Party!

Here is a wine party theme to spark the imagination, satisfy curiosity and add a little adventure from around the world.  Plus, it fits into the spirit of New Years.

Sparkling wines are made in different styles all over the world (not just Champagne, France) and can taste radically different.  So, here is your mission (should you choose to accept it), introduce your friends to the world of sparkling wines.  Most Americans have had some exposure to bubbly wines and the typical experience is with California sparkling, and/or French Champagne.  I hosted this themed party with friends last year and it was a big hit.  Everybody loves bubbly!

Here’s how you do it.  Select one representative bottle of sparking wine from each (or less) region worldwide (see below for help).  Record the regions / styles on a blank sheet of paper and set aside. Line the bottles up on the counter and turn them around so the front labels are not visible, then place them in numbered plain paper bags.  Write the numbers with extra space on several blank sheets of paper and hand out to each party-goer.  When the tasting begins, refer everyone to the sheet with the different regions / styles and have them record their votes and comments regarding each numbered bag relating to their guesses.  When complete, expose the bottles and compare to actual.

Choosing Your Bubbly

This is a good spot to throw in a time saver… for those who are not interested in the background explaining the differences in these wines, skip this section and move down to the next – Regional Areas and Recommendations.  For those who would like to impress their guests with your wine knowledge and help you and them understand WHY these wines vary so much in taste, aroma and mouth-feel, please read on… (find an in-depth guide to sparkling wine production – HERE)

Grape Varietals

First, sparkling can be made from many different white and red grapes varieties.  Sparkling grape varieties must produce good acidity in the final product, so cool-climate varieties work best, the most common are:  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Muenier, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gamay, Glera, Chenin Blanc, Muscat and Riesling.

Sparkling Styles

1 – The first step in producing sparkling wine is always the making of still wine.  All the factors that make white still wines different, applies here too.  Let’s assume we are starting the discussion at second ferment – the process that adds the bubbles. There is much more to the final production stages, but in an effort to focus on what affects the bubbles most…  There are three typical methods that affect the texture and size of the bubbles in the wine:

  • Methode Champenoise – The second ferment creates the bubbles in each bottle and the wine remains in the bottle for the entire process
  • Methode Traditionelle – Same as above, but (by law) wineries are not allowed to use the term Methode Champenoise outside of the Champagne region
  • Charmat Method – These wines are fermented in large pressurized vats
  • Transfer Method – The second ferment is in the bottle, then the wine is transferred to large pressurized vats (less common)

Suffice it to say, the first method produces much finer bubbles, but can be very expensive, especially bottle-aged Champagne.  Often, the producer will describe the process used to make the wine on the label.  Some regions ONLY make the wine one way, or the other.  Such as, Champagne must be made with the first process, while Cava is made with the second.

2 – Another primary characteristic is the sweetness and amount of residual sugar in the final product. In France, they have a naming convention for this:

  • Extra Brut, Brut – Very little to no sugar
  • Cuvee – This actually denotes a blend of grapes, but usually is more fruity and/or has some residual sugar
  • Extra Dry, or Dry-Sec – Is slightly sweeter than Brut (don’t confuse this with a “dry” red wine)
  • Demi-Sec – Is medium sweet
  • Doux – Is very sweet and can be a touch syrupy

3 – Finally, an additional factor is whether the wine is made from red-skinned, or white skinned grapes.  The French also have terms for this that are used around the world:

  • Blanc-de-Blancs – from white grapes, usually Chardonnay. Can be crisper, lighter and more acidic.  Makes great food wines.
  • Blanc-de-Noirs – from red grapes (but is a white wine – click on link for explanation), usually Pinot Noir.  Can be richer, have more complex flavors, a voluptuous mouth-feel and are usually softer.

'Look at this! France is getting into the wine business, too.'

Sparkling Regions and Regional Styles

These are recommendations (best street prices noted) for selecting a very diverse group of readily available, reasonably priced wines that are sure to have your friends scratching their heads.  One “wine” will be our-ace-in-the-hole stumper… adding a surprise ending.   I will not cover Rose and Red styles, or Vintage sparkling , because the fun of this event is for people to compare similar wines with surprising differences at reasonable prices.  These wines are likely to be NV – Non-Vintage (shown on the label), but if you can find bottles with a date on the label, these can be of better quality (but not always).  You will want to select wines at price-points your guests would buy for themselves.

1. Brut Champagne

The Champagne region of France has been known for making the finest sparkling wine in the world for more than a century.  The best example of these are usually Brut style, with strong bread and/or nut flavors.  This wine is always made via the Methode Champenoise process by French law.  These wines are typically the most expensive sparkling. Try:

  • Charles Heidsieck Brut NV $50/btl, Piper Heidsieck Brut NV $40/btl, Laurent-Perrier Brut NV $35/btl.

2. Cremant de Bourgogne

These sparkling wines are made in the Burgundy region of France and can be excellent too, but are often made by brokers called “negociants“.  Quality control year over year can be an issue.  This category will be at a lower price point and often is made in a fruitier style than Champagne.  Try:

  • Louis Bouillot NV Blanc-de-Blanc, or Blanc-de-Noir $15/btl.

3. American Sparkling

This is a very diverse category with the Northern California region being the big player.  There are many producers making all styles. Quality and price can vary widely.  The well-known, quality California producers are Mumm, Roederer Estate, Schramsberg, Domaine Chandon, Domaine Carneros and Gloria Ferrer.  You could throw your guests a curve and serve good wines from lesser known places like: Gruet from Albuquerque, NM, or Laetitia from San Luis Obispo County, CA.  Try Brut, or Demi-Sec (or Cuvee) styles:

  • Mumm Cuvee “M” NV $15/btl, Schramsberg Blanc-de-Blanc NV $20/btl, Gruet Brut NV $12/btl, Roederer Estate Brut NV $18/btl.

4. Cava

Cava is made in the Penedes region in Spain.  The area is the largest volume producer of sparkling wine in the world and specializes in lower cost brands with dependable average quality.  The wines here are always made via some form of the Charmat process.  Try:

  • Segura Viudas Heredad Reserva Brut NV $18, Sumarroca Cava Reserva Brut NV $16, Anna De Codorniu Brut NV $11

5. Cremant d’Alsace

These wines are made in the Alsace region of France.  This is an interesting area producing a wide variety of styles and uses some of the lesser known varietals.  Give the sparkling made from Pinot Blanc a shot to experience a richer, full-bodied sparkling wine.  Try:

  • Hubert Meyer Cremant Brut NV $16, Pierre Spar Cremant Brut Reserve NV $16, Albert Mann Cremant NV $22

6. Cremant de Loire

These wines are produced in the Northern Loire region of France.  They are typically made from Chenin Blanc (my favorite white varietal) grapes, but can also contain Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc.  Very often, these wines are aged extensively on the lees, giving them more body and a richer flavor.  They tend to be fruitier and can be found commonly in all levels of residual sugar (sweetness).  I have a personal soft spot for Chenin Blanc.  When used in wines from Northern France and South Africa, this varietal can be both acidic and crisp, while being fruity and have a great mouth-feel. Look for the better sparkling wines in this region to be made with Methode Traditionelle.  Try:

  • François Pinon Cremant Brut NV $22, Domaine des Baumard Cremant Brut NV $20, Chateau Moncontour Cremant Sec $15

7. Deutscher Sekt

Sekt is made in Germany, typically from the Riesling grape.  The “Deutscher” means it is made from grapes that originate in Germany.  The German palate tends toward sweeter and less alcoholic wines and Sekt is no different.  The characteristics of Riesling that I enjoy, are what makes Sekt interesting:  good minerality and acidity with a “clean”, bright sweetness.  Look for “Trocken” on the label, if you prefer the less sweet version.  Try:

  • Dr. Loosen Sparkling Riesling Sekt NV $13, von Buhl Riesling Sekt Brut $21, Deinhard ‘Lila’ Riesling Sekt NV $14

8. Prosecco

There is more change going on in this region, than the others.  The wine growing areas northwest of Venice, Italy produce this style of wine.  The quality in this region has improved drastically in recent years.  Some of the least expensive sparkling wine in the world is being produced here, but the better producers are beginning to offer quality wines that can stand-up to comparison.  These wines tend to be simpler,  fruitier and are usually a touch sweet.  Almost all Prosecco is made in the Charmat Method.  Look for Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG on the label.  These wines are likely to be of better quality.  Try:

  • La Marca Extra Dry Prosecco NV $14, Nino Franco Rustico Prosecco NV $15, Bisol Crede Brut Prosecco NV

9. Asti Spumante / Moscato d’Asti

If there was ever a cliché for cheap, sweet sparkling, this is it.  Having very inexpensive versions imported into the U.S. for decades, this wine has developed a reputation.  Asti Spumanti is made in the Asti region of Italy from the Muscat grape.  The wine is typically made with the Charmat Method.  This style of sparkling wine is my least favorite, but if you are a sweet wine person and enjoy the richness of Muscat, this wine may be for you.  Try:

  • Casa Sant’Orsola Asti Spumante NV DOCG $12, Mondoro Asti Spumante NV DOCG $12, Gancia Asti Spumante NV DOCG $12

10. Duvel Brand Belgian Golden Ale

This Belgian beer is very light and made with Methode Traditionelle.  It has very fine bubbles and has all the character of fine Champagne, but with a barley aftertaste.  It tastes and feels just enough like sparkling wine that it will stump many of your guests and provide a fun, surprise ending to the tasting.  I enjoyed the surprised remarks at our party…


I hope you have as much fun with this as we did.  The group I hosted had a great time.  If your guests enjoy sparkling, this will open their eyes to a world of different, affordable wines.

Best wishes for a wonderful holiday season for you and your family!


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