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nightmare on chardonnay street

by Tom Cannavan, 2001

Make no mistake. This was very tough. Harper's Wine and Spirit Weekly, the magazine of the UK wine trade (and for whom I am a regular columnist) organised a blind tasting of Chardonnay from around the world as part of a seminar entitled "Anything but Chardonnay", held in London.

Until you've tried an exercise like this for yourself, don't mock the poor wine professionals who gathered for the tasting and, according to the results published in Harper's, found the going very arduous indeed. By coincidence, Jancis Robinson speaking on Radio 4's Food Programme a week or two later, said: "I'm so glad I did my Master of Wine exam in 1984. Today I wouldn't stand a chance of identifying where some barrel-fermented or oak-chipped Chardonnay came from".

Tasters were told only that prices of the 32 wines lined-up in random order, ranged from under £5 ($7.50US) to over £20 ($30US). We were given an hour or so to taste the wines and try to guess where they came from, and their retail value (under £5; £5-£10; £10-£15; £15-£20; over £20).

Once the tasting sheets had been handed in, crib-sheets were given out that finally revealed the wines. I thought I'd been pretty dreadful overall, but when Harper's published the full statistics from the event on August 24th, I realised I had been far from disgraced. The tasters comprised 54 wine professionals, including three Masters of Wine, 29 holders of the WSET Diploma, and a further eight who held the WSET Higher Certificate; so 75% had a notable professional wine qualification.

Despite that, according to Harper's, 17 tasters were unable to identify the correct country of origin and price bracket for a single wine. Fifteen tasters did not get the country of origin right for a single wine! The best anyone did, was to get seven all-correct. The table below shows my own scores for the event, and also the average scores for all tasters as revealed by Harper's:

tastercorrect on cost of wine correct on country of origin
Tom C15 out of 32 7 out of 32
overall average8 out of 32 2 out of 32

It looks like my performance was actually pretty good, and on guessing the hemisphere correctly (basically reflecting the Old World/New World divide) I managed a respectable 23 correct out of 32. Having said that, there were a few real cringe moments for me when reviewing my notes I can assure you.

According to the statistics, the most identifiable wine of all was number 17, the Lindemans Bin 65, for which 12 tasters out of the 54 got both country and price correct. The least identifiable was number 8, the Domaine Drouhin from Oregon. Amazingly, only two people out of 54 guessed the price bracket correctly (over £20) and only one guessed the correct country of origin.

This event really did prove Jancis' suspicions to be correct: even for highly-experienced tasters the wine making "formula" is so similar across Old World chardonnay and New, that distinguishing a wine's origins is extremely difficult. Of course, producers in Burgundy's Puligny-Montrachet and Chablis will tell you they do not make "chardonnay", but vins de terroir: wines that are born as much of the soil as the grape. Yet looking at the table below reveals some startling facts: only seven people in total identified a Chablis 1er Cru as even being French, and for a £20 Puligny-Montrachet, only four got the country right.

Of course some people will say the origin of the wine is not so important, and that being able to distinguish a £5 from a £25 wine on perceived quality is far more significant. I managed to do this precisely for half the samples, and was way-out on only one or two. The average scores above also show that tasters were much better on price identification than country, but still, an average of only eight correct guesses at price bracket means that 75% of these wines didn't taste like they cost to these tasters....

Finally, a couple of points should be borne in mind out of this fascinating exercise: results would probably have been better with fewer wines. Thirty-two samples of wines with similar weight and flavour does lead to premature palate fatigue. Focussing towards the end of the session was difficult, and my own accuracy diminished (my two real bloopers were wines 25 and 28). I also felt a few of the wines were served too cold, thus masking some of the character of the more subtle wines. Having said all that, a truly humbling experience for sure!

The table below shows the identity, country and retail price for all 32 wines. The other three columns are: PR=the number who got the price right, CR=the number who got the country right, BR=the number who got both right.

winecountrypricePRCRBR
1. 2000 Jordan, StellenboschSouth Africa£8.991714
2. NV Marc XeroItaly£4.992516
3. 1998 La Bouge Reserve, Au Bon ClimatCalifornia£20240
4. 1998 Chablis GC Bougros, J-M BrocardFrance£19.49251
5. 2000 Deux Roches, Saint-VéranFrance£7.951802
6. 2000 Kumala, Western CapeSouth Africa£4.992536
7. 1997 Stefani Ranch, E&J GalloCalifornia£9.991155
8. 1998 Domaine DrouhinOregon£25210
9. 1999 Bonterra VineyardCalifornia £8.492152
10. 1998 Beaune Clos Mouches, ChansonFrance £30321
11. 2000 James Herrick, VdP d'OcFrance£4.992551
12. 1999 Viognier, YalumbaAustralia£9.991723
13. 1999 Chablis 1er Cru, Montmains, LarocheFrance £13.90016
14. 1999 Reserve, Barrique, MontanaNew Zealand£7.992125
15. 2001 Argento, MendozaArgentina£4.992400
16. 1997 Castillo de Monjardin, UnoakedSpain£6.491500
17. 2000 Bin 65, LindemansAustralia£5.9918412
18. 1998 Meerlust, Estate WineSouth Africa£12.992100
19. 1999 Milmanda, TorresSpain£18.991220
20. 1997 Reserve Carneros, SaintsburyCalifornia£16.501035
21. 1999 Reserve, Shaw & SmithAustralia£14.959101
22. 1998 Isola e Olena, CollezioneItaly £18.621300
23. 2000 TrulliItaly £4.492314
24. 1999 Puligny-Montrachet, Enseignčres, GirardinFrance£19.991522
25. 1998 Yattarna, PenfoldsAustralia £39.99460
26. 2000 Jacob's CreekAustralia £4.991143
27. 2000 Boyar, Shumen RegionBulgaria£3.892104
28. 1999 Antonopoulos CollectionGreece£7.991500
29. 1999 Wild Ferment, ErrázurizChile£9.991222
30. 1996 Eileen Hardy, Hardy'sAustralia£12.991547
31. 1999 Rossj-Bas, GajaItaly£16.77730
32. 1998 Pernand-Vergelesses, JadotFrance£14.991242

My notes follow, exactly as written. I've extracted the three scores from the table above (Price Correct/Country Correct/Both Correct) and quoted these after the wine name.

1. 2000 Jordan, Stellenbosch South Africa £8.99 (17-1-4)
Fresh, lemony nose. Quite buttery with soft malolactic tones. Full, soft palate, sweet fruit. Forward in a new world style, highish alcohol.
Guess: Chile under £5

2. NV Marc Xero Italy £4.99 (25-1-6)
Quite neutral, cool, unoaked nose. Decent pear and apple fruit, a little tropical richness and sweetness on the palate. Dry finish. Decent commercial stuff.
Guess: Chile under £5

3. 1998 La Bouge Reserve, Au Bon Climat California £20 (2-4-0)
More serious style, new oak evident, concentrated toastiness and sweet peach fruit, slightly nutty quality. Straightforward fruit that is buttery and rich. New world I think, though cool climate.
Guess: New Zealand £5-£10

4. 1998 Chablis GC Bougros, J-M Brocard France £19.49 (2-5-1)
Light, cool, restrained apple-fruited nose. Nice notes of apple and pear. Palate has a tart greengage quality and good acidity.
Guess: France £5-£10

5. 2000 Deux Roches, Saint-Véran France £7.95 (18-0-2)
Clean, confected, slightly tanky aromatics. Some ripe apple fruit that is quite rich. Clean and unoaked, there is good sour apple fruit and acidity, though quite modest.
Guess: France under £5

6. 2000 Kumala, Western Cape South Africa £4.99 (25-3-6)
More vegetal, warm climate overripe aromas. Quite cabbagy. Sweet fruit beneath, but rather a sharp, acidic profile in the mouth with plenty of alcohol and no, or little oak. Rather short.
Guess: Chile under £5

7. 1997 Stefani Ranch, E&J Gallo California £9.99 (11-5-5)
Deeper colour, more expensive oak nose. Concentrated and creamy, a touch of bourbon-barrel oak. Big, sweet, and full with a mouthful of peach fruit constrained by good acidity.
Guess: USA £5-£10

8. 1998 Domaine Drouhin Oregon £25 (2-1-0)
Rather neutral, mineral nose. Unoaked or lightly oaked. Lots of clean citrus. Fresh, clean Chablis style. Maybe South Africa? Maybe France?
Guess: France £5-£10

9. 1999 Bonterra Vineyard California £8.49 (21-5-2)
Clean apple and pear fruit that is ripe but elegant. Good quality of fruit here on the palate, very ripe, clean and well-balanced. Sneaks over £10?
Guess: France £10-£15

10. 1998 Beaune Clos Mouches, Chanson France £30 (3-2-1)
Distinctively mineral nose. Rich, with lots of concentration and light oak/barrel fermentation. Burgundy style, a powerful wine but clean.
Guess: France £15-£20

11. 2000 James Herrick, VdP d'Oc France £4.99 (25-5-1)
sweet, clean, lightly tropical nose, just a hint of minerality. Unoaked, or very lightly indeed. Clean and sweet fruit on the palate. Easy drinking and commercial, highish alcohol.
Guess: Chile under £5

12. 1999 Viognier, Yalumba Australia £9.99 (17-2-3)
Particularly distinctive nose. Lots of pear and citrus fruit, then a hint of more lush tropicality. Off-dry and very ripe palate. Very easy going, perhaps finishes a touch short. Unusual style.
Guess: Italy £5-£10

13. 1999 Chablis 1er Cru, Montmains, Laroche France £13.90 (0-1-6)
Softer, more leesy nose with nutty fruit and a little herbal quality, bit quite restrained. The palate is quite full, soft and round with cool peachy fruit and softly persistent acidity.
Guess: Australia £5-£10

14. 1999 Reserve, Barrique, Montana New Zealand £7.99 (21-2-5)
Some vanillin new oak, buttery, citrus flavours with sweet peach and apricot fruit. A soft commercial style with not much structure but good fruit. VdP?
Guess: Argentina under £5

15. 2001 Argento, Mendoza Argentina £4.99 (24-0-0)
Sweet, almost confected aromatics. Cool-fermentation new world style winemaking. Distinctly sweet pear and apricot fruit, highish alcohol again.
Guess: France under £5

16. 1997 Castillo de Monjardin, Unoaked Spain £6.49 (15-0-0)
Some buttery, lightly vegetal aromas. A bit of mineral quality and some fullish melon fruit, apple acidity quite broad acidity. Finish is quite long and concentrated.
Guess: New Zealand £5-£10

17. 2000 Bin 65, Lindemans Australia £5.99 (18-4-12)
Clean, bright, pure fruit. Lightly toffeed sweetness to orchard fruits. Lightly-oaked with sweet peach, toffee and tropical fruit. Clear new world style, good balance. Australia or Chile.
Guess: Chile £5-£10

18. 1998 Meerlust, Estate Wine South Africa £12.99 (21-0-0)
Deeper gold with toasty French oak aromas. Very sweet and honeyed fruit, but a little suggestion of mineral. Luscious fruit and rich mouthfeel, quite concentrated and good balance.
Guess: France £10-£15

19. 1999 Milmanda, Torres Spain £18.99 (12-2-0)
Straight back into the mineral spectrum with white fruits nose and rather tart, citrus and stony fruit. Decent stuff, with some nice subtle class, but a bit one-dimensional.
Guess: France £5-£10

20. 1997 Reserve Carneros, Saintsbury California £16.50 (10-3-5)
Glowing golden colour. Big, sweet, butterscotch and fudge oak nose. Luscious nectarine fruit. Palate has juicy tropical pineapple and guava and richness with moderate acidity. Classy Chilean?
Guess: Chile £5-£10

21. 1999 Reserve, Shaw & Smith Australia £14.95 (9-10-1)
Crisp, sprightly mineral and citrus nose. Quite a gravelly character that is stony and tight. Nice palate, with good lemon fruit and a hint of peach. Nice balance with good acidity and length.
Guess: South Africa £5-£10

22. 1998 Isola e Olena, Collezione Italy £18.62 (13-0-0)
Pleasant nose of lightly nutty, toffeed peach fruit. The palate is quite modest and restrained, with sweet fruit and creamy oak background. A little one-dimensional perhaps, but good.
Guess: France £10-£15

23. 2000 Trulli Italy £4.49 (23-1-4)
Lightly toffeed, confected commercial nose; a little tanky. Crisp citrus and mineral fruit, a bit undistinguished against previous wines.
Guess: France less than £5

24. 1999 Puligny-Montrachet, Enseignčres, Girardin France £19.99 (15-2-2)
Slightly dirty, Burgundian nose. Citrus and white fruit aromas. The palate is fresh with lemony fruit and still that slightly dirty background. £10 Burgundy.
Guess: France £5-£10

25. 1998 Yattarna, Penfolds Australia £39.99 (4-6-0)
Neutral nose with subdued citrus fruit. Palate is tight and citrussy, not giving much. Modest fruit has a peachy edge and there's quite high alcohol. Very pleasant stuff.
Guess: Argentina under £5
Ouch - I was one of six to guess this as a sub-£5 wine according to Harper's. Even more surprising is that only four people guessed this to be in the over £20 category, so 50 thought it worth less - this was easily the most expensive wine of the tasting at almost £40 ($60US). I had also tasted this wine recently and really loved it. I think a combination of being served too cold and a certain amount of palate fatigue by this stage are my best excuses!

26. 2000 Jacob's Creek Australia £4.99 (11-4-3)
Cool-ferment, neutral, quite fruity nose. Modest apple and melon fruit. The palate is balanced and has good, sweetish fruit and generous acidity.
Guess: Australia under £5

27. 2000 Boyar, Shumen Region Bulgaria £3.89 (21-0-4)
Again, in the unoaked, mineral, even nettly spectrum. Very modest palate of pear and apple, quite clean and well-honed, with some elegance.
Guess: South Africa under £5

28. 1999 Antonopoulos Collection Greece £7.99 (15-0-0)
Almost salty mineral tang on the nose. Plenty of citrus fruit and quite concentrated. Quality here. Focused, tight, pure fruit into a long finish.
Guess: France over £20

29. 1999 Wild Ferment, Errázuriz Chile £9.99 (12-2-2)
Nicely vegetal, rich, buttery nose with lots of character. Sweet, nutty fruit. On the palate good body and a creamy sweetness, high alcohol again.
Guess: Chile £5-£10

30. 1996 Eileen Hardy, Hardy's Australia £12.99 (15-4-7)
Very deep gold. Moderate but quite classy nose with almond, butter and honeyed nuances. Palate is slightly under-powered and it turns a bit lean. Older, now slightly fragile new world wine?
Guess: Chile £5-£10

31. 1999 Rossj-Bas, Gaja Italy £16.77 (7-3-0)
Some smoky, charry French oak and mineral quality. Decent citrussy fruit with hints of hazelnut and peach. Pleasant palate with good fruit that is ripe and integrated with gentle but keen acidity. Very fine.
Guess: France £15-£20

32. 1998 Pernand-Vergelesses, Jadot France £14.99 (12-4-2)
Odd nose here - salt, tangerine and mineral. Is this chardonnay? Plate is cool and very mineral. Quite unusual but a chewy, savoury quality and good length. Something out of the ordinary.
Guess: Switzerland £10-£15

A final thanks to Tim Atkin and the team at Harper's for organising this terrific event, and for allowing me to reproduce the table of scores above. Harper's is a weekly publication, and an annual subscription costs £115. Contact subs@harpers-wine.com.