Wine evaluation, the process...
Wednesday, May 27, 2009 at 1:57PM
off the vine
By: John Michael - the “winey brit” for OTV  When I taste wines critically there are a few steps I go through, all of which I feel are necessary to get a clear and thorough picture. 
1. Blind Tasting the wines
2. Drinking the wine with food (preferably also with company)
3. Re-tasting the wines when they have been open for a while, preferably 24 hrs
To start off the wines have to be tasted blind. Everything on the label (the producer, the appellation, the vineyard, the varietal, even the alcohol) will alter your opinion and make it impossible to come to a fair conclusion. I don’t even like to pour my own blind tasting wines with the wine in a paper bag. If I notice the wine has a screw top or I can feel the shape of the bottle is Burgundy or Bordeaux it will alter my judgment.
I begin my tasting in the morning, pre-coffee, pre-toothpaste, just a few sips of water and off we go.  I hope that not many of you would enjoy waking up and diving into young red wine on an empty stomach, but for the best analysis this is the way to go. The body is hungry, senses are at their peak and the mind is at it’s most flexible. Remember in high school, how the SAT’s or any other analytical test is given first thing in the morning: it’s for a reason. 
Wine 1: Clear, and fairly bright (maybe filtered or at least fined) with a young purple color fading toward a slightly orange tinged ruby red in the rim. Medium viscosity with no color to the tears (at this point I’m thinking Pinot but trying to keep an open mind).  The nose is clean with medium intensity and expressing a young fruit driven character dominated by black fruit; cherry and current, followed by bright raspberry and even a slight herbaceous raspberry leaf amplified by eucalyptus. 
On the palate the red fruit takes over, the slight herbal notes play a subtle second fiddle. Not a lot wood or earth flavors (by this point I’ve ruled out any chance that this is old world). There are chalky slightly astringent tannins, medium high but balanced acidity and a bit hot on the finish (I always try to guess the alcohol this one I put at around 14.2%). The finish is short to medium and over all the wine has average complexity. 
So for the initial conclusion this is definitely a new world wine from the bright fruit forward style it’s from a fairly warm climate with cool enough nights to preserve the acidity and maintain balance. If this isn’t a Pinot I think I’ll quit right now and go back to school and be a lawyer or something. The age range seems to be around two to four. I end up going with a Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot of medium quality from the ’06 vintage. The wine is Mahoney Vineyards, Pinot Noir “Las Brisas Vineyard”, Carneros 2006. So all around I feel pretty good. I’m generally not a big fan of Carneros Pinot. A lot of them are wimpy with off putting green notes and just too lean. The alcohol turns out to be 14.5%, I have had Pinots this high, and sometimes higher, that are able to maintain balance this one is a little on the hot side but overall a well made wine that seems like it will improve with a couple more years in the bottle.
Wine 2: Slightly cloudy (definitely not filtered), purple extending all the way to the rim, high concentration and high viscosity. It smells young and expressive with lots of red, black and blue fruit. Particularly blueberry cobbler and raspberry jam followed by a slight mochaccino. The palate confirms the nose all round. The fruit is so expressive I would almost want to call it off dry, the blueberry cobbler is the one thong that seems to keep on popping up. It’s not just fruit there is also a meaty backbone to lend some structure to the body. The tannins are low/med, the acid is medium and the alcohol is medium high (I guess around 14.5%). The finish is a little short, but overall this is a fairly complex, balanced well-made wine. 
This is definitely a new world wine, probably US from a warm climate, still fairly young in the 2-3 yr window. It doesn’t have any of the hall marks of the usual suspects so I’m guessing it is one of the myriad other varietals grown in CA. In the end I go with a Lodi Barbera 2006 of medium/high quality. The wine revealed is A Donkey & Goat Mourvedre “The Prospector” 2007. I don’t feel bad for missing a mourvedre, it’s a fairly uncommon varietal, thinking back though the purple color with no rim variation should have been a tip off that this was an ’07 vs. an ’06 as I had surmised. The wines of the Sierra Foothills all seem to have a deep intense character, which this one shows in bucket loads. It’s aged in a neutral oak 500L Hungarian puncheon for 12 months and the alcohol turned out to be a reasonable 14.2%.
Wine 3: Visually this one was slightly cloudy, day bright, purple with no rim variation, highly concentrated, medium/high viscosity with color in the tears (another fairly young big red). The nose confirms the youth with medium intensity mostly black fruit, black berry and cassis. There is slight touch of greenness, a little of the trademark green bell pepper which points squarely toward the cabernet varietals. When tasted the picture continues to develop. The fruit is upfront, like the last wine I would call this dry too off-dry. But after the fruit there is a little tobacco, a touch of dust, a whiff of tobacco. Coming back to the fruit, the gamut of flavors extend from the slightly under ripe green notes already mentioned, some bright ripe black fruit flavors and even at the other end of the spectrum a little pruneyness. Usually when confronted with such a broad spectrum of fruit ripeness I tend to think of a blend. Though this can also be caused by uneven ripeness in the vineyard or different harvesting times.  The tannins are medium/high, acid is medium, alcohol is under control around 14.2% and it has a medium length finish.
So this is definitely a new world wine from a warm climate it certainly seems to be Bordeaux varietals particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are strong contenders and the age is around three too five years. My final conclusion is a Meritage, Oakville 2005 of medium quality. The wine is Sawyer Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford ’05, it retails for about $50 that seems like a good price for a good Napa Cab that has everything one could hope for from the ’05 vintage. The ‘05s are not as super rich as the ‘04s but they have great structure and often a greater range of flavors plus overall they are more age worthy wines.  The alcohol is a nice easy 14.1 %, it’s nice to see more Napa vintners brining the heat down in Cabs.
So with the blind tasting done (the whole process took a total of 20 minutes for the three wines) I get on with the rest of my day all the time quietly pondering what’s for dinner. I’m not really bothered with finding the perfect match for the three wines, with such a wide range that would be an exercise in futility. Rather I want a middle of the road dish with a range of flavors and textures to see how the wines will react. I end up deciding on grilled pork tenderloin with mignonette of pepper, risotto, southern style red chard (think vinegar and ham hock), cream reduction sage sauce and a few sprigs of crispy fried sage on top as a garnish. 
Before dinner I re-taste the wines, it’s been about 10 hrs and expect a little development in all of them. The Pinot is now more red fruit dominated, slightly raisiny, a bit smoky, fairly smooth. It is definitely on the hot side and the fine sandy mouth coating tannins are reminiscent of green tea. The Mourvedre is now explosively fruity, loads of blueberry cobbler, raspberry jelly; the palate is juicy and satisfying. This is the kind of wine that does not need food and it could even act as a distraction. Sawyers Cabernet has developed nicely. The bell pepper and smoky tobacco have moved up front which tends to happen as Cabs age (in general as wines age the fruit flavors fall away and one is left with the undertones, which some find more compelling) but the blackberry/cassis is still there.
As we eat dinner I make a point of trying each wine with each ingredient and examine the result. Normally rich foods like the sauce and risotto coat the palate and reduce the effect of fruit. The Pinot is negated by the richness with the fruit gone it seems like there is not much left also in the case of the risotto the combination of the starch and the sandy tannins work in conjunction to leave the mouth quite chalky. The Mourvedre welcomes the lightening of the fruit and seems much more supple. The Cab is actually less vegetal the black fruit comes through nicely with the risotto and the sauce is a sensational combination that seems to create subtleties in both the wine and the food that don’t exist in either tasted when alone. The acid in the chard robs the wines of there own acidity for the Pinot it brightens the fruit and negates the tannins. The Mourvedre is made flabby and the fruit seems overwhelming. In the case of the Cabernet the greenness actually enhances the vegetal/bell pepper flavor. The pork’s savory pepperyness seems to work with everything, killing the tannins in the pinot and hanging on the palate to make the wines taste as if they have a subtle spice all of there own. Surprisingly I find that my favorite wine with dinner is the Mourvedre. The Pinot is mostly negated or flat. The Cabernet creates some really interesting taste combinations but overall I find it a little distracting. The Mourvedre acts as an ingredient in the dish adding some refreshing fruitiness in the same way as lingonberry jam with Swedish Meatballs, cranberry sauce with roast turkey or apple sauce with pork chops.

It would not be fair to use the food pairings in the final analysis of the wines. Had I chosen a different dish it would have had a different effect on the wines. This said it is necessary step in the analysis of wine. Wine is not consumed in a vacuum, it’s necessary to see how it holds up with food and company, it’s true niche. 
The last step for me in the process is tasting the wines the next day. This gives me valuable insight into how the wines will change over time. It wasn’t easy but I was able to save a little over a half bottle of each wine till the next morning. Mahoney’s Pinot is noticeably less tannic the slight tea flavor that before was apparent on the finish has now moved up to be more noticeable on the nose. There is pretty red and black fruit, it’s still a bit to hot for me on the palate but overall I’m a still impressed by this Carneros Pinot. With the Mourvedre it’s a different story the fruit has gone leaving more herbaceous notes it’s flat on the palate and has definitely dropped off. The Caberent has continued to evolve nicely the bell pepper is still evident, along with the black fruit and a new slightly floral hint, it’s smooth and juicy on the palate with a toasty finish.
So after all of that my tasting notes for the three wines are:

Mahoney Vineyards, Pinot Noir “Las Brisas Vineyard”, Carneros 2006 
A lovely array of bright cherry, prune, smoke and green tea with a full, smooth mouth feel. Ends a tad on the hot side which kind of kills the finish, but still one of the best Carneros pinots I have tasted in years which gives me hope for the AVA.  91 points. Drink 2010-2012.

A Donkey & Goat Mourvedre “The Prospector” 2007
A big fruity blockbuster of a wine. Huge blueberry cobble, raspberry jam aromas flow from the nose to the palate creating the kind of full rich and juicy tasting experiences that can only be described as Yummy!
88 points. Drink now-2010.
Sawyer Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford 2005
A good example of the great 2005 vintage. Everything I like in a Napa Cabernet. It’s all there: Cassis, blackberry, cigar box, a touch of bell pepper. A full satisfying velvety mouth feel with enough acid to age and go with food and not to much alcohol. 89 points. Drink now-2013.
Article originally appeared on off the vine magazine (
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