One of the most uncomfortable situations experienced by those of us involved in the wine industry is being confronted by a friend or acquaintance with a glass-of-something in his or her hand held in your direction. “Come on, tell me what this is?” he or she would say with a gleeful leer. You are supposed to be the wine expert. You are supposed to identify the contents in the glass.
I usually wing it, having a general stab in the direction of the glass’s possible contents, before trying to steer the conversation in another direction. “Do you have a sample without Brett? It might make things fairer,” is always a winner, getting the interrogator to talk about something else and forgetting the challenge they’d set.
Identifying a glass of wine unsighted is not easy ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ ask any Platter Guide taster. And witnessing peoples’ brave attempts to do so can be very exciting when they get it spot on. When they stuff it up, however, it can be very amusing or embarrassing, depending on the reputation of the stuffer-upper.
In 2005 I was hosting a tasting for a Canadian journalist in Stellenbosch’s Decameron restaurant with Nicloette Waterford, then CEO of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes. Andr+¬ Morgenthal, Wosa culinary consultant, waltzed in mid-way through the tasting, randomly picking up a glass from the line-up. After a sniff, swirl and gargle he asked me why we were subjecting the journalist to the usual run-of-the-mill Cabernet line-up.
It just so happened that all the wines were Pinotage-heavy Cape Blends, all the rage at the time and on the Canadian’s to-do-list.
Michael Fridjhon, television supermarket wine promoter and convener of roving wine shows, also produced a howler at the launch of Haskell Wines a few years back. At the lunch Haskell’s chrome-domed mouthpiece Grant Dodd had attendees blind-tasting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. When he asked who thought a particular wine was from the New World, Fridjhon put up his hand and said it was from New Zealand.
Non. Pas de New Zealand. C?+¦???+¦?+¦????tes de Beaune, monsieur. Only 18,000km difference, but close.
Seeing people spot wines correctly, however, is a joy to behold and truly inspirational.
As a member of the Wine Swines, a male-only wine club that was founded just after the rinderpest, I have had the pleasure of watching true masters at work, employing their vinous hard-drive to identify grape varieties, regions, vintages and producers. It is all awesome.
Currently the two best “spotters” in my book are Gyles Webb and Jeremy Walker. Okay, we Swines are sworn to secrecy about club events, but I will divulge the fact that Webb and Walker have amazing palates or amazing memories or ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ probably ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ both.
Brazilian Cabernet Franc. New Zealand Merlot. Italian Chardonnay. Loire Pinot Noir. They’ll more often than not spot them.
Outside of Swines there is one Danie de Wet. Myself and his sons, Peter and Johann, often put him on the spot with a blind bottle of something. (The De Wetshof Vinoteque has plenty of these, as does my cellar.)
When approaching a blind glass, the first thing Danie tells you is the soil in which the vineyards were grown. Always with a modest “well, that’s what I think”. From soil it will be New or Old World, then variety, then region. I have yet to see Danie not make it to the “region” stage. And when you get to Germany and Alsace, this is very tricky.
The other say at De Wetshof, however, Peter de Wet pulled a fast one. The blind glass was deemed to be Pinot Noir. Then Robertson. But damn, Danie could not go further. “What I don’t understand is that I think this is Pinot Noir from Robertson, but the wine is more than 15 years old ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ before Pinot was made here.”
He nodded towards Peter. “Put me out of my misery.” The wine revealed: De Wetshof Pinotage 1973, a wine Danie had made himself in an experimental batch. Forgotten about.
We have a great expression for this in Afrikaans: “Slim vang sy baas.”
And in wine, it always will. Always.