Blind tasting is difficult. It can be very, very difficult. And that’s when you have a clue about what you’re tasting. A so-called “single blind” tasting where you might know the grape type but nothing else. Recently, I had the privilege of taking part in a very interesting experiment. But let’s step back a little.
It’s not unusual that samples arrive at my office, even ones I’m not expecting. But when the bottles below showed up with little mentioned about them, I became very intrigued. 6 bottles, each holding about 2.5 ounces each. 6 animal labels. What in the world was going on?
Here’s what I was told.
“You are regarded as a premier taster and writer on the wines of Tuscany. As such, you have tasted many Brunello and many Vino Nobile, but may not have done so side by side. Please accept this invitation to taste these wines and make notes as you normally would. When you are done, please send us your notes along with a ranking of the wines in order of your preference. Then we will tell you what you have tasted.”
I reached out to the person I suspected was my mysterious benefactor and he confirmed that indeed he sent the wines. He only confirmed one thing for me: They were all Tuscan and that’s it. He told me they were carefully bottled using an inert gas system that would preserve the wines. With that knowledge in hand, off I went.
Blind Tasting Animal Wines
As my readers know, normally when I review a wine I taste it both on its own and with dinner. In this case, given the small amount of wine provided, I tasted only with food. Secondly, none of the bottles were decanted per se. However, I did pour them into a large stem and allowed them to sit for 30 minutes or so before dinner. Finally, due to the small sample available, I could not evaluate the wine over an extended period to see how it evolved. Therefore, I provided a range of scores.
The Bird: Deep ruby with some trending violet hues. Shy nose at first, but with swirling and air, red cherries are revealed. Ripe on the palate with sour cherry, iron, mineral and medium weight tannins that are dusty. Sapid flavors are juicy and round, but this has a hint of over ripeness. I’m sensing this is a wine with ABV at or above 15%. Needs time to develop more complexity and flesh out the tannins which turn slightly bitter on the finish. 88-91 points. Guess: 2016 Vino Nobile, at least 90% Sangiovese.
The Butterfly: Deep ruby throughout. The nose is rather odd with medicinal and acetone notes that dominate and are off putting. Flawed? On the palate this is fruity, round and forward. Tannins are fairly mild. Smooth, ripe red cherry notes are accented by spices. There’s a hint of dark plum here that lends lushness to the wine. Primary all the way. 89-92 points if you can get past the nose. Guess: 2016 Vino Nobile with a component of Merlot in the blend. I let some of the wine sit for 45 minutes more in the glass and the odd aroma never dissipated.
The Sheep: Medium ruby that fades a bit toward iodine at the rim. Raspberry and vanilla mark the nose which is very primary but attractive nonetheless. On the palate this is fresh, juicy and lively. Ripe cherry fruit is sapid and mouthwatering with spice, vanilla and toasted tobacco notes. Tannins very well integrated and somewhat dusty. Really pretty wine in a more modern style. Reminds me of something like Pacenti Brunello Pelagrilli. 91-93 points. Guess: 2016 Brunello di Montalcino.
The Bumblebee: Deep ruby throughout. Wild cherry and menthol notes on the nose lead to a bit of spice. Medium weight cherry and iron on the palate. Somewhat austere. Dried herbs and cigarette tobacco emerge but the tannins here are drying. It’s a bit charry. The finish is shortened quite a bit. Needs time to see better days. 87-89 points. Guess: 2016 Vino Nobile, 100% Sangiovese.
The Dog: Deep ruby throughout. Really attractive nose of crushed cherry, spice and fresh herbs. On the palate, the wine is round and spicy with savory cherry fruit and hints of cured olive. Full bodied with medium weight tannins. Needs some time to flesh out. 90-92 points. Guess: 2016 Brunello di Montalcino.
The Rabbit: Deep ruby throughout. Maybe the darkest of all the wines. Very shy on the nose. Berry, Asian spices and little else emerge. On the palate, it’s more giving with sweet, ripe, juicy red fruits that are lively and fresh. Fleshy with lots of silky tannin. Could really be a stunner in a few years. It doesn’t quite feel like 100% Sangiovese. 91-94 points. Guess: 2016 Vino Nobile from a Cru Vineyard.
With the tastings completed, I sent my notes in along with the ranking below which was not necessarily indicative of the score ranges, but of how I preferred the wines. Now, I have to note that many of the score ranges overlap (for example the Butterfly and the Sheep) so this ranking was very difficult to finalize. It’s also a “snap shot” in time because as you will see, I had a slightly higher score for the Rabbit, but ranked the Sheep ahead of it. Furthermore, the overall score range was very tight; from 87-94 points.
The Sheep (91-93)
The Rabbit (91-94)
The Dog (90-92)
The Butterfly (89-92)
The Bird (88-91)
The Bumblebee (87-89)
So, how did I do? I was prepared to be humbled. I was prepared to be sandbagged. I kept thinking, there’s a Chianti Classico in here. Or, they’re really all Vino Nobile or they’re all Brunello. My mind was racing to a bunch of possible scenarios but I went with my knowledge, my palate and my gut.
I was told that this little experiment, meant only to be a fun game, was sent to 30 wine professionals around the globe from New Zealand to North America. All of the wines were from the 2016 vintage and all were 100% Sangiovese or at least declared as such.
From my benefactor: “You were one of the very few (if not the only one) who’s listed the 3 Brunellos ahead of the Nobiles, but some people did just the opposite. According to our study, most of the tasters could not accurately tell the difference between the two wines. I must say your palate has been pretty sharp, which shows that you have many hours of flight over Tuscan wines.”
The Verdict: I correctly guessed 5 of the 6 wines. I identified all three of the Vino Nobile and 2 of the Brunello. I talked myself out of naming the final wine a Brunello, which it was. Here’s what the wines actually were juxtaposed alongside my preferential ranking.
The Sheep (91-93) 2016 Ciacci Piccolomini Brunello
The Rabbit (91-94) 2016 Casanova di Neri Brunello (this is the only wine I guessed incorrectly)
The Dog (90-92) 2016 Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello
The Butterfly (89-92) 2016 Dei Madonna delle Querce Vino Nobile
The Bird (88-91) 2016 Poliziano Le Caggiole Vino Nobile
The Bumblebee (87-89) 2016 Boscarelli Costa Grande Vino Nobile
All three Vino Nobile were previously tasted in various parts of my recent coverage. I have linked the “Reveal” scores back to my original reviews. 2 of the 3 wines tasted here had score ranges below were I had them in my original coverage. What I think that illustrates is that enjoying a full bottle over a longer period of time yields a better result. Whether decanted or not, it allows for more evolution, further development of aromatics and even changes to the texture of a wine. I don’t think that can be discounted.
Despite a clear preference for the Brunello, it should be observed that all of the wines were enjoyable. Further, I incorrectly assessed the highest scoring wine as a Vino Nobile. I implore my readers to open your minds and taste. No one is a bigger champion for Montalcino than I am. Yet it may be equally true that no one is a louder advocate for Vino Nobile. Why? As I was recently told – to my significant surprise – “Can you believe that NO producer from Montepulciano has been able to produce, at least once, a wine worth more than 95 points over the last few decades?” To me, that reflects a simple prejudice from the mainstream press. It is certainly not my belief. In my recent coverage, there were 8-10 wines I rated at 95 or higher and many more at 94 points. So again, this is one of the reasons I started Tuscan Vines in the first place. Don’t fixate on scores. Learn the styles of wines. Understand the producer’s goals. Align your palate with someone you trust – hopefully me! – and then open your mind and taste as much as you can.
I simply want to thank my benefactor for including me in this exercise, whose results across the globe were scattered “into a static mess”. I continue to assert that wine is personal preference and quality is not an absolute, but a subjective measurement of pleasure.