When we taste wine, our perceptions are likely be different from those of our friends, even those we usually agree with. Opening a few vintages of a favorite Shiraz for a recent dinner party drove home that message for me.
My friend Mark grilled some skirt steaks and I provided several vintages of Kilikanoon’s oustanding Oracle Shiraz. Made from the estate’s best Clare Valley grapes, the Aussie red had consistently done well in my reviews. This was a chance to open a few older bottles to see how they were developing. For our table of nine, I lined up 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005.
Before the guests arrived, Mark opened the ’01 and ’02. I was busy toasting slices of bread on the grill for bruschetta when I heard his voice.
“The ’01 is fabulous, but the curse strikes again,” he called. “The ’02 is corked.”
“Damn,” I responded. “I really wanted to try that one. Open the ’04 next.”
A pause. “It’s pretty good, but not nearly as good as the ’01.”
I finished scorching the bread and came in to try them myself. I poured a slurp of the ’04. I liked it. Clean and focused, with an understated pulse of blueberry and plum fruit, held firm with fine-grained tannins. Then I tried the ’01. Generous, round, plush in texture, it also had a strong gamy character. Brettanomyces, no doubt, and plenty of it.
The great wine divider had struck again. Nothing separates wine partisans quite so fast as Brett, a spoilage organism that won’t hurt you but carries a range of sweaty, leathery aromas and flavors. You either tolerate it or you don’t. Or you love the complexity it brings to a wine.
I had intended to serve the wines in pairs, the two older wines side by side, then the two younger ones. But the corky ’02 put a damper on that plan. We opened the ’05. We both liked it. It was was richer than the ’04, no hint of Brett. But I also found it simpler.
Mark also opened Alban Syrah Edna Valley Seymour’s Vineyard 2006, which he had just received from the mailing list. What difference. It towered over the Aussie wines, bigger, more alcoholic, more powerful (15.8 percent alcohol on the label, to the Aussies' 14.0-14.5 percent). It thundered, while the Aussie Shirazes sang. So much for Aussie Shiraz as the big bopper.
Over dinner, we poured all four wines and let everyone express an opinion. The votes divided evenly. Two of us preferred the ’01 for its depth, despite the Brett. Another two liked the ’05 for its freshness and youth. Two agreed with me, loving the relative restraint of the ’04. And two more were seduced by the power of the Alban.
Non-blind, I would have rated the ’04 and the Seymour’s the highest at 94 points, but for different reasons, the ’05 the next highest at 92 and the ’01 a much lower score of 83 points because of the Brett. (And that’s another reminder of how to interpret scores. Another taster’s judgments may not reflect your personal preferences.)
With Mark’s marinated and char-grilled steaks, served with a Tuscan bread salad made with heirloom tomatoes, I almost enjoyed drinking the flawed ’01. But I drained my glass of the less opulent ’04. And I ended up not liking the Alban with the steaks. It was impressive on its own, but tasted like brandy with the meat. That was pretty much a universal response at our table.
So, several pieces of conventional wisdom were dashed. Aussie Shiraz is not necessarily the monster in the room. Brett does not kill a wine for everyone, even for excellent tasters. And even a steak likes a more balanced wine.
Vince Liotta — Elmhurst Illinois — August 28, 2009 10:54pm ET
Eli Curi — New York — August 29, 2009 12:31am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — August 29, 2009 1:24am ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento,CA — August 29, 2009 6:55pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — August 29, 2009 7:52pm ET
Ken Baldwin — Angels Camp, CA — August 29, 2009 10:20pm ET
R Eric Feige — Toronto, Ontario — August 30, 2009 10:07am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — August 30, 2009 1:10pm ET
Larry Schaffer — central coast, ca — August 30, 2009 7:26pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — August 30, 2009 8:09pm ET
John Nelson — Dallas, Texas — August 31, 2009 2:52pm ET
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