I completely misjudged a wine in a blind tasting recently. I'm blaming my mistake on the temperature.
I was visiting friends, and we were eating outside on a lovely summer evening. The host, who has an enviable cellar, brought out a red wine in a decanter and, telling me nothing at all about the bottle, asked for my opinion.
Incidentally, I find this kind of casual blind tasting both fun and frustrating. Fun because it's a challenge to my sensory acuity and taste memories and an opportunity to be a hero, even if I just get close. But frustrating too, because wines are so complex that, without some kind of context, it's really hard to make sense of those indistinct sensory inputs.
Think about it: You can probably find your way from your own bed to the bathroom without turning on the lights at night, because you know where the furniture is. But try doing it in a hotel. Odds are you're going to stub your toe.
Which I proceeded to do with this wine.
There was probably a difference of 30 degrees between the cellar temperature and the outdoor air temperature, and the decanter immediately fogged up when my host set it on the table. He poured the wine into the glass, and it was dark, but looked a bit brown around the edges. So my first impression was of an older vintage, maybe 20 or 30 years old.
There wasn't much to the nose, just a few whiffs of mushroom and leather. The wine was cold on my tongue, and that coolness stiffened the tannins and stifled the fruit, such as it was. Mostly, I tasted more leather. "Dead soldier," I muttered. Unfortunately, my friend overheard me, and took umbrage.
"You're supposed to be the expert?" he asked. "And you don't even recognize Unico 1968?"
Dang. Only one of the greatest Spanish reds ever made, according to most experts. Unico is the flagship wine from Bodegas Vega Sicilia, one of the oldest and most prestigious wineries in Spain, located in the Ribera del Duero region. Distinctive, noble and long-lived, the wine is a blend of local Tempranillo with some Cabernet Sauvignon and other grapes, long-aged in American oak before release. The 1968 is currently selling at auction for an average of more than $1,300 per bottle.
Now, I've been fortunate enough to taste many vintages of Vega Sicilia (though never the 1968). It's difficult to evaluate when first released, because it's subtle, not flashy, and though it always has depth and concentration, its primary virtues are harmony and balance. So it's easy to underestimate.
In this case, many factors contributed to my underestimating the wine. First was its character. Second was the lack of context—how can you realize that a wine is incredibly young for its age, for example, if you have no idea how old it is? But most important, I think, was the temperature. The cold just suffocated it, especially as it was stretching and catching its breath after so many years trapped in cask and bottle.
Because as the wine warmed up, it unwound. It became more expressive, and more complex. Even the color seemed to deepen. After 20 minutes, when it reached a temperature of what felt like the low 70s, the red was simply gorgeous. The mushroomy notes disappeared. The leather was still there, but it was joined by spice, cedar, black tea, tar, fresh earth and a pure, sweet core of delicious ripe black cherries. It was both muscular and ethereal, articulate and unique. All the guests at the table fought over the last few drops.
Next time, I'll be more patient before I express an opinion. And I'll make sure that the temperature has risen enough to allow the wine's character to show its best.
Chris A Elerick — Orlando, FL — August 16, 2010 3:48pm ET
Jeffrey Ghi — New York — August 16, 2010 3:57pm ET
Thomas Matthews — New York City — August 16, 2010 4:13pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — August 16, 2010 5:24pm ET
Thomas Matthews — New York City — August 16, 2010 5:25pm ET
Jo Cooke — Tuscany — August 16, 2010 5:27pm ET
Paul Manchester — Santa Cruz, CA — August 16, 2010 5:57pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — August 16, 2010 11:48pm ET
Hoyt Hill Jr — Nashville, TN — August 17, 2010 3:46am ET
Thomas Matthews — New York City — August 17, 2010 8:35am ET
Paul Manchester — Santa Cruz, CA — August 17, 2010 12:45pm ET
Thomas Matthews — New York City — August 17, 2010 1:09pm ET
Stephen Levin — philadelphia, pa — August 17, 2010 4:02pm ET
Howard G Goldberg — New York, N.Y. — August 17, 2010 9:38pm ET
Louis Robichaux — Highland Village, Texas — August 17, 2010 10:18pm ET
Merlin Guggenheim — Zurich, Switzerland — August 18, 2010 4:12pm ET
Jeffrey Ghi — New York — August 18, 2010 9:04pm ET
Thomas Matthews — New York City — August 19, 2010 9:40am ET
Paul Manchester — Santa Cruz, CA — August 19, 2010 1:09pm ET
Dave Hursey — Chicago — August 19, 2010 2:02pm ET
Louis Robichaux — Highland Village, Texas — August 19, 2010 2:24pm ET
Merlin Guggenheim — Zurich, Switzerland — August 19, 2010 3:17pm ET
Joseph Kane — Austin — August 19, 2010 4:27pm ET
Thomas Matthews — New York City — August 19, 2010 5:00pm ET
Jeffrey Ghi — New York — August 20, 2010 4:04pm ET
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