What Would You Think If ... ?
By Matt Kramer, columnist
One of the best wine games I know--although really, it's more than that--is "What would I think this wine was if I didn't already know what it was?" It's a useful form of self-calibration, a kind of internal honesty that, if you play fair, makes you think twice and get past label lust.
The odd part about this "What would you think this wine was?" game is that it's worth playing even when you're actually tasting wines blind. Here's an example.
Not long ago I was invited to a pretty high-end tasting composed of nothing but multiple vintages of Musigny, one of Burgundy's most illustrious grand cru vineyards. All the wines--except for a couple of ringers--were from Musigny's most famous producer, Comte Georges de Vogüé. This is a wine that fetches more than $200 a bottle for the latest vintage. It's a regular auction item and a lot of people's idea of a "trophy" wine.
The host of this tasting served nine vintages' worth of Vogüé Musigny: 1980, '85, '88, '89, '91, '92, '93, '94 and '95. That's a good sampling of great and not-so-great vintages. All the wines were served blind, in random order.
Now, you can learn all sorts of things in a blind tasting--humility first among them. But something else stood out, something not so flattering to either the wines or the assembled tasters. Put bluntly, it was this: Almost no one questioned the worthiness of the wines. After all, it was Musigny from Comte Georges de Vogüé, and that ought to suffice.
During the tasting, opinions--guesses, really--were offered about which vintage a wine might be. We each liked one wine more than another, depending on our preferences. But perhaps the single most important exercise, the key question, was not asked: If I didn't know what this wine was, what would I think it was?
Too often, all of us--present company most definitely included--are swayed by a vineyard's or producer's pedigree. We're deferential. We say that, well, maybe we don't know enough (this is plausible). Or that maybe the wine needs more time (possible but not likely). Or that it's all a matter of taste (nonsense). Never is this more at work than when we're tasting expensive and acclaimed wines.
Yet the "What would I think?" game has to be played. And when this taster, anyway, played it against that lineup of hallowed Musigny bottlings, my conclusion was depressing. With the exception of the 1993 vintage--which was really good--I never would have thought that any of the other wines I tasted were even of grand cru level, let alone Musigny.
This is not as intellectual an exercise as you might imagine. And it doesn't require as much tasting experience as you might expect. True, it does help to have a background. But a grand cru red Burgundy from a great vintage--or even a not-so-great year--doesn't require any groping around in the backseat. It's thrilling from the get-go. A truly great wine is supposed to be thrilling. Anyone lucky enough to have tasted Domaine Leroy's 1995 Musigny will know before the wine hits the back of your mouth that it's got to be a grand cru.
Lest you think I'm picking on Vogüé, keep in mind that they own a whacking two-thirds of the Musigny vineyard, which, by Burgundy's standards, is phenomenal. So there are no excuses for anything less than exacting rigor--on their part as well as ours.
"Does the Emperor give goose bumps--or have them?" That's the, er, naked truth. And it applies--or ought to, anyway--to a slew of wines today. The thrills ought to be real, not imagined. After all, we're paying plenty for just that.
So next time you're tasting an expensive, acclaimed wine, remember to ask (silently if you prefer): "If I didn't know what this wine was, what would I think it was?" You may find that you don't like your own answer.
This may be one of the reasons why the game isn't played more. The fact is, too many of today's wines--cult California Cabernets, fancy Italian bottlings, high-ticket Bordeaux and Burgundies--simply aren't that good. You can't interrogate them too closely, not unless you're braced for unpleasant truths. It's far better to "dream" your wines, especially if you've already paid for them.
But if you're unflinching, stand by your suspicions. Chances are, they're right.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from columnist Matt Kramer, in a column also appearing in the May 31 issue of Wine Spectator. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
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