A Name That Wine Game

May 18, 2006

I played a round of mystery decanter on Saturday night with a group of friends. It’s a game any wine lovers who want to test their name-that-wine skills will enjoy, whether they’re novices or geeks.

Dining outdoors on the patio at the restaurant Angèle, in Napa, six of us enjoyed dinner, working through a 1994 Etienne Sauzet Montrachet (sleek and honeyed, with a mineral edge), a 2004 Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (rich and exotic), a 2003 Cayuse Walla Walla En Chambertin Vineyard Syrah (dense and beefy) and a 2002 Lewis Cuvee L Napa Valley Cabernet (plush and opulent).

Then we ran out of wine.

We called on Angèle’s wine manger, James Darden, to surprise us by picking a wine off the wine list and pouring it to us blind.

Mystery decanter is simply an intellectual and sensory evaluation exercise. It’s best played with several people – six is perfect – and everyone takes their stab at identifying the wine. As you work through the possibilities – grape type, region, appellation even vintage – everyone is allowed to benefit from the collected wisdom. So everyone gets to play to the final verdict, or verdicts.

When Darden poured the red, we all guessed it was likely an old world wine. Most of us figured Southern Rhône.

Medium red garnet in color, it looked like a mature wine. It was lightly aromatic, with spicy floral, beefy mineral and dried currant flavors. We figured late 1990s, maybe a 1998.

When you play this game, it’s OK for the host to let loose with a few clues. So Darden nodded his head when we guessed Southern Rhône, and then honed in on Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

We were pretty confident the wine had some Grenache and Syrah, but of course we were only close. We missed two grapes by a long shot.

When the bottle was revealed, it was a 2002 Grange des Peres from the Languedoc ($135), a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. The color didn’t look like anything from the New World. But it also didn’t taste much like Cabernet, which has a strong personality and often is a giveaway about a wine.

Guessing the wine’s identity, of course, would have been a feather in anyone’s hat. But explaining the reasons why you think a wine is from a certain appellation or made from a certain grape is just as important. So is guessing its age.

Give this a try the next time you’re in the mood for a mind-bending name-that-wine game.

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