What Am I Tasting?

This brooding, briary mystery red has notes of cherry, sage and pepper. Take a guess!

August 09, 2019

Our blind tasting game—without the tasting! Can you identify a wine just by reading its tasting note? We post real Wine Spectator reviews. You use clues such as color, aromas, flavors and structure to figure out the grape, age and origin. Good luck!

Tasting Note: Brooding and appealingly briary, with dark cherry, fresh sage and smoked pepper flavors that persist toward broad-shouldered tannins.

And the answer is...


What could this brooding, briary red be? Let's take a look at our options and start narrowing them down.

Merlot can go. While these wines show dark berry fruit and herbal notes too, their structure tends to be more supple, as opposed to brooding and broad-shouldered. Smoked pepper is a little off as well.

Pinot Noir is also not a great fit, as it tends to be more delicate and light in body and structure, showing fresh red fruit notes as opposed to dark, briary and brooding ones.

While Sangiovese can have prominent structures like our wine, as well as dark cherry flavors, you might expect a little more red fruit to show up in a tasting note, such as raspberry and strawberry. Additionally, the Italian variety typically exhibits dried herbs and spice flavors, as opposed to the fresh herbs we see in our wine, and Sangiovese also shows earthy notes.

Tannat generally shows both red and dark fruit flavors, with ample spice and smoky notes and a solid tannic grip. However, the grape's signature dark chocolate, licorice and baking spice notes are missing, and its fruit profile can rarely be characterized as briary.

Zinfandel, on the other hand, is known for being briary, as well as showing red and dark fruit, fresh herbs, and intense peppery notes. The wines are full-bodied and can also have particularly firm tannins.

This wine is a Zinfandel.

Country or Region of Origin

There are no significant plantings of Zinfandel in Oregon, Uruguay or Washington, so we can rule them out.

DNA research shows that Zinfandel is genetically almost identical to the Primitivo variety, grown in Italy, where it shows much more black and blue fruit and less fresh herbs than our mystery wine.

Zinfandel is often referred to as "California's heritage grape," and the state is where a large majority of the variety's vines are planted. Today, Zinfandel is the third most planted red grape in California, with more than 41,000 acres. These Zins show jammy red fruit, fresh herbal notes and that signature pepper detail.

This wine is from California.


We know we have a California Zinfandel, so Italy's Puglia, Oregon's Rogue Valley, Uruguay's Canelones and Washington's Columbia Valley can be eliminated.

This leaves us with two appellations in California. Santa Lucia Highlands, located in Monterey County, lies just inland from the Monterey Bay and Pacific Ocean. Vines here are planted on terraces on the slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains, and are heavily influenced by maritime conditions, including strong winds and abundant fog. This makes the area best-suited for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other varieties that thrive in cooler climates.

Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley, on the other hand, is perfect for Zinfandel. The region experiences both coastal and inland influences: The western Sonoma Mountain range keeps the cooler temps at bay, resulting in a warmer climate, but the mountains on each side of the valley also provide a channel for the cool coastal air to come in, which is great for acid retention in the wines. Dry Creek is home to more than 9,000 acres of vineyards, and Zinfandel is the most-planted variety. Not only is our mystery wine a textbook version of Zinfandel, it is also a classic example of Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel.

This Zinfandel is from Dry Creek Valley.


There are no significant signs of age in this Zinfandel—the fruit and herbs are fresh and the structure is still robust. However, Zinfandel often spends some time in barrel, and the smoked pepper notes here indicate our wine could have gone through that regimen.

The 2017 vintage was an extremely hot one, and many Zins got very ripe as a result, to varying quality levels. The 2016s have ripe fruit but are balanced, with plush textures, and the 2015s are similar, but a little more concentrated and jammy. Since our wine is ripe but fresh, with an appealing briary texture, 2016 is our best bet.

This wine is from the 2016 vintage, making it three years old.


This wine is the Seghesio Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Cortina 2016, which scored 92 points and retails for $40; 2,458 cases were made. For more about Zinfandel, read senior editor Tim Fish's tasting report "California's Zin Zone," in Wine Spectator's June 30, 2019, issue.

—Aaron Romano, associate tasting coordinator