What Am I Tasting?

A structured red with sweet cherry and strawberry framed by tar notes … Play the game!

January 10, 2020

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: Sweet cherry and strawberry fruit is framed by earth, eucalyptus, tobacco and tar notes in this rich yet firm red. The assertive tannins suggest a glacial evolution but the lasting impression of fruit shows this wine's potential.

And the answer is...


Our mystery wine has some bright red fruit flavors in cherry and strawberry, but they're counterweighted by earth, tobacco and tar notes, all balanced on what sounds like a very structured frame of assertive tannins. A complex and compelling wine to be sure! Let's see if we can narrow down or choices.

Cabernet Sauvignon is known for making big wines with structure and bold dark fruit flavors. Depending on the climate, viticulture and winemaking, the wines can range from ripe and fruit-forward to earthy and green with herbal bell pepper (and occasional eucalyptus) notes. Cabernet is usually aged in oak barrels and can reflect notes of baking spice flavors that reflect that. For the most part, however, these wines display dark fruit flavors such as plum and cassis, unlike the red fruit flavors we have here, and our wine's distinct tar note suggests we look for a better match.

Syrah is a star in France, as well as on the West Coast and in Australia, where it's known as Shiraz. The wines display dark fruit, firm structure and signature pepper and meaty notes. Our wine is clearly structured, but as with Cabernet, the fruit here doesn't quite match up, and that tar note sticks out again as not quite right for Syrah.

Tempranillo is one of the leading red grapes of Spain, as well as Portugal, where it's known as Tinta Roriz or Aragonês. This thick-skinned grape is naturally high in acidity, with moderate tannins and structure. The natural flavors expressed in these wines are red fruit, earth and tobacco, similar to our tasting note. However, many producers in the region like to treat the wines with oak, specifically American oak, which imparts vanilla or baking spice notes that are noticeably absent here. Tempranillo doesn't typically achieve the tannic structure that our mystery wine is showing and, once again, there's that peculiar tar note ….

Zinfandel, or Primitivo as it's known in Italy, is a star in California and can produce wines of many different styles, from lightly sweet and fruity rosés to deeply rich and intensely jammy reds. Dark fruit and cracked pepper flavors are some of Zinfandel's signature characteristics, and it's not known as a particularly tannic red.

Nebbiolo is a late-ripening grape that produces powerful wines that are assertive and intense. Known for red fruit, herbaceous notes and firm structure, the wines are usually built to age. Nebbiolos frequently show some earth and tobacco notes, and one their signatures is a hint of tar. We have a match.

This wine is a Nebbiolo.

Country or Region of Origin

Nebbiolo is native to Italy. While some New World winemakers have dabbled with the grape, we certainly don't see any coming from Spain or France. Very limited quantities of Nebbiolo wines are made in Australia and California, however, they tend to be lighter-bodied than their Italian counterparts, and our wine is a textbook example of Italian Nebbiolo.

This Nebbiolo is from Italy.


Since we know our wine is from Italy, we can immediately eliminate Australia's Barossa Valley, France's Cornas, Spain's Rioja and California's Napa Valley. That leaves us with Barbaresco and Brunello di Montalcino, two of Italy's most highly regarded appellations for red wine. Brunello di Montalcino in Tuscany is known for tremendous wines that are also well-structured and built for aging, but they are made from the Sangiovese grape. Barbaresco is in Piedmont, home to the world's most highly sought Nebbiolos. Wines from the Barbaresco appellation, like those of the neighboring Barolo region, are made exclusively from Nebbiolo.

This Nebbiolo is from Barbaresco.


Nebbiolo is typically made for aging. Most aren't even released on the market until they are at least a couple years old, especially the higher quality examples, so it's highly unlikely our wine isn't more than two years old. As the wines age, however, fruit flavors may transform to more savory notes, and firm tannins will soften as they integrate into the wine. With our assertive tannins still in play and our cherry and strawberry fruit leading the way, we can safely surmise that our wine is not more than five years old.

This Nebbiolo is from the 2015 vintage, making it five years old.


This is the 2015 Paitin Barbaresco Sorì Paitin Serraboella, which earned 95 points in the March 31, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator. It retails for $56, and 815 cases were made. For more on Nebbiolo and the wines of Piedmont, read Bruce Sanderson's most recent tasting report, "Clear Skies Ahead," in the April 30, 2019, issue, and watch for his next report, on the 2015 vintage, in the April 30, 2020, issue.

—Cassia Schifter, associate tasting coordinator