What Am I Tasting?

This is an elegant red with firm structure, and notes of cherry and rose ... Play the Game!

March 20, 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: This red exhibits purity to the rose, strawberry, cherry and graphite aromas and flavors. Sleek and elegant, with firm structure and a white pepper–accented finish.

And the answer is...


We know that our mystery wine shows pure red fruit flavors backed by floral and mineral aromas, with a firm structure indicating the strong presence of tannins as well as acidity. With this in mind, let’s narrow down our possibilities.

Merlot’s supple texture doesn’t match our note’s firm tannins, and we would expect riper, dark fruit character and herbal accents from a Merlot. Our wine’s pepper note would also be unusual for a Merlot.

Gamay can show the floral and red berry notes we are looking for, and the best versions demonstrate mineral character. But Gamay’s lighter, softer tannins don’t fit either. Gamay will have to go.

On the other hand, Zinfandel can display our note’s tannins and spice, especially in riper versions with oak influence. Unfortunately, Zinfandel’s dark, jammy fruit aromas aren’t a match for our strawberry and cherry, and we are missing the grape’s bramble and mint accents.

Pinotage can demonstrate our note’s structure, and many Pinotages show cherry, strawberry and dark mineral aromas. Floral notes wouldn’t be unusual for a Pinotage, either. Unfortunately, our note is missing some of Pinotage’s hallmarks: its tropical banana note, and its hint of burnt rubber. Perhaps another grape is a better fit?

Nebbiolo is the primary red grape of Italy’s Piedmont region, and it’s been suggested that the grape takes its name from the prevalent local fog, known as nebbia. Nebbiolos have gripping tannins and a strong backbone of acidity, which gives them very firm structures. They tend to display elegant red berry flavors, and their signature rose and tar aromas can be a dead giveaway. Spice and mineral accents are also common to Nebbiolos.

This wine is a Nebbiolo.

Country or Region of Origin

Nebbiolo is native to Italy, and doesn’t have a strong presence beyond its borders. France has no significant Nebbiolo plantings. In the United States, California, Washington, Oregon and Virginia all have Nebbiolo vineyards, but they are few and far between. South Africa’s winemakers have experimented with Nebbiolo, but its presence there remains very minor as well.

Nebbiolo does have a solid foothold in Australia, where it’s grown in Adelaide Hills and the Barossa Valley. While Australia’s best Nebbiolos can show some of the grape’s expected accents, like tar, these versions tend to have plusher, more velvety mouthfeels, with blackberry and plum notes—not quite right for our wine. However, in Italy, Nebbiolo shows pure red fruit, floral accents and minerality, tied together by firm structures that can make these wines highly ageable.

This Nebbiolo is from Italy.


We already know that our Nebbiolo is from Italy, so we can rule out France’s Beaujolais, Australia’s Margaret River, California’s Stags Leap District and South Africa’s Stellenbosch.

This leaves us with just two Italian regions: Barolo and Sicily. The island of Sicily has a Mediterranean climate marked by warm winters and hot summers. This climate is at odds with Nebbiolo growth, and there are no significant plantings of the grape in Sicily, where the leading red grapes are Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese.

Barolo, in Italy’s Piedmont region, has a continental climate, with cold winters and warm, temperate summers. Here, in vineyards close to the Alps, Nebbiolo grows successfully, benefiting from cool, humid mornings and warmer temperatures during the day. A variety of microclimates and soil types add complexity and diversity to these wines, across the appellation’s several communes.

This Nebbiolo is from Barolo.


By law, Barolo must be aged at least three years before release, including 18 months in barrel, so we can eliminate the youngest age range right away.

Our wine has firm structure, but it’s also sleek and elegant. We can reasonably interpret that the tannins are still pronounced, but that the wine has had a few years to come together (that’s part of the reason Barolos are held for three years before release). Our wine is not showing any tertiary notes that could arise in a wine more than 10 years old, such as game, dried fruit, tea, truffle or mushroom notes.

We can try to narrow down our Barolo’s age a little more by looking at recently released vintages. 2016 was marked by a mild winter and a rainy spring, with cool temperatures during harvest; they are dense and tannic, with dark berry aromas and herbal hints—not quite on target for our wine. 2015 was a hotter year in Piedmont, yielding vibrant and pure Barolos with fresh red fruit flavors, minerality and floral accents. 2014 was a difficult vintage, with cool weather and rain during the growing season; the best 2014s are ripe, with cherry and plum notes supported by leafy, leathery or herbal hints, unlike our mystery wine.

This Barolo is from 2015, making it five years old.


This wine is the G.D. Vajra Barolo Coste di Rose 2015, which scored 92 points in the Nov. 30, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator. It retails for $70. For more on Barolo, read senior editor Bruce Sanderson’s tasting report, "The Purity of Piedmont," in the April 30, 2020, issue.

—Eszter Balogh, assistant tasting coordinator