Saturday, January 11, 2014

Shiraz - Blind Tasting

Lucky for me Kaarina takes her duties seriously. She helps stock the bar at BPYC by recommending which wines to purchase. The only catch is that they have to be $15 a bottle or less.

So Friday night Rob and I helped her with her research and participated in a blind tasting of shiraz/syrah. We split the cost of tasting several different bottles. I've always wanted to experiment with a tasting like this!

Shiraz gets its name from the Persian city known for its flowers, poetry, beauty, and shirazi wine. Legend has it that winemaking originated there seven thousand years ago, and the grape came to Rhone during the Crusades in the 1200s.

This is one of my favourite varietals, and so I was looking forward to the tasting. We were to taste four different kinds, but I also wanted to throw another wild card into the mix.

I know I'm influenced by the perceived value of a wine. I typically go into the LCBO looking at labels and prices ranges, and will spend or splurge according to the occasion. I wondered.... if I put a $35 bottle next to the $15 bottles in a blind tasting, could I tell the difference?

Not so much. We tasted all the wines and the differences were pretty minimal. Deep red in the glass. Lots of legs. Peppery aroma. Soft, unstructured mouth feel.  

Although we quickly eliminated one of the wines because it was so wimpy. Poor aroma, lackluster taste, weak and unpleasant finish.

Then it came time for us to try to pick a favourite, and try to pick the most expensive wine. We ranked first, second, third. My favourite? The Rhone. I guess I am just an old-world girl. It had a lot more going on. A bit of a halo where the wine touched the edge of the glass, softening the colour. A complex finish.

My second choice? The $35 shiraz. Liked it a lot. Inky purple. It didn't hit a lot of different notes in the taste and aroma, but the blackberry it broadcast was quite delicious. Confession? Once the jacket came off and I knew it was the most expensive, it tasted even better.
Most people can't distinguish a more expensive wine from a cheaper wine when the labels are removed. And that includes top wine experts.
When people are given a glass of wine, and told that the wine is expensive, it triggers a specific part of the brain that registers pleasure. This effect has even been observed in an experiment when the wines were sipped inside an MRI machine that recorded brain activity.
People were given five wines to taste, and told the wines ranged from $5 a bottle, up to $90 a bottle. All the subjects unanimously agreed the expensive wine was better - even when they thought the $5 dollar bottle was the $90 dollar wine. They still experienced more pleasure and the MRI brain activity proved it. The Psychology of Price, Age of Influence

I'm heartened by our personal experiment. It reinforced that I actually like the old world complexities. And it also confirmed for me you don't have to spend a fortune to drink good wine. I went out and bought a whole case of the Languedoc this morning. There were only 100 bottles in all of Ontario, and we might not see this again. Which also adds to the perceived value - scarcity. Maybe I should have bought more?

My order of preference in the blind tasting
  • Chateau de Jau 2011, Languedoc, France  $14.95
  • Grey Label 2010, McClaren Vale, Australia, $34.95
  • Penfolds Koonunga Hill, Australia, $16.95 (Shirz/Cabernet blend on sale for $14.95)
  • Windham Estate Bin 555, Australia $15.95 (on sale for $13.95)
  • Cristobal 1492 Oak Reserve, Argentina. $14.95

Syrah/shiraz is one of the most popular grapes in the world, and widely cultivated. Depending where its grown, the tones and flavours change. The Rhones have always been my favourite, but it's hard to say no to a big-in-your-face Australian.

Australia and Shiraz are almost synonymous, but it wasn't always so.  Grapes go in and out of style, and in Australia back in the 70's, when white wines were favoured, whole vineyards of old growth shiraz were ripped out to make room for Chardonnay. Shiraz was deemed worthy for its fruit and used in muffin-making, so thankfully it wasn't lost entirely, because by the 1990's, South Australia became renowned for this Big Red. It is now the most commonly planted varitey in Australia (almost 40% of the red grape crush each year).

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