Splendor in the Glass

Arturo Ciompi's blog on wine

Red vs. White: A True Blind Tasting

Tag icon Published under Herald-Sun Newspaper, Past articles

Clock icon October 1, 2002

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Calvin Trillin once wrote a mirthful article in The New Yorker magazine (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2002/08/19/020819fa_fact) about the difficulty of guessing blindly whether a wine is red or white.  Shouldn’t it be easy?  I’d like to think so, but some of the results he reported indicated otherwise.

He wrote: “I first heard about the color test given at the University of California Davis, whose department of viticulture and oenology is renowned in the wine world. […]  The folks at Davis poured wine that was at room temperature into black glasses, thus removing the temperature and color cues that are a large part of what people assume is taste.”  Trillin went on to say that well-known, respected winemakers who have taken the dreaded test got scores such as three of five or three of seven.

In my blissful ignorance and shameless hubris, I decided to meet the challenge right between the glasses.  I tried eight wines: three whites, four reds, and one rosé.  I didn’t choose a Gewurtztraminer or a zinfandel; both should be easily identifiable by their distinctive, telltale bouquets.  I attempted to guess not only red from white, but also which of the eight wines I had just tried.  I included wines from three countries, figuring that would make it more difficult.  (It did.)  I had never tasted six of the wines I had chosen, so I couldn’t identify a style.

I thought the rose, served at room temperature, would be a problem.  I included a wine that was syrah-based from Australia, and one from California.  Could I tell them apart?  How would a warm chardonnay stack up against a similar sauvignon blanc?  Not so easily as it turned out.

Since I don’t own black glasses, I was literally blindfolded and led into the room after my wife poured the wines.  I used coffee mugs rather than wine stems.  This took away from appreciating the bouquet properly, but they were all in mugs so each suffered an equal disadvantage.  I took my notes via a tape recorder, and here they are.

2001 Ca’ del Solo Big House Red:  Red.  Big, rustic fruit bouquet with a definite blended feeling.  Deep, warm and rambunctious.  Red and good.  Recommended.  Ca’ del Solo.

2000 Cline Cellars Oakley Vin Gris:  Fragrant, sweet fruit.  The briskness of a white.  Delicious blended flavors.  Thought it was a white but the deeper fruit profile and process of elimination made my decision the Cline rosé.

2000 Quivira Sauvignon Blanc, Fig Tree Vineyard:  White.  Ripe fruit, pears and a lemony bouquet with good oak background.  Drinks smoothly with a melony quality and refreshing, balanced finish.  After comparisons with the chardonnay and pinot grigio, I finally guessed Yering chardonnay.

2001 Ecco Domani Maso Canali Pinot Grigio:  White.  This is a wonderful, fruit-laden white.  As fresh as spring.  A smooth drink with a hint of lemon-lime on the finish.  I kept comparing it with the sauvignon blanc, but I decided it was the pinot grigio.

2000 Wolf Blass Red Label Shiraz Cabernet:  Red.  Warm, chocolatey bouquet with melted oak under ripe, extravagant fruit.  Drinks very well, with leathery, smoky flavors and extroverted fruit.  It didn’t taste like a blend, but like pure shiraz.  I toyed with the Ca’ del Solo red and even the merlot.  On the second try, I was sure it was the Wolf Blass.

20001 Ca’ del Solo White:  The most fragrant and fruity example of the day, it should have been easy.  But was it the Ca’ white or the rosé?  On second taste, musky fruit and the tropical qualities came through.  I guessed the Ca’ del Solo white.

1999 Lockwood Merlot, Monterey County:  Red.  Direct, dark bouquet.  A refined wine that has a slight herbal overtone that adds character.  Plum and cherry flavors with a spicy finish.  I toyed with the shiraz before naming it merlot.

2000 Yering Station Chardonnay, Victoria:  Rich, rounded bouquet with a nutty and polite oak background.  An expansive drink, full of intensity, warmth, and a minerally finish.  For a moment, I thought this could be a red.  Because of its purity and un-oaky quality, I somehow guessed it was sauvignon blanc.

How did I do?  First of all, all the wines were good and recommended.  I identified all the reds from the whites and even the tricky rose.  According to the University of California Davis, I did great.  However, the final tally was six identified correctly and two wrong.  To quote Oscar Wilde, I’m not young enough to know everything.

I thought the chardonnay was the sauvignon blanc.  How could that be?  Try it sometime with unfamiliar wines and see for yourself.  Connoisseur and novice alike can have fun playing a similar party game.  Why not choose four wines–two whites and two reds–and see how it goes.  This may become the Trivial Pursuit of the millennium, or, more likely, a grownup version of pin the tail on the donkey.  If you do try, please let me know the results.


(October, 2002)

Argentina: A Wine Primer

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Clock icon January 1, 2002

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A quote from the 1983 edition of “Hugh Johnson’s Modern Encyclopedia of Wine” reads, “There can be little doubt that a politically stable Argentina will one day re-establish itself as one of the world’s most important sources of wine.”  In 2002, little has changed.  Once the most prosperous of South American nations, Argentina has had four straight years of escalating recession.  It has recently defaulted on a staggering debt of $141 billion.  This nation of 36 million people has experienced looting, riots, and runs on the banks (which are unable to liquidate the deposits of their customers).  There have been five new presidents of Argentina in the past several weeks, and recently the national currency, the peso, has been devalued by 30 percent.  These are volatile, treacherous times for this nation and, as the unrest affects all manner of commerce, so the wine industry must also scramble to keep its products afloat and not halt the continuous improvement and desirability of its wine selections.

In comparison, the stability of neighboring Chile has allowed a smooth, purring mechanism to promote its wines and reach new customers.  The ability to be aggressive in marketing has been a great strength to Chilean exports.

In an across-the-board comparison of the wines from these two giants, I invariable come down on the side of Argentina.  The texture, purity of fruit, and the overall distinctive terroir character is much more pleasurable to my palate.  Certainly wines from Erazuriz, Almaviva, and Lapostolle, as well as the bargain Veramonte wines, are gems of Chilean provenance, but many of their exports are thin, insipid, and “so what” in nature.  Argentina’s quality over the entire range is seldom disappointing.

Argentina is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world.  The land is graced with a warm, dry climate.  Irrigation is used frequently.  Ninety percent of the wines are grown in the province of Mendoza, which is located in the Midwestern part of the country.  Some cooler, more hilly, and mountainous areas are being explored and planted to try and achieve more intensity in their product.  In the meantime, Argentina makes excellent cabernet and chardonnay, but it’s the indigenous and long-planted unusual grapes that make some of the most exciting wines.  Malbec, Torrontes and Bonarda are among the lesser known but exciting wine grapes in the hands and the soil of Argentina.

Argentina has had major investors giving millions of dollars to improve and replant its vineyards.  Among these entrepreneurs are Allied Domecq, Seagram, Moet et Chandon, Pernod, and the Lurton family of Bordeaux.  Whether further investment will continue is highly dependent on how Argentina copes with its terrible financial and political problems.  If she can ever be calm, solvent, and organized, I predict the money will pour in.  The sky’s limit hasn’t come close to being reached in this perfect land for the grape.


(January, 2002)

Cyprus is Home of Romantic Vintages

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Clock icon October 9, 2000

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Beautiful Cyprus

The recent political unrest in Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus would lead most historians to say, “What else is new?”  For more than 4,000 years, Cyprus has been a main player in the ancient history and society of the Greek empire, a supplier of copper to the Egyptians, and over the last 800 years, a political soccer ball between the Greeks and the Turks.  In fact, the island, which is a mere 90 miles west of Lebanon, is settled and governed by both countries.

One thing that has never changed, however, is the fertility of the land and the blessed agricultural fecundity of its mountainsides and valleys.  This is predominantly true in the southern half of the island, where wine has been made without interruption for millennia.  Even during the reign of teetotaling Muslims, the enlightened abstainers allowed vineyards to flourish.  One gregarious ruler in particular encouraged production, all the while earning and welcoming the indisputable title of “Sultan Selim the Sot”.

From the base of Mount Olympus and the Trodos Mountains to the seaside region around the port city of Limassol, a variety of wines are made using indigenous grapes.  They are red Mavron and Opthalmo, and white Xynisteri and Muscat of Alexandria.  Around 1500, cuttings of these grapevines were transported to Madeira, Sicily, and Hungary, where they flourish to this very day.

In recent times, new grape varieties such as Grenache have been carefully introduced into the vineyards.  I say “carefully” because the disease of Phylloxera has never touched Cyprus, and so all vines are still planted on their own, ungrafted rootstocks.  This is a great rarity in our modern world.  The vineyards cover 100,000 acres, a significant 10 percent of the island’s total agricultural area.

Cyprus is the legendary birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite and her influence is still felt in the place names, product names, and everyday activities touched by the goddess of love.  Its red wines are deep, full colored and textured with a nice tannic grip, so perfect to accompany the strongly flavored, spicy Cypriot food.  The whites are also full with special flavors: a combination of the unique native grapes and the wild yeasts that produce a fascinating profile. Most are dry.

The most famous wine was once called Nama, but is now named Commanderia after the 12th century errant knights of Templar.  It is a mixture of red Mavron and white Xynisteri grapes that are sun dried and aged in earthenware jugs, or, more recently, cement tanks.  This new wines is then added to older vintages where in time it takes on the smoother character of its older teacher.  (This, by the way, is called the “Solera” system.)  Commanderia is an unfortified, high (16%) alcohol amber wine, dark, velvety, and mellow with a rich, toasty, luscious flavor.  Some local, unexported bottlings can be exciting indeed but require a special trip.  The exported version is still very tasty if not as saturated and age-worthy.

The city of Limassol has been called “the Bordeaux of Cyprus”.  Its port location is home to the four largest blenders, bottlers, and shippers of Cypriot wine.  They are the firms of Keo, Sodap, Etco, and Loel.  Most wine from Cyprus is a result of the production of hundreds of farmers and the skillful blending procedures of the aforementioned firms.  Only in the last few years have estate bottled wines begun to appear, and none are yet available on the international market.

Here are some examples that are available locally:

  • Thisbe–this is a very fresh, fruity white.  Very light in texture and
  • dry to medium dry.  Made from Xynisteri grown around the city
  • of Limassol.
  • Aphrodite—Dryer than Thisbe, although neither is sweet.  A little
  • more full-bodied with intriguing flavors also supplied by the
  • Xynisteri grape.
  • St. Panteleimon—A blended white with a flowery bouquet and a
  • slightly sweet flavor.  An excellent choice for highly spiced or
  • amply garlic-infused fare.
  • Othello—Those who know me are aware of what I will now
  • reveal: this is the wine that got me through graduate school.  It is
  • a solid, satisfying, deep red of enormous charm  and versatility.  I
  • used to buy it for $2.19/bottle (or $1.98/case if I was in the money.)
  • I still find it to be delicious and a great everyday choice.  It is made
  • from Mavron and Opthalmo grapes.
  • Commanderia St. John’s—Made from the grapes of 15 specified
  • vineyards, this is perfect after a meal or cozily settled down in a
  • rocker with a good book.  Sweet but creamy, and so shippable.

Be on the lookout for these fascinating wines.  They are also readily available in all of our local Greek restaurants.


(October, 2000)



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