Savouring the unknown: Blind tasting in the south of France

Tasting wines blind during two completely different dinners illustrates that wine should be more about conversation and enjoyment than correct answers or superior tastes. Nina Caplan writes on her recent French adventures

Words by Nina Caplan

'The wild and beautiful Cévennes National Park'

Let us, so late in the evening and after so many glasses of good wine, not get into a fraught discussion about the term ‘wine snob’. A dictionary suggests that a snob is a person who believes their tastes in a particular area to be superior to those of other people. Which sounds, to me, like everyone: if I didn’t believe my tastes superior I would surely like something else. The problem is the implied hierarchy. For mine to be superior, someone else’s must be inferior, and that is where the trouble starts. What if, horror of horrors, your tastes are actually superior to mine?

The question should be ridiculous, given how deeply personal taste is, except that we are social creatures, susceptible to influence – and anxious about it too. De gustibus non est disputandum: it makes no sense to argue about matters of taste. I may believe that white Burgundy is the greatest of white wines while you may prefer an Assyrtiko from Santorini, and who is to say that one of us is wrong? We should be able to have a good time putting forth our differing views and trying to justify them, while taking the concept of right and wrong entirely off the table. De gustibus solum est disputandum. Matters of taste are the only matters worth arguing over.

La Nauve Hotel
A journey to the Cévennes followed a meal earlier the same week at Notes, the fine-dining restaurant housed in the main mansion of the La Nauve Hotel estate in Cognac

I thought about this during a dinner in the depths of the wild and beautiful Cévennes National Park, where friends have a house with a wide, cool terrace, on which they served a succession of delicious dishes accompanied by superb wine wrapped carefully, if unbeautifully, in a teatowel to hide the label (and the bottle: shape can give away a lot). Blind tasting is the attempt to ascertain as much detail as possible about a wine with only the wine itself as clue. For judgements such as awards, this is the only acceptable route to a decision. We, however – six wine lovers, two with a professional interest but all of us on holiday – were doing it for fun.

Making wine is science. Drinking it is not. The amount of time a given wine has spent in a barrel is an unalterable fact, my ability to detect that oak is a skill, but my judgement on whether that oak is well integrated and how good the result tastes is entirely subjective. Confusing facts with opinions is not, unfortunately, restricted to the wine world, but a social activity such as wine tasting that revolves around a very complicated technical process may be especially ripe for misunderstanding. This, surely, is why a liquid that is both a chemical and a metaphysical source of happiness ends up causing so many arguments.

Pablo Alvarez's Vega Sicilia Unico
Dinner with friends included a bottle of Vega-Sicila Unico 2012 served blind, sparking much enjoyable discussion

On that terrace, there was no unpleasantness and no right answers. There was only enjoyable discussion: was the warm oak flavour in the first white an indication of a Chardonnay? Was that rich and spicy red, with its beautifully integrated tannins, a Rioja? The answer to both of these questions was no. The first was a 2018 Albariño by Pazo Señorans from the cool region of Rias Baixas, north of Portugal. It was a lovely wine, perfumed and elegant. But, unusually for the region, it had been aged in oak. Foiled – but I’ll remember how much I like oaked Albariño, at least when it is done this well and left to integrate for five years. That would-be Rioja was Vega-Sicila Unico 2012. It was fabulous. And Ribera del Duero is Rioja’s neighbour, so we were close. All our guesses were interesting. But none were correct. The evening would have been a lot less fun if they had been.

Making wine is science. Drinking it is not.

I have fond memories of my father and his friend Bertie walking into each other’s kitchens waving bottles wrapped in tin foil, crowing “You’ll never guess this one!” The journey to the guess, which was indeed usually incorrect, was the point of the game. Anyone who forgets that wine is supposed to be enjoyable is nearly as criminal, to my mind, as the driver who forgets that it contains alcohol.

The pulled crab at Notes
The pulled crab with fennel cream and dill oil at Notes that was served with a Sauvignon Blanc from Faugères (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

That Cévennes dinner was actually (and unusually) my second blind tasting of the week. In Notes, the superb fine-dining restaurant of the new La Nauve Hotel & Jardin in Cognac, the young chef sommelier asked if we’d like to be surprised. This is a rare question in a top restaurant but Florentin Clément is a rare sommelier: only 23 but already with a stint as head of the no-lo (no and low alcohol) list at Anne-Sophie Pic’s eponymous three Michelin-starred restaurant in Valence under his belt. To accompany Chef Anthony Carballo’s exceptional pulled crab with fennel cream and dill oil, he served a 2019 Sauvignon Blanc by Bardi D’Alquier from Faugères. I didn’t even realise that this Languedoc appellation, known for big red wines, had any Sauvignon. It was a great combination.

Pollock with an iodine foam, peanuts and black olives was complemented by Spanish orange wine made from Viura (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

‘Orange wine!’ said my 19-year-old stepdaughter triumphantly, of two served side-by-side, but could either of us tell the grape variety? We could not. It was Viura, the white variety of Rioja, and these were two different parcels (and different years) from Bodegas Moraza. All I learned here was that orange wines are a wicked match for anything with an iodine flavour – pollock with an iodine foam, peanuts and black olives, in this case. And so it went on: a 2017 Côtes du Marmandais – could anybody guess a Côtes du Marmandais, one of the Bordeaux satellite appellations? Although if the area is ‘on the map’, it is this producer, Elian Da Ros, who has put it there.

My husband, no slouch, did just as badly. But we paid more attention to those wines than we would have with the label shown us before the first sip, and I’d say we enjoyed them more too. Far from being a daunting hierarchy with secret rules, as those in fear of snobbery believe, wine-tasting is a great leveller. Of course, knowledge is helpful and gaffes are always possible, but the expert will not always triumph over the novice and anyway, triumph isn’t the aim; fun is. I always think fondly of the response the great wine writer and bon viveur Harry Waugh gave when asked whether he had ever confused a Bordeaux with a Burgundy when tasted blind: ‘Not since lunch.’

Nina Caplan
By Nina Caplan

Nina Caplan is the Lifestyle and Travel columnist for Club Oenologique online and wine columnist for The New Statesman and The Times’s Luxx magazine. Her award-winning book, The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, came out in 2018.