Red Burgundy, Blind French Whites, and Two Oxford Wine Societies

I first encountered red Burgundy through a ‘Guide to tasting’ case from The Wine Society. The case has 5 different wine pairings (so 10 bottles), which illustrate key differences in the characteristics of the wine, like age- for example, tasting a 2009 Rioja, and a 2001 Rioja. A friend had bought this case, and the last pairing was ‘Claret [Bordeaux] or Burgundy’, which we decided would make for a pleasant evening. Before tasting the wines, I came in with view that I should definitely prefer the Claret, as it was the bigger, stronger, wine, and that the Burgundy was a little, well, soft and delicate. Naturally then, I strongly preferred the Burgundy, and I’ve very much enjoyed red Burgundy even since. So when the chance came to go to a red Burgundy tasting this week, with some of the bottles being taken from the cellars of St John’s College, I knew what I would be doing that evening.

The tasting was hosted by Bacchus, one of the university’s wine societies. I’ve been a member of Bacchus previously, when I was beginning to get into wine tasting. You might expect a wine society to be pretentious and snooty, with a dress code, but Bacchus really isn’t that kind of place at all, just people enjoying different wines together and learning a little something at the same time. They’ve hosted some big names in the past, like Chateau Margaux and Pol Roger, but they do tastings of wines all over the world as well. If you are an Oxford University member, and want to start to get into wine, I would think they are a great society to get involved with.

On to the tasting. Red Burgundy is all Pinot Noir- although, I learnt at the tasting, that by law it can contain up to 15% of another grape, without stating so. Burgundian Pinot is meant to be quite complex in flavour and structure, and, combined with the confusing appellation-grower-vineyard labeling and the huge variation in quality year-to-year, it is quite hard to buy nice bottles reliably. Combining those with the cost- it is often said that there is no point spending under £15 on a bottle- it’s great to get a chance to sample some bottles where other, more experienced buyers have put in the time and effort to make sure the wines are great. The tasting was a tour through Burgundy, with flights of wines from the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune, and a single Cote Chalonnais, all regions of Burgundy. They varied in quality from simple regional wines to premier cru vineyards, and the difference in quality was remarkable. I personally preferred the more northern Cote de Nuits wines, having slightly less body and more structure, with less ripe fruit, and the star of the show for me was a Morey Saint-Denis, a very enjoyable glass.

A red and white Burgundy. Unless you know what to expect, the labelling can be difficult to navigate.

The next evening was spent at the Oxford Blind Tasting Society. The event here is exactly as it sounds, trying to identify grape variety, location, and year just by looking at, smelling, and tasting the wine, and not looking at the bottle. You have a sheet where you make tasting notes, like what aromas you sense,  how much acidity the wine has, and so on. Then in competitions, you get ‘points’, for having the right notes, and then more if you can correctly identify the location, grape and vintage, so you can still score well if you identify a lot of key features about the wine but don’t guess the wine correctly. We had a bit of a help here, knowing they were all French whites, which I felt was the area I had the relatively best knowledge about. I think French whites also represent great value- particularly the country wines- if you don’t get overexcited by a bottle label. On a modest budget, I particularly like this Gascogne wine, or, spending slightly more, a white Burgundy or Alsace wine.

But it is a different story trying to identify them blind. The first two I did reasonably, guessing a Muscadet where the wine was a Loire sauvignon blanc, and then for the second bottle guessing a Loire sauvignon blanc, when the wine was a Bordeaux sauvignon blanc/semillion/muscadelle blend. After that, though, it went downhill very quickly. I really struggled with the last four: my tasting were notes a little off, and I totally failed to identify the correct wines- Juracon, Piqpoul, Viognier and a Languedoc Marsanne-Roussanne blend. Those might seem like a tough ask to guess blind, but that’s the kind of knowledge and experience the tasters have here.

Despite my lack of success, I had a great time, and the people at the society were very welcoming to a new face. I learnt a ton about wine- much more than I would at any other tasting, I imagine- and really got to examine my approach to wine tasting. I’m looking forward a lot to next week’s tasting of some French reds, and perhaps with some reading up on grape varieties and the like, I’ll have a better chance.


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  1. Trackback: The Wine Society « oxfood

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