Confounded by Cabernet

“Nothing focuses the mind like an execution,” wrote Samuel Johnson.

I’ll take that on faith. But I can personally attest to this: A blind tasting has a similar effect. It induces intense concentration. And it takes guts. With each glass, you face the risk of humiliation from a ridiculously off-target ID. That’s like lobbing a tennis ball four courts away, then having to fetch it with all eyes trained on you.

Our wine club loves blind tastings, not because we like to point and laugh at each other (though that’s fun too), but because we learn the most that way, drilling down into the wines’ characteristics without technical sheets or published commentary or preconceived notions.

But our last tasting really took the cake.

The theme was a Cabernet Blend Face-Off. We were comparing Cab-dominated blends from four regions: Bordeaux, Tuscany, the Columbia River Valley (Washington/Oregon), and California. The mission: Taste them blind, in flights of two, then try to identify the region and blend.

It was my idea…. What was I thinking?

Tennis balls went flying off the court in every direction. We were repeatedly stumped, divided, indecisive, and stunned at the unveiling. It was great fun.

As always, before the big reveal we voted on our two favorites. They were:
• Favorite: San Leonardo, a ringer from Trentino (wine #2)
• Second favorite: A Columbia Valley blend from JM Cellars, based in Woodinville, WA (wine #8)

So now, like the good sports we are, I’m sharing our guesses—the hits and misses—and the end results. Because I was the host and wound up with all the unfinished bottles, I got to taste everything again the next day, and here include those tasting notes.

Cab/merlot/petit merlot (sic) 60/35/5, 13%, $27

Our guesswork: “Blueberry.” “Herbs.” “Savory with a bitter finish.” “Stemmy and green.” “Lots of tannin.” “A bit briary; maybe some syrah?” We kicked the can down the road, however, being too indecisive to guess the blend or region, for this or #2.

2nd day: Relatively transparent in color; tart sour cherry with grippy tannins; some earthiness

2. ITALY: SAN LEONARDO 2004 (Marchese Carlo Guerrieri Gonzaga), Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT
Cabernet/cabernet franc/merlot 60/30/10, 13.5%, $55

Our guesswork: “Musty nose.” “More complete on the palate than #1.” “Green jalapeño.” “Nice, sweet dark fruit in the middle.” “Leather.” “This smells like old botti; it’s definitely Old World.” Some were leaning towards Bordeaux. None guessed Trentino—since it wasn’t on the list!

2nd day: Opaque garnet with fading color; nose seems over-the-hill today, with stewed fruit; it’s better in the mouth, with tomato leaf, currant, and high-toned fruit with lots of acid. Tannins are easy and well integrated (it is a 2004, after all).

3. BORDEAUX: CHATEAU LANESSAN 2009, Domaine Bouteiller AOC Haut-Medoc
Cabernet/merlot/petit verdot 60/36/4, 13.5%, $30

Our guesswork: “Pretty purple.” “Not much nose.” “Tightly coiled.” “High acid, with nice dark fruit.” Some are leaning towards a Washington wine, with a hefty dose of merlot. But we agreed it’s a puzzlement. And everyone gasped at the Haut-Medoc reveal.

2nd day: Some transparency in color; barely any nose; bing cherry and plum flavors, with bright acid. Very drinkable and food friendly. Not much tannic grip.

4. CALIFORNIA: STEPHAN VINEYARD, L’Aventure Estate Cuvée 2007, Paso Robles
Syrah/cabernet/petit verdot 49/37/14, 15.4%, $55

Our guesswork: “Inky black, extracted, plush.” “Raspberry jam.” “Lots of alcohol.” “Big oak.” We all agree it’s quintessentially New World. “Oh, no. This is California.” Only one person picked up on the syrah (Linda, who cohosted the Rhone tasting).

2nd day: Inky dark; smell of new oak and black raspberries; in the mouth, sweet fruit immediately hits you; there’s a certain roundness and gobs of blackberry jam; finishes with decent acidy and fine tannins

5. TUSCANY: BISERNO, Insoglio del Cinghiale 2010, Toscana IGT
Cabernet franc/syrah/merlot/petit verdot 33/32/30/5, 14%, $32

Our guesswork: There was disagreement at first. “Funky, earthy, tobacco.” “There’s too much fruit for Old World!” “Cherry.” “Honeydew.” People then start leaning towards Tuscany (here, at least, we got it over the net), and with that, towards sangiovese in the blend (wrong!). This was an unintentional ringers as well; I brought the wine thinking it had cab sauvignon, but it's cabernet franc.  Oops.

2nd day: Really yummy on the nose and in the mouth! Feels very New World, with a Zin-like fruitiness, though there’s some spice that suggests syrah. Not quite opaque. Blue/black fruit of the woods and some red lift, with chocolate on the finish. Goes down easy, with medium tannins. A sunny-climate blend. Very drinkable, and my personal favorite.

6. TUSCANY: CORZANO E PATERNO, Il Corzano 2007, Toscana IGT
Cabernet/sangiovese, 14.5%, $37

Our guesswork: “Marlboro Methol.” “Hot and fleshy.” “Garish.” “Lots of tannins.” The majority were leaning towards merlot in the blend and California as the source. This Super Tuscan from the Chianti Classico region (San Casciano) was one of the real shockers.

2nd day: (deposit in the bottle) Fairly opaque garnet; pleasant nose & taste, with lots of acidity and juicy fruit-of-the-woods (blueberry, blackberry, raspberry). Quite nice. Long finish is mouthwatering, even with notable tannins. Some meaty notes on the finish.

7. CALIFORNIA: STELLA GREY, Napa Valley Red Wine 2009, Sherbrooke Cellars Selections
Cabernet/merlot/cabernet france, petit verdot, syrah 55/25/20, 14.3%, $17

Our guesswork: “Nice nose.” “This is a happy wine.” “Black current.” “Nicely balanced and drinkable.” “Sweet fruit.” “Food friendly.” “Very clean, well-balanced, probably cool climate.” At first folks were thinking Bordeaux, but then gravitated towards Columbia River Valley. It was Napa—another shocker. But at $17, it was our Best Buy.

2nd day: Inky violet; blueberry syrup on the nose; easy in the mouth; long, fruity finish with very bright blueberry/black raspberry fruit that lingers, with snappy acidity. Succulent fruit, but not extracted. The fruit is fairly straightforward, rather than layered. Finely textured tannins are present, but in the background.

8. COLUMBIA RIVER VALLEY: JM CELLARS, Tre Fanciulli 2007, Columbia Valley, WA
Cabernet/merlot/syrah 67/19/14, 14.4%, $37

Our guesswork: “Old World.” “Screams Italian.” “Very ripe, sweet fruit, but short finish.” We picked up a hint of brett, which had some leaning toward Italy, but half thought it was West Coast. The latter scored.

2nd day: Opaque ruby. Nose has an oxidized edge, which carries thru on the taste. More tannins here. Very berry-like in the mouth, with acidic lift and somewhat grippy tannins. Sweet vanilla oak. There’s something about the flavors I’m not crazy about. But it’s midnight, so I think it’s time to call it a day.

If any New Yorkers want to join our wine club, just give me a holler. Both pros and amateurs welcome!