Sixty-five noses are sniffing glasses in a wine-to-wine taste-off on the 36th floor of New York’s Mandarin Oriental hotel. Mine is one of them.
The 10 numbered reds in front of me include two first- growth Bordeaux, two high-end Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons, an Italian Super Tuscan, and five Chilean wines, all from the 2006 vintage. The bottles are in brown paper bags, so we don’t know which wine is which.
The task? Rate the wines and pick the top three. Will Chile’s “icon” entries make the grade?
This is the latest re-enactment of “The Berlin Tasting,” an event Eduardo Chadwick, owner of Chilean winery Vina Errazuriz, initiated six years ago.
Ever since the 1976 Paris Tasting shocker, when French experts rated wines from brand-new California wineries higher than France’s best whites and reds, blind taste-offs have been the great wine equalizer, the way to prove, maybe, that the latest upstarts taste just as good as more expensive, world-renowned labels.
In the past 34 years, dozens of winery owners like Chadwick have copied the idea as the route to international vino respectability. It’s all about image upgrade.
Chile started making icon wines about 15 years ago, yet is mostly known for its tasty, low-cost cabs.
In the first Berlin Tasting, “it was David vs. Goliath,” the 50-year-old Chadwick says, clearly relishing the memory. Trim and gray-haired, he exudes aristocratic sophistication. To give the event authenticity and pizazz, he pulled in as moderator British wine expert Steven Spurrier, who hosted the Paris Tasting.
To Chadwick’s surprise, or so he claims, the 36 attending European wine press and trade buyers rated two of his wines, 2000 Vinedo Chadwick and 2001 Sena, higher than Bordeaux first growths from the great 2000 vintage. “It was like the Berlin Wall falling,” says Chadwick with a grin.
Well, not quite. But the results inspired him to stage regular re-enactments in Sao Paolo, Tokyo, Toronto, Copenhagen, Beijing, Amsterdam, London and Stockholm. The U.S. version is the grand finale.
In Beijing in 2008, Chadwick’s wines even beat Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, though this in no way weakened China’s Lafite obsession. Even when Chadwick’s wines didn’t come out on top, they gained high-quality shine and hype from holding their own next to the world’s greats -- not a bad marketing ploy.
So how did Chadwick’s five reds fare in New York? Very well indeed.
No one can resist turning this into a guessing game. I’m feeling smug after correctly identifying two of my top three wines: my No. 1 favorite is ever-elegant Lafite ($700) and my third-place wine is rich, tannic Haut-Brion ($495). My second-highest score goes to the Errazuriz Don Maximiano ($90), a wonderfully balanced blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot and syrah. At least I pegged it as a New World wine.
When the final group scores are revealed, though, I discover I’m out of step. The combined first place goes to Chadwick’s stylish, brooding Errazuriz Kai ($70), made mostly from the grape Carmenere (6th on my list), second place to Napa Valley’s Opus One ($150), and third to Haut-Brion. The group places Chadwick’s Don Max 4th; modern, oaky Errazuriz La Cumbre Syrah 6th ($70); powerful, intense Sena 7th ($75); and his most expensive, Vinedo Chadwick ($180) 9th. Lafite is 5th.
Tasting blind is widely regarded as the most unbiased method to assess wine quality, a way to evaluate what’s in the glass without the influence of preconceptions about a producer or a wine region. A study published two years ago in the “Journal of Wine Economics” showed that when most drinkers rated wines without seeing labels, they preferred the cheaper wines to the more expensive ones.
But a blind tasteoff has limitations. In my experience, bold wines usually trump subtle, elegant ones. In a replay, scores may be completely different. Context is missing -- a bit like judging a book without knowing anything about its author. What makes people pant for Bordeaux, after all, is more than taste in the glass, it’s image, history, investment potential.
As we head for lunch at Porter House in the Time Warner center after the tasting, I keep thinking of what Jean-Bernard Delmas, former manager of Chateau Haut-Brion, once said to me: “I don’t make my wine to go with Lafite, I make it to go with food.”
Haut Brion is not on the table at lunch. Chadwick understandably pours his own wines, including one that wasn’t in the tasting. The juicy, vibrant 2007 Errazuriz single vineyard cabernet ($21) doesn’t have the concentration and depth of his five icon wines, but it’s vibrant and delicious with filet mignon and, hey, the price is right.
Maybe that one was the real winner.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)