Monday, May 21, 2007

Tasting the Big Six

Ever since I started flipping through Andrea (Immer) Robinson's book Great Wine Made Simple, I have been itching to try out her series of recommended tastings to train the palate and help you learn to identify certain aspects / flavors / styles of wine. Well, last weekend I finally got my chance, as Kris and I held a "Big Six" tasting event!

The Big Six
The idea behind the Big Six is twofold: First, by tasting the big six grapes (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon), you will have tasted the "guts" of roughly 80% of all wine produced throughout the world; Second, you get the opportunity to experience the full range of "bodies" - light, medium and full- in both red and white wines.

Robinson helpfully recommends specific wines in "budget", "moderate" and "splurge" monetary categories that she thinks will best illustrate varietal character and appropriate body for each grape. I found her list a very helpful starting point, and I stuck to it fairly closely. She recommends that all wines be selected from within the same price category, as you don't varying quality of wine interfering with the point of the tasting, namely varietal expression and body.

Kris and I decided in advance upon the "moderate" category - we wanted wines that tasted good, and were of high enough quality to accurately express varietal character and body, but we wanted them affordable enough so that participants could consider purchasing their favorites for casual dinners at home. This goes along with our general philosophy that wine is an "everyday beverage" - we like good wines that are affordable enough to enjoy each evening with dinner without feeling like we are blowing our budget.

Our Wine Selections
On to our selections. As I mentioned, the purpose of the Big Six is to distinguish differences in body across the major wine grapes of the world. For whites, Riesling typifies light-bodied, Sauvignon Blanc medium-bodied, and Chardonnay full-bodied; for reds, Pinot Noir typifies light-bodied, Merlot medium-bodied and Cabernet Sauvignon full-bodied. The following wines were purchased from Total Wine in McLean, VA:

Riesling: 2004 Domaine Trimbach (Alsace, France) - $16
Sauvignon Blanc: 2006 Stony Bay (Marlborough, NZ) - $12
Chardonnay: 2005 Franciscan Oakville Estate (Napa Valley, CA) - $13

Pinot Noir: 2006 Sockeye (Chile**) - $14
Merlot: 2003 Chateau St. Michelle (Columbia Valley, Washington) - $11.50
Cabernet Sauvignon: 2004 Simi Winery (Alexander Valley, CA) - $14

**Note: This is what happens when you don't do your research. I am a Pinot Noir neophyte, but have been interested in trying some Oregonian Pinots. Sockeye (like the salmon) sure sounds Northwest-ish, and this wine was filed under "Oregon". Turns out Sockeye sources grapes from different locales, and their 2003 was from Oregon, their 2004 was from Australia, and as I discovered upon returning home, their 2006 was from Chile! I thought this boded poorly for the tasting, since I have heard of a lot of great wines coming out of Chile and no one has ever mentioned Pinot...

The Wine Tasting Setup
To really be able to directly compare the different wines in the Big Six, Robinson recommends using 6 different glasses so that all wines could be poured at once. Thinking that this could end up pretty chaotic, I made a nifty little tasting mat to keep the wines in the right order.

Note to my viewers at home: this is actually a legal sized sheet of paper (8.5" x 14") - a standard 8.5" x 11" paper was just too small to allow for adequate spacing between the glasses!

So, everyone was provided with 6 glasses and a tasting sheet listing the wines we would be tasting and allowing space for them to take notes and rate them. Kris and I own a fair number of wine glasses, but at six-per-person, we had to make this a partial BYOGlasses event. In terms of the rating system, I wanted to keep this fairly straight-forward so used what many are now familiar with - the Netflix rating system: 5 stars Loved It, 4 stars Really Liked It, 3 stars Liked It, 2 stars Didn't Like It, 1 star Hated It.

The Tasting
So how'd it all work out? I must say, I was quite pleased with the results - not only did all of the wines rock in my mind (with the exception of the Chilean Pinot, which was just "OK"), but I was totally getting the whole "body" thing after about 30 minutes or so! The "tongue memory" of wine body is slightly fading, and I'd love to do this sort of tasting one more time to really solidify it, but I think the Big Six is an excellent tasting to start training your palate, and really fun to boot!

I think I will follow up this post with a second one detailing exactly why the Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay (and I didn't even think I *liked* Chardonnay!), Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon rocked. But suffice it to say that I would rate them all as exhibiting Excellent Quality-to-Price Ratio (QPR).

So What's Next?
Having had so much fun with the Big Six, I am already looking forward to the next of Andrea Robinson's recommended tastings. This next tasting involves 8 bottles, and is designed to help illustrate exactly what is meant by the tasting terms "dry", "crisp", "oaky" and "tannic". You pit a Dry Riesling vs. a Sweet Riesling, a Crisp, High-Acid Sauvignon Blanc vs. a Low-Acid Sauvignon Blanc, a "No-Oak" Chardonnay vs. an Oaky Chardonnay, and a Low-tannin Pinot Noir vs. a High-tannin Cabernet Sauvignon. This grouping seems a little more intuitive to me, as I think you pick up these terms while tasting easier than you may with wine body. But I trust Andrea's advice, and figure it's just too much fun to skip a recommended tasting! I'll let ya know how it turns out...


winedeb said...

I love it ! What a great way to be educated, which I am always trying to do. And with the wine world out there, do you think it is possible to ever try all ???
Hum, something to put down on my "when I retire things to do" list!

Dr. Debs said...

Coooool. I'm so glad somebody is still reading Immer (or Immer-Robinson, or whatever she's going by these days). I think its the best book out there for beginners, intermediates, and it even shows experts a thing or two. I love how simple and straight-forward she makes everything. And I'm pressed you did the whole thing from soup to nuts. Or from riesling to cabernet, I guess! (Sound of applause).

Dr. Debs said...

I'm impressed, not pressed. Why won't blogger let you correct? :)

Nate said...

Yeah, I just love the clear, down-to-earth and unpretentious way that she writes. And you'll be happy/entertained to know that when I looked the book up on, you're 2001-ish review of the book was one of the "featured reviews"! So that sealed the deal for me ;-)

I plan to do several other of the suggested tastings in the coming months - I'd go faster, but it always ends up turning into this big event that requires invitations and planning... I'll let ya know how it goes!

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