WINE is a complex combination of acids, alcohols, sugars, polyphenols, and other biochemicals suspended in an aqueous solution. These biochemicals may be experienced as colour, aromas and flavours, structure or mouthfeel, and by their effects—either pleasant or unpleasant, depending upon the amount consumed—on mind and body. Parameters such as grape variety, soil, climate, wine- making, and ageing express themselves through the ever-changing makeup of the liquid in the glass, which can be analysed and interpreted by the experienced or attentive taster.
Unfortunately, unconscious bias and suggestion are all too easily introduced into this process of identification and appreciation. Ideally, a wine ought to be evaluated objectively, with only an afterthought for such factors as price or prestige, the reputation of the region or producer, the shape of the bottle, the type of closure used, and the design on the label. Even our past experiences (‘I once had a lovely picnic in this vineyard’, ‘I hate Sauvignon Blanc’) and the context and conditions of the tasting (‘This room is cold’, ‘This Empire style Château is amazing’) can influence our appraisal of the wine.
While all these factors can, and inevitably do, play a part in our personal enjoyment of a wine, they can lead us to prejudice one grape variety, region, producer, vintage, etc. over another, and, ultimately, one wine over another. By holding us back from tasting different wines and thinking about wine, they limit our understanding, and so our enjoyment, of those wines and wine in general.
By far the best way to control for biases is to be blinded to everything but the liquid itself, which is served naked in a standard wine glass, preferably in a more or less neutral setting and without flourish or fanfare. The wine may be tasted either on its own or in a flight, in which case it may be usefully compared and contrasted with the other wines in the flight. The wines within a flight may or may not have certain things in common, for instance, grape variety, country or region of origin, and/or vintage. If these commonalities are revealed prior to tasting, the tasting is said to be ‘semi-blind’. The precise identity of a wine is only revealed once it has been thoroughly assessed and, for more advanced tasters, an attempt at identification has been made.
Aside from setting a standard of objectivity, there is much pleasure to be taken from the process of blind tasting, in:
Focusing on nothing else but the wines in our glasses.
Testing, stretching, and developing our senses.
Applying our judgement.
Relying upon and recalling old memories.
Comparing our analysis and interpretations with those of our peers.
Getting it completely right, more or less right, or ‘wrong for the right reasons’.
Discussing the wine and learning about it, and about wine in general.
Imbibing the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.
In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, blind tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the aromas and flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world. For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.
In philosophy, phenomenology is the study of the structures of experience and consciousness. Wine blind tasting is the best phenomenology, phenomenology par excellence, returning us from our heads into the world, and, at the same time, teaching us the methods of the mind.
The more practically-minded among you may rest assured that blind tasting also has some more down-to-earth purposes: winemakers need to taste a wine as they are making it; wine buyers before adding it to their stocks; journalists, critics, and sommeliers before recommending it to their readers and patrons; and imbibers before sharing it with their friends. Especially as a student, you can enter into a growing number of local, national, and international blind tasting competitions. You can also pursue more formal qualifications and give yourself the option of entering into the wine trade, which is no doubt more life affirming than many other trades.
Apart from some light reorganizing, refreshing, and enriching, the third edition includes new chapters on the philosophy of wine, Greece, and Georgia, and new sections on Savoie, Irouléguy, Corsica, and Montilla-Moriles. Following recent research trips, I have reworked the chapters on Austria, Burgundy, Chile, and Hungary, and the sections on Cahors, Madiran, Jurançon, Languedoc- Roussillon, Sicily, and Sherry.
Many thanks to all those who helped me design the striking cover.
Reviews of previous editions
A comprehensive education in wine –The Times Literary Supplement
Splendid, concise, up-to-date, comprehensive and accurate –Clive Coates MW, Author of The Wines of Burgundy
Delightful yet sophisticated –Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, Author of The Wines of Greece
Trustworthy and valuable –Richard Hemming MW for JancisRobinson.com
An indispensable guide –Michael Palij MW, Founder of Winetraders and Winematters
Anyone on a wine course should consider this essential reading –Thomas Parker MW, Purchaser at Farr Vintners
In the 19th century, French Basque settlers brought the Tannat grape into Uruguay, a small bucolic nation to the northeast of Buenos Aires. Today, Uruguay is a welcoming, liberal, and forward-looking country with lush grasslands, virgin beaches, and no traffic jams. Cattle, mostly reared on grass, outnumber people by four-to-one, and an invitation to stay for lunch typically takes the form of “Would you like an entrecôte?”Many people assume that Uruguay is a tropical country, but, at 35 degrees South, the capital of Montevideo shares a similar latitude to Colchagua in Chile, Cape Agulhas in South Africa, and McLaren Vale in Australia. Uruguay is at the northern end of the cold Falklands Current, and the Atlantic Ocean exerts a strong moderating influence, as does the immense Plata Estuary at the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraná Rivers. Indeed, the climate in and around Montevideo is often compared to that of Bordeaux, although average temperature and average rainfall are both higher. The most common training systems are espalderaalta (VSP) and lyre to mitigate against high humidity and minimize frost damage.
The terrain in Uruguay is mostly flat or gently undulating. The coastal and more populated south of the country accounts for some 90% of production, and the Canelones department around Montevideo accounts for some two-thirds of that. The soils in Canelones are for the most part limestone clay. Other centres of viticulture include Carmelo near the Argentine border, and Garzón to the east in the Maldonado department. Garzón is noted for its rockier granitic soils and slightly cooler climate and has seen some heavy investment especially from Argentina.
Uruguay counts around 180 wineries, often run by the third or fourth generation of Italian, Basque, or Catalonian settlers. From the 1970s, these families shifted from bulk to quality wine production, with a focus on Tannat which has come to account for more than a quarter of the ~6,500ha under vine. In my time in Uruguay, I tasted every possible style of Tannat, including a soft, ‘nouveau’ style made by carbonic maceration (at Pizzorno) and even a sparkling style made by traditional method double fermentation (at Pisano). The signature full-bodied style is deep purple with a heady aroma of plum and dark fruit, tobacco, leather, and petrichor. In the mouth, the wine is full-bodied with high tannins, balanced alcohol, and refreshing, multiform acidity. Compared to Madiran or Irouléguy (which are also Tannat or Tannat-dominated), it is likely to be softer, with slightly higher alcohol and more spiciness than minerality.
Other important grape varieties in Uruguay include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, and I also tasted successful examples of Petit Verdot, Riesling, Syrah, Tempranillo, Torrontes, Viognier… Because there are many parallels between Garzón and Galicia, I was very curious to taste the Albariño from Bodega Garzón: compared to its Old World counterpart, it is fuller and riper, with notes of white peach, canteloupe melon, honey, fennel, sage, and cardamom, a bitter and balancing backbone, and a long and salty finish.
Because Uruguay has no appellation system, the wineries have a very free hand to experiment and respond to consumer tastes. With some ‘softening’ blends, this can seem as much a curse as a blessing—by which I mean, if you’re going to put 20% Viognier into your Tannat, you might as well be making Merlot.
Unfortunately, Uruguayan wines can be hard to source. Compared to Chile and Argentina, production is small and artisanal, and the silver beaches around Punta del Este are a magnet for well-heeled (and often high-heeled) Argentine and Brazilian tourists. Still, most wineries are keen to export their wines and show the world what they can do.
Favourite producers include Pisano (the RPF range is especially good value), Antigua Bodega Stagnari (try if you can the Osiris), Bouza (pronounced ‘Bow-za’), Familia Deicas, Garzón, de Lucca, Marichal, Pizzorno, and Viñedo de los Vientos. 2018 is an exceptional vintage in Uruguay, while 2014, owing to harvest rains, is the weakest in recent years.
One of the 18 regions of France, the island of Corsica lies to the south-east of mainland France, off the coast of Tuscany and just north of Sardinia. From early antiquity, Greek colonists cultivated the vine in Corsica. In the 13th century, control of the island passed from Pisa to Genoa, and then, from 1768, to France. The following year, an Italian noblewoman Maria Letizia Buonaparte gave birth to a boy, Napoleon, in Ajaccio—now the island’s capital. In the wake of the Algerian War (1954-1962) many pied-noirs resettled in Corsica, contributing to a four-fold increase in vineyard area. In recent decades, initiatives by the European Union have led to a refocussing on quality wine production, with vineyard area falling back to ~7,000ha. This being fairly limited, Corsican wines do not come cheap. But progress in recent years has been phenomenal, and the best examples are worth the outlay.
Corsica is very mountainous, and vineyards tend to be planted nearer the coast. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot, dry summers and short, mild winters, although the shifting landscape allows for a range of mesoclimates. The sea moderates temperatures, while the mountains can significantly increase diurnal temperature range. The main threat to the harvest comes from heat and drought. Most of the island is granitic, but the Cap Corse peninsula in the far north is rich in schist, Patrimonio just south of Cap Corse is rich in limestone clay, and Bonifacio in the far south is rich in chalky limestone.
The catch-all Ile de Beauté IGP accounts for more than half of the island’s production. The generic Vin de Corse AOP also covers the entire island. Subject to stricter rules, five areas can append their names to the Vin de Corse AOP: Coteaux du Cap Corse, Calvi, Sartène, Figari, and Porto Vecchio. Patrimonio and Ajaccio have their own AOPs. Finally, there is an AOP for Muscat du Cap Corse, a vin doux naturel made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. Production of Muscat du Cap Corse is small, but the wine can impress, with notes of rose petal, orange blossom, litchi, and honey, high but balanced acidity and smoky minerality. Rarer still from Cap Corse is Rappu, a red vin doux naturel made from the Aleatico grape, which is also behind Elba Aleatico Passito DOCG.
About half of Corsican wine is rosé, a third red, and the remainder white, although, compared to the cooperatives, leading producers tend to make proportionally less rosé. One producer sought to justify his rosé production by saying, “A Ferrari is not much good without petrol.” By far the most important grape varieties are Nielluccio (Sangiovese) and Sciacarello (Mammolo) for reds and rosés, and Vermentino (Rolle) for whites. Reds and rosés made under Vin de Corse AOP must include at least 50% Nielluccio, Sciacarello, and Grenache. Patrimonio reds and rosés are heavily dominated by Nielluccio, which does best on calcareous soils. Sciacarello on the other hand does best on granitic soils, and is the leading variety in Ajaccio and the south. Producers are enthusiastic about local varieties, including rarer varieties such as Bianco Gentile, Aleatico, Morescola, Morescono, Montanaccia, Carcajolo Nero… One producer I visited had been grafting Vermentino onto 50-year-old Grenache because “we don’t want to drown in the Rhône”. Nielluccio is bold and structured with notes of black fruit, tomato leaf, and maquis herbs. It is often blended with Sciacarello, which is lighter, with notes of red fruits, almonds, and coffee or pepper. Corsican whites are often 100% Vermentino. They are typically pale in colour, with notes of grapefruit, peach, almond, flowers, fennel, and anise, with balanced acidity and a bitter finish. Depending on terroir, they can be either rich or mineral. The unblended Bianco Gentile from Yves Leccia in Patrimonio is fresh yet mouthfilling, with notes of lemon, beeswax, chamomile, popcorn, and smoke.
Some favourite producers in Corsica include Pieretti and Clos Nicrosi in Cap Corse, Domaine Arena and Yves Leccia in Patrimonio, and, further south, Jean-Charles Abbatucci, Yves Canarelli, Clos Culombu (try the Storia di cuvées), and Domaine Vaccelli (try the Granit cuvées). Abbatucci and Canarelli are leading the revival of rarer varieties and, in the case of Canarelli, the limestone terroir of Bonifacio. At the time of writing, there are about 150 independent producers in Corsica, but just five in Cap Corse and three in Bonifacio, highlighting the unrealized potential of this serene island.
Some of the cellar walls at Nikolaihof in Wachau were built by the Romans. Schloss Gobelsburg in Kamptal is still owned, though no longer operated, by Cistercian monks. In 1985, it emerged that a few Austrian wine brokers had been adulterating their light and acidic wines with diethylene glycol to increase body and sweetness. This ‘antifreeze scandal’ hit the international headlines, almost completely destroying the reputation of Austrian wine. In the following years, Austria turned away from medium-sweet mass-market wines and, like the phoenix rising, reinvented itself as a producer of quality wines.
The lie of the land
Austria’s four wine regions of Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), Burgenland, Wien (Vienna), and Steiermark (Styria) are all in the east of the country, bordering on the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia. Lower Austria, Burgenland, and Styria are divided into districts, of which there are, including Vienna, a total of 16. Burgenland sits on the edge of the vast Pannonian Plain, and is much flatter than the other three regions. Soils are very diverse, even within a single region; but the most important or prevalent soils are a varying thickness of loess over gneiss in Lower Austria, sand over limestone in Burgenland, and clay over limestone in Styria.
Austria is a landlocked country with a frankly continental climate marked by cold winters and hot summers. Autumns are long, enabling grapes to ripen and sweet wines to be made. High diurnal temperature variation throughout the growing season promotes concentration of sugar and phenolics while preserving natural acidity. In Lower Austria, the Danube and its tributaries moderate temperatures, as does, in Burgenland, the Neusiedlersee (Lake Neusiedl), which also creates the conditions for noble rot. Burgenland in particular also benefits from warm easterlies from the Pannonian Plain. Many vines in Austria (although not those dedicated to the finest wines) are trained high on the Lenz Moser system, which offers some frost protection and reduces labour costs.
Austrian wines are mostly dry white wines, although sweeter white wines are also made. 26 varieties are permitted for quality white wine, but the best are made from Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, or Chardonnay, with Grüner by far the most planted variety. In valleys like Wachau and Kremstal, Grüner tends to be planted on moisture-retaining loamy soils, and Riesling on higher, drier stone terraces. Other important white varieties are Welschriesling (unrelated to Riesling), Pinot Blanc (Weißburgunder), and Sauvignon Blanc. Red wines account for ~30% of production, and are most often made from Blaufränkisch and local varieties such as Zweigelt (Blaufränkisch x Saint Laurent). Although plantings are fairly small, Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder) punches above its weight on the export market. In total, 14 varieties are permitted for quality red wine.
There are three separate classifications operating in Austria. The traditional classification is modelled on that of Germany, with four principal levels based on must weights: Tafelwein, Landwein, Qualitätswein, and Prädikatswein. The bulk of production is either Qualitätswein or Prädikatswein; given the choice, many producers prefer to label their wine as Qualitätswein to circumvent a German style of labelling. In addition to Kabinett (which in Austria is included under Qualitätswein rather than Prädikatswein), Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, and Eiswein, there are two additional styles, Ausbruch (‘break out’) and Strohwein (‘straw wine’). Traditionally, Ausbruch is made by adding grape must or late harvest wine to shrivelled botrytized grapes to ‘break out’ the sugars and facilitate fermentation. These days most Ausbruch is made just like Trockenbeerenauslese, but with a minimum must weight of 27°instead of 30° on the Klosterneuburg Must Weight Scale. For each classification level, minimum must weights are higher than in Germany. As in Germany, chaptalization is permitted for Qualitätswein, although not for the higher level of Kabinett. Unlike in Germany, the addition of Sußreserve is not permitted for Prädikatswein.
In addition, most of Austria’s 16 wine regions adhere to a geographical appellation system, Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC), first introduced in 2003 and comprising three ascending levels: Gebietswein (regional wine), Ortswein (villages wine), and Riedenwein (single vineyard wine). As with other geographical appellation systems, each DAC has specific requirements intended to bring out the particular characteristics of a recognized regional style. The DACs include Kremstal (for Riesling and Grüner), Kamptal (Riesling and Grüner), Traisental (Riesling and Grüner), Wiener Gemischter Satz (various white varieties in a blend), Weinviertel (Grüner), Leithaberg (Grüner, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Neuberger, Blaufränkisch), Neusiedlersee (Zweigelt: 100% Zweigelt for Klassik, and at least 60% for Reserve Cuvée Blend), Mittelburgenland (Blaufränkisch), and Eisenberg (Blaufränkisch). The DAC system is still in a state of flux.
The Wachau operates a separate classification, the Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus. This has three ascending categories, all for dry wines, defined by the maturity of the grapes: Steinfeder, Federspiel, and Smaragd, the last, Smaragd, named after an emerald lizard of the vineyards. Outside Wachau, the Association of Austrian Traditional Wine Estates is working with the German VDP to classify the vineyards of the Danube region (‘Donauraum’), including Kamptal, Kremstal, and Traisental.
Lower Austria is the country’s largest and most important wine region, accounting for eight of the sixteen districts and over half of production. The extreme west of the region boasts the small and premium district of Wachau, with vineyards on steep terraces that stretch along the Danube from Melk to Krems. Wachau can be divided into Upper, Middle, and Eastern—or ‘Lower’, but the locals, being Catholic, prefer ‘Eastern’. The cool continental influence is stronger in Upper Wachau, while the warm Pannonian influence is stronger in Eastern Wachau, where the valley is also wider. Wachau is famous for its rich and concentrated Grüners and Rieslings. The district is home to a large but highly rated co-operative, the Freie Weingärtner Wachau. Immediately to the east of Wachau is Kremstal, where the Danube valley opens up into gently rolling hills. Like Wachau, Kremstal is especially noted for its Grüners and Rieslings, which qualify for the Kremstal DAC. To the north-east of Kremstal is Kamptal, which stretches out around Langenlois with the best vineyards on steep south-facing terraces overlooking the River Kamp. These vineyards are especially suited to Riesling, with both Rieslings and Grüners qualifying for the Kamptal DAC. Closer to the Danube, the side valley opens up and black varieties become more common. Wagram stretches from Kamptal to Vienna along the Danube. The deep loess soils are particularly suited to Grüner although other varieties are also planted. Founded in 1114, Klosterneuburg Abbey in the east of the district is one of the oldest and largest wine estates in Austria. To the west of Wagram and south of Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal lies the small district of Traisental. Grüner, Riesling, and other varieties are cultivated on steep terraces overlooking the River Traisen, with Grüners and Rieslings qualifying for the Traisental DAC.
The Weinviertel (‘Wine Quarter’) is the largest district in Lower Austria and indeed Austria, accounting for about half of plantings in Lower Austria and one-third of plantings in Austria. The land is mostly flat and fertile and given to Grüner, which is made in a fresh and fruity style. However, there are some more interesting terroirs being cultivated by quality producers such as Graf Hardegg and Pfaffl: at Graf Hardegg, I tasted a 25-year-old Grüner that had developed notes of fennel, honey, toffee, toast, and cognac, and still looked youthful. Many other varieties are cultivated in the Weinviertel, but in much smaller quantities. Sekt is made from Riesling and Grüner in the far north-east around Poysdorf.
South of the Weinviertel and of the Danube lies the hilly district of Carnuntum. With its deep soils and warmer climate, Carnuntum is particularly suited to black varieties, with Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt dominating plantings. To the south-west of Carnuntum is Thermenregion, named after Roman thermal baths. Thermenregion is noted for a white wine blend of indigenous varieties Zierfandler (Spätrot) and Rotgipler. Black varieties are also cultivated, Portugieser first among them.
Vienna is fiercely proud of its 640ha of vineyards. Land on the left (northern) bank of the Danube is mainly planted to Grüner, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc, and on the right bank to black varieties. Though it has its crus, Vienna is noted for Gemischter Satz DAC, a blend of several varieties cultivated en foule in the same vineyard. Punters can drink the latest vintage of Gemischter Satz by the jug in one of the city’s many wine taverns or Heurigen, which are signposted with sprigs of pine over the door.
Burgenland is home to four DACs: Neusiedlersee, Leithaberg, Mittelburgenland, and Eisenberg. The Neusiedlersee district in the north of the region is reputed for its botrytized wines made from Welschriesling or a number of other varieties other than Riesling (sometimes in a blend). However, the Neusiedlersee DAC is exclusively for red wines dominated by Zweigelt. To the west, on the opposite shore of the lake, which is never deeper than 1.8m, is Neusiedlersee-Hügelland (‘Hill Country’). This district of diverse terrains produces sweet white wines (including the renowned Ruster Ausbruch, Austria’s best answer to Tokaji), dry white wines, and dry red wines. The Leithaberg DAC is for white wines made from Grüner, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Neuberger, and red wines made from Blaufränkisch. The DAC covers an area of limestone and slate soils connected with the Leitha Mountains, west of Lake Neusiedl. Chardonnay from certain Leithaberg vineyards, such as the limestone-rich Gloria, might well be mistaken for top Burgundy. Mittelburgenland, nicknamed ‘Blaufränkischland’, on the Pannonian Plain is the spiritual home of Blaufränkisch, which accounts for more than half of the district’s plantings. The other DAC for Blaufränkisch is Eisenberg (‘Iron Mountain’), to the south in the small district of Südburgenland, which is noted for its soils of slate and ferrous loam.
‘Weinland Osterreich’ consists of Lower Austria and Burgenland, which together account for more than 90% of Austria’s vineyard area. The main motive for this legal construct is to enable Landwein to be blended across a very large area.
Styria stands out for its small size, rugged terrain, and warmer and wetter climate, with marked diurnal temperature variation. The bulk of production is consumed locally. The soils of South-East Styria (Südoststeiermark) are largely volcanic in origin, lending themselves to the cultivation of varieties from the Traminer family, although, of course, other varieties are also planted. The wines are crisp, aromatic, and full-bodied with notes of spice and mineral. South Styria is very mountainous, with vineyards planted on steep, south-facing slopes. The district is reputed for its Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay (‘Morillon’) and noted for its ‘Junker’ (young, fruity wines). West Styria counts only 500ha of vines. It is known for Schilcher, a cult rosé-style wine of searing acidity made from the indigenous Blauer Wildbacher grape. From the 2018 vintage, all three Styrian regions can claim DAC status.
Like Alsatian Riesling, which it most resembles, Austrian Riesling is dry with high acidity, medium-to-high alcohol, and pronounced minerality. However, it is typically less austere and dominated by riper stone fruit. ‘Hints of lime’ is another common tasting note. Riesling from Kremstal and Kamptal is often fuller than that from Wachau.
The vegetal, peppery Grüner Veltlineris very much an Austrian speciality. It is produced in a range of styles and qualities, and is often reminiscent of Burgundy or Alsace. Grüner from Wachau is pale gold with hints of green. It is typically dry with notes of celery, white pepper, spice, and minerals. Depending on ripeness, fruit can range from apple and grapefruit to distinctly tropical fruits. Body is medium to full, acidity is high, alcohol is medium-high or high, and oak is typically absent. The best examples can develop honeyed and toasty aromas with age. Grüner Veltliner from Kremstal and Kamptal is often fuller than that from Wachau.
Blaufränkish is usually dark purple in colour with notes of red currants or cherries, blackberry, pepper and spice, and liquorice. On the palate, body is medium, acidity high, alcohol medium, and tannins firm and grippy. Some examples are aged in new French oak. Blaufränkisch is sometimes blended with other varieties such as Zweigelt, in which case it contributes acidity and structure to the blend. Owing to the red, iron-rich soils, Blaufränkisch from Eisenberg is typically spicier than that from Mittelburgenland.
Zweigelt is fresh and fruit-driven. It is often deep ruby in colour, with notes of red cherries and soft spice such as cinnamon and nutmeg. On the palate, it is light-to-medium bodied with a supple acidity reminiscent of Barbera (but less high), medium alcohol, and soft and subtle tannins. Oak is usually absent.
Top producers in Austria include Franz Hirtzberger, Knoll, Nikolaihof, FX Pichler, Rudi Pichler, and Prager in Wachau; Bründlmayer, Schloss Gobelsburg, and Loimer in Kamptal; Felsner, Malat, Sepp Moser, and Nigl in Kremstal; Graf Hardegg and Pfaffl in Weinviertel; Feiler Artinger, Gesellmann, Gernot und Heike Heinrich, Kollwentz, Kracher, and Poeckle in Burgenland; and Tement in South Styria. Although top Rieslings and Grüners can evolve with age, most Austrian wines are destined for early drinking, and there is not the same emphasis on vintage as in some other regions.