Blind Tasting 31 of the World’s Top Cabernet Blends
The Master Blend Classification
In late February and on the eve of the Vancouver International Wine Festival, eleven of Canada’s leading wine critics gathered in Vancouver for the third Wolf Blass Master Blend Classification Tasting. Our assignment was to “classify” 31 of the world’s leading Cabernet Sauvignon based blends in a blind tasting. The wines selected for the tasting met three basic criteria: the vintage was 2010, the blend was predominantly cabernet sauvignon-based; and the wine had to fetch a minimum $100 retail price. In the end the list included some impressive labels from France, United States, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand, Italy and Australia, painstakingly collected (an accomplishment in any Canadian market for sure) and randomly queued for solo tasting.
The Master Blend Classification, inspired by the Bordeaux Classification of 1855 was also encouraged in part, by WineAlign’s own Bill Zacharkiw:
“I was asked to lead a tasting of Australian wines for my fellow Quebec journalists. With three winemakers present, I decided to throw everyone a curve ball, and have everyone, including the winemakers, blind taste their wines against comparable wines from around the world.
My goal was to show everyone, including the winemakers, where their wines stood against some pretty hot competition. And nothing defeats prejudice like blind tasting!
Well word got back to Wolf Blass chief winemaker Chris Hatcher about the stunt I pulled, and he loved the idea. And the next thing I know I am sitting in a room with $20,000 of wine and tasting through 30 of the world’s top cabernet blends.
That was one year ago, the inaugural Master Classification Blend tasting session. It takes guts to do what Hatcher is doing, and this is one of the most educational and fun tastings of the year. And I am glad to have been part of its genesis.”
Thanks to Bill, that’s how we came to be seated in a well lit room in Vancouver, with 31 glasses of red wine in front of us totaling some $20,000 in value. Some of the group had joined Bill at the previous tasting (see last year’s Master Blend Classification and the WineAlign critics’ thoughts on 2009 vintage) so we knew what was likely in store – First Growths, icon wines, curveballs, eye-openers and detailed takeaway notes unrivalled anywhere in the world.
After a couple of hours of contemplative tasting followed by some adept spreadsheet calculations, the collective results were revealed.
Top Ten 2010
Master Blend Classification Event Director, George Samios, noted the quality of the lauded 2010 vintage was evident, with less than 2.25 points differentiating the top 10 wines.
“The eleven judges had a great diversity of background and we saw some really robust and dynamic discussion about all of the wines. Key themes continued to be the oak to fruit relationship and also the respective “characters” of some regional wines.
Thoughts and themes from our WineAlign critics:
The Vancouver tasting confirmed what many have said, that 2010 in Bordeaux was an extremely good vintage especially if you value acidity. My top five wines were all Bordeaux (in order): Chateau Latour, Chateau Cos d’Estournel, Chateau Montrose, Chateau Léoville-Las Cases and Chateau Lynch-Bages.
Compared to the tasting of the 2009’s, when Bordeaux pumped out some pretty ripe wines, this year’s tasting showed that when Bordeaux has a more classic vintage, they really stand out from the pack. Last year, my top 10 was divided up pretty evenly between wines hailing from Italy, Chile and California.
It comes down to character, and I have always felt that the riper the grapes are picked, the less they are distinctive. This year I was able to guess which wines were from Bordeaux, while last year tasting the 2009’s, I wasn’t nearly as precise.
It was fun to be in Vancouver for a change, for a tasting of this magnitude and what turned out to be a showdown between California and Bordeaux. Both regions seemed more subdued in 2010 dealing with slightly cooler fruit. In my estimation California wines come about their ripeness and hedonistic demeanor in a more natural way than the Bordelais examples, i.e. sunshine and heat, versus optical sorting machines and cooler, low yielding vineyard sites.
That said, it is amazing how the gap between styles has closed over the last two decades, so much so that picking the appellation of any of these wines with certainty is a bit of a mug’s game. What I do know is that in all my travels through the New World, when you meet transplanted French people making wine in warm climates you usually find very interesting wines, and that was the case on this day.
In the end I chose the luscious Opus One over the more mineral and restrained Chateau Haut Brion, and while they are studies in opposite style, Opus One is really hitting its stride, especially bringing some much welcomed elegance to the Napa Valley theme. I’m guessing ten years from now the scores could be reversed. The Harlan Estate Red was as elegant as I can remember, and that gave it the edge over the Dominus on my score sheet although both are superb. The best value among the French wines has to be the sturdy, well-crafted Château Léoville-Barton.
Back to the French transplants, with Chile impressing and Almaviva just barely inching the Joseph Phelps Insignia on my card. Both are delicious wines and will be ready before the French bottles reach their glory. The leaner, cooler, more mineral resinous wines’ futures lay ahead of them; Chateau Montrose, Chateau Pichon Comtesse de Lalande and the Antinori Solaia round out my top wines scoring 91 points or higher.
It was a tough trial for the Wolf Blass Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz, now in its 38th Vintage with its 40 percent shiraz. Winemaker Chris Hatcher, to his credit, thought the acid was too high and so did I.
There may need to be a different world order in 2016, and perhaps opening up the pricing restrictions could allow that. Certainly I have had wines from Argentina and Canada that would challenge several labels and need to be at the show.
It was a suitable birthday present that I got to sit down at the end of February and taste 31 of the world’s most iconic Cabernet based wines, all from the 2010 vintage. Following on from last years tasting of the 2009 vintage, this was another good year for Bordeaux wines to strut their stuff. They performed pretty well, comprising six of my top 10 wines and nine of the top 12 when all tasters scores were averaged.
The surprise this year was the performance of the Italians. Last year I found them very new world and overly fruity and heavy on winemaking, but this year two were in my top four (Antinori Solaia and Ornellaia). The leathery, meaty, savouriness was back along with plenty of ripe, concentrated fruit.
The Californian wines caused a bit of strife amongst the tasters. Some wines were holding on to that lush, sweet style and while others were a bit more structured and less manipulated. There were scores both high and low for each style suggesting that California is in a bit of a state of flux as to what style its icon wines should be. I loved the Ridge Monte Bello as did a few others, but overall it finished quite a way down the list.
When tasting this calibre of wine, you have to basically disregard price as they are all expensive. But that said, a few of the wines that were expensive and from what should be a very good vintage disappointed. But that is always the way in wine and that is what keeps it interesting. 2011 with a cool year in Bordeaux should be very interesting indeed.
The Master Blend Classification is aptly named. Handling cabernet sauvignon takes masterful hand; blending is what adds grace and charm to Bordeaux’s haughty black grape, and the courage to rank/compare/classify cabernet blends is a useful and meaningful endeavour. Well done to Wolf Blass and ‘Hatch’ for the third incarnation of this self-imposed measuring stick. It is an incredible privilege to take part in this iconic tasting.
It does not need to be said again that all tasters were surprised (sometimes gob-smacked) by the ‘reveal’. The very young Bordeaux wines – all acknowledged stars – showed intractable and shuttered, (downright dour in some cases), and their Cali and Oz counterparts beamed in comparison. My highest scores landed on both a classic aristocrat, as well as the Wolf Blass Black Label…. Nice when the quality gap is narrow, between wines made worlds apart. My overall highest scores where for a happy mix of new and old world blends. In retrospect, the 2010 Bordeaux, despite the glorious vintage, were tightly bound and difficult to taste.
Chateau Margaux 2010 revealed its pedigree immediately, with intense perfume, potent cassis and the luxuriant aroma of fine, new French casks. Pauillac’s Chateau Latour 2010 emanates power and pedigree, even though it has years of unwinding ahead of it. While Eduardo Chadwick’s Seña 2010 displays lovely balance, depth and fruit right now.
What an honour to taste these gloried wines, en masse, and have a bit of solo time to meet each one.
Upon reflection, my top notes were written for Bordeaux, with the structured savouriness and gravitas of Chateau Latour taking first rank, followed closely by the smoked stone and white pepper of Chateau Beychevelle and the peppery potency of Chateau Cos d’Estournel. The fine bones, bacon and gravels of Chateau Pichon Longueville was compelling and singular, even though I felt I was tasting through a faulted bottle, and a pair of Léovilles (Chateau Léoville-Barton and Chateau Léoville-Las Cases) charmed with their potential. Of course, these were still all far too young, but testament to the 2010 vintage that they impressed and showed as well as they did at this stage.
But all my highest scores weren’t reserved for the graphite youthful grippiness of 2010 Bordeaux. I also appreciated the generosity of fruit balanced with tempered, integrated tannins in the dense Wolf Blass Black Label. Henschke Cyril Henschke, Vasse Felix Heytesbury and Opus One also surprised and impressed me with their lavishly fruited, moderately oaked and positively floral direction.
Would I have scored them as I did if I knew their retail price? Probably not. That’s the benefit of tasting blind, removing all name and price prejudices and shouldering up a $2500 bottle (Chateau Lafite) alongside one more than 25 times less (Vergelegn Estate GVB).
As this was my first Master Blend Classification tasting, I have no comparable event to hold it against. That said, I’m already looking forward to a line up of the 2011 vintage, when the playing field appears to be a bit more leveled globally.
To view the entire lineup of wines at the third annual event click on: Master Blend Classification
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