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Tony Aspler's Blind Tasting Competition 2003 

On Sunday, January 12th, I held the fourth annual Blind Tasting Competition at The Wine Establishment in Toronto. This event is open to all members of the Ontario Imported Wine Spirits and Beer Association. The purpose, apart from having fun, is to find the best blind taster among Toronto's wine professionals.

This year's winner was Rob Jull of Vinifera Wine Services.

Congratulations, Rob.

The six wines, served blind, were, in order:

  1. Balthazar Ress Hattenheimer Schützenhaus Riesling Kabinett 2000 (Rheingau)
  2. Strewn Terroir Riesling 1998 (Ontario)
  3. Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2000 (Napa Valley)
  4. Amity Pinot Noir 1999 (Willamette Valley, Oregon)
  5. Domaine Rochevine Saint-Joseph 1998 (Syrah – Northern Rhône)
  6. Rosenblum Zinfandel 1999 Richard Sauret Vineyard (Paso Robles, California)

Seeing Red over White Blindness
by Gordon Stimmell, The Toronto Star, Wednesday, January 22, 2003

I should have known better. Long ago I realized blind wine tastings can be crushingly hazardous to one's ego. And they've become even more difficult in the last decade after the globalization of wine varieties, styles and winemaking.

My goodness, they're making Aussie "shiraz" and Italian style pinot grigios in California; Burgundian pinot noirs in Oregon and New Zealand, California dreaming chardonnay in France and Lotusland zinfandels in Italy.

The Balkans are awash in North American big flavoured wines, Bordeaux style blends are sculpted everywhere, even in Austria, while zippy Germanic rieslings are sprouting in Ontario and New York State.

Perhaps the ubiquitous Rhone syrah grape is the hottest of all, trying for the big time in Ontario, B.C., California, Australia and the Pacific Northwest – all with startlingly similar aromas and flavours. It's all a tad bewildering and can lead to total confusion of the palate.

All of which leads us inexorably to a blind tasting on a recent Sunday afternoon at the Wine Establishment. I should have stayed home slurping chili and watching the NFL playoffs.

But it would not have been half as exciting or as humbling.

It was the fourth year of the Tony Aspler Blind Tasting Award, where my colleague invites expert tasters from wine agencies to identify six wines. I took part years ago in the predecessor event where tasting wizards were drawn from Toronto wine societies. One year I even placed third, of course, in an honourary capacity.

I gingerly sat down with six glasses before me, three whites and three reds. Agent tasters from Dionysus Brands, Maxxium, Churchill Cellars, Vinifera, Lifford and Charton Hobbs joined me at the table and the tasting was on. One agent asked if these were general list, or Vintages wines. Tony drolly replied, "No, they can be any wine from anywhere in the world. You must try to name the country, the region, the grape variety, the vintage year and the producer."

We gulped.

Then we swirled, and sniffed, and gargled and spat. What a way to spend a Sunday off.

The Tastings

White #1: Ah, lemon, lime, a hint of petrol! And in the mouth a slight off-dry sweetness. It's got to be riesling, I assured myself. But Ontario or Germany? It's like Thirty Bench's limited edition, but, too much petrol. Has to be European. I write down Germany, Nahe region, riesling.

White #2: Very lemony, no petrol, slightly bitter dryness to the finish. Tastes like a dry riesling. But Tony would not put two rieslings into the tasting, right? Don't second guess yourself, Gord, I tell myself. I decide it's pinot gris from Oregon, perhaps Chahalem.

White #3: Vague skunky notes greet my nose, masking any varietal purity, and dry, bitter almond flavours assail my palate. I try to taste through the slight flaws. After agonizing moments, I pick sauvignon blanc due to just a slight whiff of gooseberry. I put down Ontario, sauvignon blanc, maybe Southbrook.

Red #1: Bizarre lemony notes, weakish leather and telltale beet root aromas signal pinot noir. I hesitate: Could it be a weakish Chianti? Naw, I pick pinot noir. Is that your final answer? Yes, pinot noir from New Zealand, maybe Marlborough.

Red #2: Nice slightly subdued plum and vanilla with just a hint of brettanomyces, or barnyard odours. Solid mellow plum flavours. Has to be Rhone, south of France, maybe syrah. Perhaps Pays D'Oc syrah, so I put down Robert Skalli Fortant syrah.

Red #3: Ah, lovely aromas, big minty black cherry and cedar. Could it be zinfandel? No way, there's no cooked blueberry pie or pruney notes. Has to be tempranillo from Spain, Rioja, maybe Bodegas Bujanda. I jot it down on the sheet.

But what were the wines?

The Answers

White #1: Balthasar Ress Hattenheimer Schutzenhaus Riesling Kabinett 2000 (Rheingau). Well, at least I got riesling and Germany!

White #2: Strewn Riesling Terroir 1998 (Niagara). Drat! I should have known Tony would sneak two rieslings into the tasting! Ouch!

White #3: Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc 2000 (Napa). Well, at least I got sauvignon blanc correct. And hey, isn't Ontario Hollywood North? Do I get half a point?

Red #1: Amity Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 1999 (Oregon). Hurrah! At least I got pinot noir, even if I missed the continent! I wish Amity's Myron Redford would stop using all that ancient 15-year-old oak. It's very confusing.

Red #2: Domaine Rochevine Saint-Joseph 1998 (Northern Rhone). Fantastic, it's a syrah! And it's from the Rhone! Oops, I switched that to Pays D'Oc. Damn.

Red #3: Rosenblum Zinfandel Richard Sauer 1999 (California). Man, did I ever blow this one. This is one of those stunning single vineyard reds I can't afford. A refreshed humility pulses through my veins.

Only one winner was announced, with no runners-up revealed. But in a later phone call, Tony admitted I placed third out of the nine tasters. Except it doesn't count, because I'm not a wine agent and was just an observer/taster. Congratulations and cheers to victor of the day Rob Jull of Vinifera. No sour grapes, but I'll getcha next time, Rob.




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