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New World Oak vs. Old World Ripe Fruit

I’ve hit a spell of mistaking ripe fruit on wines from the old world for American oak when blinding in prep for my certified exam. Really, I think I’m just having issues recognizing new oak in general. For example, in the last week on three separate tastings:

I called McLaren Vale Shiraz on a 2014 Delas from St. Joseph. (Fruit was bright. Thought I smelled new oak)

i called Mendoza Malbec on a 2015 Pavie Macquin

I called Chianti Classico on a Big Bold 2012 1er Cru from Santenay with a lot of tannin (didn't catch the oak)

I remember even thinking while tasting that the structural issues didn’t quite match my calls; however, I have been convincing myself on the nose (which obviously comes early in the grid) with regards to American oak (or lack thereof) and letting that largely dictate my initial and final conclusions taking precedent over structural components.

I need help with oak!!!!

  • In my opinion, you're over thinking it. You're trying to prep yourself to taste like a master when going into the certified.

    The wines we blind taste ourselves end to be a little more advanced the wines we are blind tasted on in the CMS exam.   At the end of the day, they're not trying to trick you, just to make sure that you're able to go through the process. The wines that are tested are pretty standard for the regions in question.

     Being able to identify if a wine is high in acidity, or has oak at all rates just as highly as identifying the region.

     If you're having trouble with oak treatment, There are test kits specifically for that, but remember, oak is a tertiary flavor.

     If you want new American oak, try Rioja... or bourbon. those are the flavors you will get. French oak contains a little more vanila less coconut and pencil shavings..

  • Hey Bobby, 1st off Kudos on taking your certified here soon and good luck...

    Couple things; You have to crawl before you walk and walk before you run... I would 1st worry about identifying oak before I would jump to "This is for sure American/French oak..." One thing that helped me is to really only Assess it on the palate, in the beginning. When you're going to assess Alcohol, take a sip of the wine (and this is probably the only part of tasting where I do not expectorate the wine)... slosh it around and then give an exaggerated swallow. Now do Kruth's "Darth Vader," abig 'ol breath in to see where Alcohol is but now when you have that breath in, close your mouth and force yourself to exhale out of your nose (Thanks Jay Fletcher for this piece of the puzzle). To me this is where you can really sense if the wine has oak or not and has become a game changer for me. 

    You also nailed it when you spoke about structure. For Certified, that is probably the most important information you can gather and use. Fruit can sometimes betray you... but the amount of acid/tannin/alcohol/etc will not change or be an interpretive characteristic. 

    Also on all the wines you actually tasted, not a single one has American oak on it... so you're looking for something that's not even there. (Delas is 1-3 yr used French, Pavie Macquin is 70% new French and I don't know who the producer is for Santenay, but you don't find a lot of American Oak in Burgundy. [Prieur-Brunet? Claude Nouveau, Chevrot? My guess, if it's that big, is that it's Clos Rousseau 1er... (now im digging too far)]

    make sure you're shooting 90% with your layups before you 360 to the cup. Good luck sir!

  • Wow.  Thank you!!!!! Will definitely start practicing the "Darth Vader" technique on every tasting going forward.

    I also think a big part of my problem is that if I get bright enough fruit, I immediately think new world for the duration of the assessment, and then convince myself of a whole bunch of things that aren't there, haha (I had "Menthol and Eucalyptus" on the St. Joseph, SMDH)

    I've been smelling bottles of bourbon all morning to try to commit oak characteristics into memory, and as you mentioned, in my incorrect calls, the structure in every one of them should have been my biggest clue and would have saved me if I had not made an early conclusion in my head based on brightness of fruit. I'm getting "Fruit Betrays" tattooed on my wrist so I can see it every time I swirl a glass from now on.

    Thanks again. You guys are awesome. 

  • I'll second what the others have said, especially about practicing structure calls, and just add a couple things: I wonder if you or others are picking the right practice wines for the certified. Calling McLaren Vale on a St Joseph, calling Mendoza on a BDX...those old world wines should be significantly more earth and non-fruit driven than the new world wines you mistook them for. Picking the right examples to use isn't easy, but it's maybe the most important thing. There's plenty of iconic bottlings that can make blind tasting seem impossible, like Muga for Rioja, Do Ferreiro for Albariño, Altos las Hormigas for Malbec, to name a few. 

    Always find a moment to take you brain out of focus and think about big picture stuff with each wine. One friend of mine always used to tell me, before making your final call, sit back and enjoy the wine and things will come into a bit more focus. If recognizing oak isn't your strength, you can work around that. Study guides and mentors are truly important, but at the end of the day you have to find YOUR personal road map to getting each testable grape variety and style right. 

  • Thanks, Alexander!

    With regards to the McLaren Vale call, it smelled like syrah, tasted like syrah, but because I was getting more fruit than I normally detect on northern rhone, I went to Australia, convinced myself, and I called McLaren Vale because it had too much acidity to be Barossa.  That was the reasoning in my head at least, haha. But you are absolutely right, I should've known because of the earth dominant palate that it was old world.

    The Pavie Macquin may be a non-typical right bank (though it is much darker and more "minerally" on the palate than a new world merlot).  But the fig and fruit cake on the nose, again, made me think new world.  After that I was pretty much doomed.  My rationale in the Malbec call was basically "it's not jammy enough on the palate to be new world merlot so it has to be something with a jammy nose, but slightly darker palate, possibly south america, thus the malbec call. (and obviously a really stupid route to conclusion)

    Again, both examples of me immediately making a conclusion based on fruit character on the nose rather than a more sound structural call.  Alas, as you and the others have stated, I have to train myself to believe the structure!

  • Something Geoff Kruth said in a round table I was at early in my preparations for the Advanced exam was that sommeliers constantly overestimate oak when blind tasting. If you just *think* there's oak, it's probably not there. We spend a lot of time convincing ourselves that something is in the wine, rather than just reflecting back what is actually there, trusting ourselves, and then drawing the most logical conclusion off of what we have said (like everyone else has said - structure is everything; fruit alone will never tell you what the wine is).

    I would also point out that fruit *condition,* not character, is the most important thing about the fruit. To me, Australian shiraz is typically liqueured (like those candies with the fruit liqueur in them), whereas I have rarely come across either French or American syrah with that specific condition. Fruit in Chianti Classico generally exhibits some dried characters, whereas Burgundy is almost always fresh/tart. Fruit condition gives you a big clue as to the climate you're looking for, which combined with your theoretical understanding of wine regions and their climates should help you come to a good conclusion.

  • Thank you, Mia! I put this into play last night and it helped quite a bit as far as recognizing climate (though I still called the wine wrong, and didn’t even get the right continent). Called Cali cab on a Luis Canas 2010 rioja riserva. Definitely got oak and dark fruit. A ton of tannin and the fruit had a baked and almos dried condition to it. First thing I asked myself was “is there dill or pyrazines”. I didn’t get any on the nose so I went new World with it. Wasn’t nearly as candied as I would expect from Cali cab but there was no menthol or eucalyptus so I didn’t want to call it Shiraz. Since I had already ruled out old world (because I always feel like I can pick up dill on Rioja) I called Cabernet from Napa. But the plus is that I couldn’t get away from warm climate because the alcohol was so high. Haha. Alas, I didn’t even come within 5k miles or even the grape fam, but still feel better about it than my last tasting. But still, at this point, basically if it has oak and ripe fruit, I think I’m doomed.

  • Our tasting group practices “unblind” comparisons with wines that are easily confused with each other ie, Rioja, Chianti Classico, Brunello, Nebbiolo etc....there are many themes & variations to practice. MS Tim Gaiser recommends tasting extremes side by side, for example Oaky California Chardonnay vs Chablis. Check out his many articles that he has written on Tasting. He has helped me tremendously. Tasting unblind can truly help you identify/recognize the “subtle” differences that will ultimately help you recall and come to the right conclusion, or at least be in the “camp”. Do not stress! Practice makes perfect!

  • Thanks, Paige!  Let's hope practice makes passing, haha!