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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!!!!

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  • 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!

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