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Distinguishing New World Reds Blind

Hello Somm World! 

As I prepare for my certified in about a week's time, I'm beginning to really hone in on tasting and my current troubleshooting. 

 I'm finding my ability to differentiate and distinguish between super ripe, new world-style reds that see new oak to be quite difficult (i.e Californian Merlot vs. Malbec, Barossa Shiraz, Californian vs. Coonawarra Cab vs. Chilean Cab,  Australian GSM's, Zinfandel, etc.). I find the ripe fruit character makes it harder to distinguish varietal character and new oak muddles a lot. Plus, I don't drink a lot of these wines in general and am only recently visiting them out of necessity, really. 

Furthermore,  I find this subject fairly untouched in the blind tasting podcasts and the general literature on blind tasting on this fantastic website, and rightly so. However, I'm getting nit-picky. d

So my question is: are there any cues or techniques you can provide on how you take a red wine home once you've decided it's from the new world and is from a warm/hot climate? 

  • I might suggest simplifying from the perspective of the certified; I would distinguish between New World Cabernet, Shiraz, Pinot, Malbec and Zin—but beyond that you are getting too granular.

    Cabernet should have the most defined tannic structure and the likelihood of some slight level of green pyrazines and a likely use of new oak. Malbec is quite purple in color and has a grapey aroma. Zin shows a wide range of fruit ripeness (cranberry all the way to fig) with more alcohol than tannin. New world Shiraz should retain some level of peppery spice along with potential mint and a rich texture. Pinot should be completely different in both color and structure.
  • Having just run through certified I think many of my fellow students were waaaaayy overthinking it. The blind wines were very straightforward and as long as your descriptions are correct it should be a natural conclusion. I totally feel you on the broader question here as far as distinguishing fruit character in reds and I'm sure if I go towards Advanced I'll be more worried about this.
  • Great piece of advice from Andy Myers, MS: "Structure never lies" - if you're trying to differentiate the NW reds you outlined above solely on aroma you're going to get pulled around a lot, and probably never end up with a stable paradigm that reliably gets you to the wines. Focus on building structural profiles for the wines - "dry tasting notes" - so you can rattle off in your head: "California Merlot - mixture of red and black fruit, chocolate, subdued vegetal pyrazines, new oak - M+ tannin, M+ to full body, m to m+ acid..." etc.. Once you lock those profiles down distinguishing between the growing regions will get a lot easier - but even then it comes down to experience - I've known a great many people mistake a ripe Pomerol for a Napa Merlot, for example. Just keep at it and don't sweat the petty things until you're going for green!
  • So here's my little slice of perspective; Im meaning for it to be constructive, so hopefully it conveys that way

    "Super Ripe" is a fruit condition descriptor. There is without question fruit character in a wine and can be picked up on... Yet I feel that's a topic that is pretty subjective. What I sense as Strawberry, could be your raspberry, versus someone else's cranberry and yet someone else detects it as cherries, same wine mind you. Now don't get me wrong, there's a few wines that have some Bankers in the fruit world... i.e. Raspberry and Grenache, Lime and Riesling, Grapefruit with Sauvignon Blanc... but can you go to the bank with Oregon Pinot Noir because you get "ripe wild strawberry?"

    I encourage my Service staff to ditch the specifics when it comes to very specific fruit. I'd rather it be ambiguous... Calling ripe black fruit I think is a lot more helpful than blackberry or cassis (Mind you for scoring blind tasting, specifics are a beautiful thing). What is it about wine that doesn't change or can't be subjective? Structure in a wine does not change... and some of non fruit descriptors are constant in a wine.

    The amount of Acid a wine has, the tannin, the alcohol... etc these things aren't subjective. Your ability to perceive is now the margin for error, but a 16.5% Zinfandel is going to have that amount of alcohol regardless of anything else you're picking up on. Same with Non Fruit; botrytis on wine isn't going to change because you mistook ginger or saffron for oxidation. Same with some vinification methods; Malolactic fermentation on a wine is a constant, Lees stirring is a constant + Carbonic Maceration is a constant about the specific wine, etc.

    Also, in my opinion, there shouldn't be a decision made and then bring the wine home; it should be the other way around... Think of a wine as a set of leaps and bounds directions to a house. "Make a left at this rock, take ten paces, at the cow skull hang a right... etc. etc." Once you follow the directions and end up at the house, who's house is it? "Wow Mr. Malbec, why are your christmas lights still on your house in July?"

    In this case the "decision" shouldn't be in the directions you're being led on; it should be "do I want to knock on this door?" Zinfandel, Shiraz and Malbec for me during the certified were pretty similar. They can all be pretty high alcohol, full bodied, and jammy fruit right? You're not going to make a decision with just that evidence, but what about Rotundone (Cracked black pepper)? Is there Raisinated character in the wine? what about Pyrazine vs Eucalyptus? (admittedly, there's not a whole lot of pyrazine on Malbec) but you get the point.

    If you don't have at least 3 solidly unique reasons to call a wine, then don't.

    ALSO! The compendium has a section on grapes that gives a very solid breakdown of characteristics that are unique to each grape, so instead of saying this website doesn't cover it, check that first.