CONSIDERING there were 154 wines and 19 eager judges, you might imagine that it was a party. With some full-bodied carousing. Noise at least. Not the case. This was a serious tasting, by the experts. And as the wine was poured and the numbered glasses were lined up in front of these earnest oenophiles, the air was thick with reverence. This was work. Some three hours later it was over, and the five judges from the Chardonnay table, who had just tasted 54 of said variety (the Riesling group got away with only 23), left the Hyatt Regency meeting room like soldiers departing a wasted battlefield. As ballots were tallied, scores checked and re-checked, and conclusions drawn, the only sign of bacchanal excess was deteriorating handwriting.
D held the tasting in anticipation of this month’s second annual American Wine Exposition, sponsored by the locally-based Wine Association of America. Becky Murphy, president of the association and a wine columnist for The Dallas Morning News, organized and ran the tasting, as well as supervised the tallying. Wine was judged in five categories: 54 Chardonnays, 51 Cabernets, 23 Rieslings, 14 Pinot Noirs and 12 Sparkling Wines, all from the United States and all of recent vintage. The judges for the wine tasting included local retailers, caterers and wine writers, as well as restaurant owners, chefs and sommeliers from some of Dallas’ finest eating establishments. As Murphy noted, if a bomb had fallen on the Hyatt that afternoon, most of Dallas’ wine trade would have been destroyed.
The judges were divided into groups corresponding to the five wine varieties, with one table taking on both the Pinot Noirs and the Sparkling Wines because of their varietal similarity. The wines were tasted in random order. Prices and reputations ran the gamut. And because it was a double-blind tasting, the judges didn’t know what wine was in front of them, nor the list of all the entries. The judging followed the format of a modified Davis Scorecard, the popular scorecard devised by the Department of Viticulture and Oenology at the University of California at Davis. It’s a 20-point scale that distinguishes between appearance (2 points), color (2), aroma and bouquet (4), total acidity (2), sweetness (1), body (1), flavor (2), bitterness (1), astringency (1) and general quality (4). A perfect wine retains the highest possible number of points in each category, hence a perfect 20. Points are subtracted accordingly. Twenty points might seem more than enough leeway for judgment, but often points were broken down into decimal fractions, which made the tabulators’ jobs tricky and the competition dramatic. After cumulative scores were final, D converted the results to a 10-point scale, in the interest of clarity.
Think of this, then, as the wine Olympics. We’ve got 10 medal recipients in each category. All are deserving. Some of the wines that ranked lower than 10th may be pleased to remain anonymous, but it’s worth knowing that no wine dipped below 3.43 (a Char-donnay) and one varietal category (Cabernet) shouldered nothing lower than a 5.25. As a matter of fact, the results were top heavy. Remember, the judges were using a universal scale, judging against their knowledge of all wines, not those of a certain region or reputation. Echoing the scorecard, 8.5 to 10 is superior; 6.5 to 8.5 is standard; 4.5 to 6.5 is below standard; and 1 to 4.5 is unacceptable.
The big surprise was how well two Texas wines ranked. Many people don’t know there is such a thing as Texas-produced wine, much less a budding wine industry in the state. Many of the judges sported incredulous looks upon hearing the results; they couldn’t believe a Texas wine could rank so high. But there it was: Lubbock’s own Llano Estacado ’83 Chardonnay came in fifth with a 7.94 rating, right behind six California Chardonnays. And Pheasant Ridge Winery, also of Lubbock, found its ’83 Chardonnay in seventh place with a 7.56, and its ’82 Cabernet Sauvignon tied for an outstanding 8.84 first place along with a ’79 Cabernet from Estrella River Winery of California. The Llano Estacado garnered, from its four judges, two 8.6s, one 8.0 and a somewhat dissenting 6.75. The Pheasant Ridge Char-donnay took rankings spread fairly evenly between 8.5 and 7.0. The winning Cabernets each spread identically between 9.25 and 8.25.
SOME WORDS OF WINE:a brief glossary
Wine people, if you will, have a joke about “people” wine. If you want to describe a wine that you’re sipping, but can’t find the right words, just speak of it as though it’s your companion. “A shy but enthusiastic Chardonnay,” you might observe. Or: “This Riesling is cloying and dull, no fun at all.” Or perhaps, over an innocent (see how easy it is?) Pinot Noir: “A bitchy little wine, ambitious and deceiving.” Your companion should be impressed.
Wine terminology is animated. Many critics refer to a wine’s “personality.” Becky Murphy tells us that she once described a wine as “treacherous,” and she’s seen (in a reputable wine journal) a wine described as “cuddly.” Our own ballots unearthed such words and phrases as “aggressive,” “flabby” and “elegant style.” One wine was identified as a “solidly built middleweight” while another was deemed “not particularly complex but pleasant.” Wine words sometimes go too far, but much of the language is legitimate, if initially confusing, from the technical terms to the more subjective, ethereal words and phrases that confer, more or less, how the wine struck the taster. Here’s a sampling of the words of wine. Use with restraint.
From the Davis scorecard:
Appearance: Whether the wine is clear or cloudy. Cloudiness, which isn’t desirable, may be due to various particles left in suspension which should have been fined or filtered during the wine-making process. In an older wine, cloudiness is probably due to a disturbance of the sediment that occurs as a wine ages in the bottle.
Color: Just what it says. The proper color of a wine depends on its variety. Certain varieties have certain colors. A Riesling, for example, usually looks like pale straw, or, if it is sweeter, more golden. Intensity of color is often a good sign of a wine’s other virtues, but not always. Faded coloring, especially in a young wine, can indicate that it is aging poorly. Good red wines usually turn brownish with age.
Aroma and Bouquet: The aroma of a wine is its “grapey” smell, the discernable impression of the grape. The bouquet is the scent of a wine that has come of age.
Total Acidity: A measurement of the different acids found in wine-tartaric, citric, malic-and their balance with the wine’s sweetness. Acid is a neccesary component of wine, but too high an acid prominence makes the wine “unbalanced.”
Sweetness: Judged in accordance with acidity. Lack of sweetness makes a wine “dry”. A very sweet wine may have as much as 20 percent residual sugar. Very dry wines usually have less than .03 percent. Sweet wines are usually made from sun-ripened grapes which have a higher sugar concentration.
Body: The weight and viscosity of a wine on the palate. A full-bodied wine will feel like more in your mouth.
Flavor: Just what it says, and specifically its varietal flavor. A Pinot Noir should taste like a Pinot Noir.
Bitterness: Usually not desirable, although a few wines-such as Gewürztram-iner and Chianti-take on slight bitterness agreeably.
Astringency: The thing that makes you pucker, the same chalkiness tasted in a grape skin. Astringency is caused by tannins, which are found in the skins used to make red wine. High astringency, which makes the wine taste sharp and unfriendly, can indicate that a wine is too young to drink, although it might mellow with age.
General Quality: The overall taste and “performance” of the wine. The big picture.
Other terms and descriptions:
Advanced: Advanced in color, showing aging, sometimes seen as “browning” or fading.
Big: As in “big bouquet.” Full or heavy with scent.
Clean: No dirty aroma to the wine.
Finish: The remaining taste, smell and feel of the wine after you’ve swallowed it. A “long finish”-one that lingers-is usually desirable. A wine with a short finish may be fine for mere drinking, as opposed to savoring. A “hot finish,” which actually feels warm, indicates a high alchohol content.
Flat: Lacking in acidity, so as to taste actually flat in the mouth with no tingle.
Forward: As in “too forward.” The prominent smell and taste of the fruit.
Hold Up: As in “the wine doesn’t hold up well in the glass,” meaning that it doesn’t taste as good as on the second sip.
Nose: An umbrella term that refers to a wine’s aroma and bouquet.
Personality: More or less much the same thing as a wine’s “character.” The overall impression the wine makes upon the taster, such as “lively,” “gentle” or “quirky.”
Structure: The balance of the primary components and characteristics of a wine. A wine of good structure has the proper balance and will keep the proper balance, thereby earning the praise “well built.”
Tight: Having potential flavor that is not released.
Yeasty: Having a yeasty smell. Desirableif subtle. Champagne and other sparklingwines aquire yeastiness because of their second fermentation. -T.A.