Response to “Syrah vs. Cabernet blind tasting”

By Jesse on April 28, 2008

Last year we embarked on an ambitious tasting endeavor with our 2007 March Madness blind tasting tournament. The results separated the men from the boys, the women from the girls, the boys from the women, etc. This year, we didn’t get a proper March Madness tournament going on (what with all the other madness the Winos were experiencing in March), so we satisfied our blind tasting jones by gathering in Jason’s living room for a one-day, two-varietal, nine-bottle event.

We opted to start with the two French examples for a non-blind primer in the (naive?) hope that the grapes’ respective characteristics would reflect themselves similarly in the New World examples. First up was the Syrah, the 2006 Domaine Entrefaux (Crozes-Hermitage). The nose was typical: black peppercorns, blackberries, and smoke. Andrew got Worcestershire sauce, and I thought it was gamy and a bit inky. The palate was dark; I got dried plums and a lot of acid. “Not much fruit,” commented Max, and Mary said it was “back of your throat peppery.” Jason claimed “eggplant” and Jessica described a “vinegar aftertaste.” Quel dommage.

You wouldn’t believe the shock that Jason and I experienced when we read the back of the 2005 Chateau Coufran (Haut-Médoc) — a rive gauche Bordeaux from an area that produces almost exclusively Cab-dominated blends, and a bottle that the sales associate in Wine House had emphatically assured us was majority Cab — only to find that this particular bottle, remarkably, was majority Merlot. And boy, did Andrew love that little faux pas. How stupid were we? Couldn’t we have simply read the back of the bottle in the store, huh? Well, sure, Andrew, we could have, but when someone who works there and clearly knows what he’s talking about in every other respect leads you to a specific bottle and insists that it meets the very few specifications you’ve given him, typically that’s satisfactory. (If you’re in the car dealership, and the salesman tells you that the car you want to buy has four cylinders, do you lift up the hood to count them? They generally know what they’re talking about.)

Fortunately, none of us have drank enough low-end to mid-range Bordeaux to be able to tell the rive gauche bottles from their rive droite counterparts with any degree of accuracy, so the wine at least served its purpose of giving us something that tasted (relatively) like a Cab. An earthy nose offered us mushroom, black cherry, dark chocolate, and leather. Jessica thought it was “grassy,” Andrew smelled a whole lot of alcohol, and newbie Jeremy threw in “cassis” for good measure. The pal was refined; Jason loved it and exclaimed “this is fantastic.” A lot of berries on the front, more than I would’ve expected — Brian identified them as cranberries. Sunil didn’t think it was as flavorful as the Syrah, and most of the newbies hated the tannins. Andrew agreed: “bitter tannins,” he grumbled. But Jason loved it.

The cram session over, we poured the first four bottles. After tasting them all and making guesses, the bottles were revealed and the points tallied. Here’s what we came up with:

Bottle 1
Nose: good fruit, pepper, some coffee
Palate: some acid, medium body and smooth, pleasant, some pepper, some leather. Drinks very nicely. I guessed Syrah.
Katie appreciated that there were no tannins. Jessica disagreed with my leather, but thought it was “peppery.” Erik agreed, and assumed it was Syrah.

Bottle 2
Nose: gingerbread, inky, tar, a little spice, a little game
Palate: medium-bodied, some serious spice and acid on the end, and a solid finish. “This is a good wine,” I wrote in my notes, and guessed Syrah.
Joe thought it felt “Australian,” and guessed Syrah as well. Jason described a “vanilla bean nose,” some spice, light tannins, and berries. Jessica called it “not tannic” and fruity, and guessed Syrah.

Bottle 3
Nose: total black pepper and dark fruit
Palate: medium body again, huge pepper, big red berries and some blueberry as well. I guessed Syrah again, forcing myself not to consider the improbability of three of the same varietal coming up in a row.
Mary got some chocolate, Jessica described “light tannins,” and Jason came up with the remarkable “beach sand and butter.” And he still guessed Syrah.

Bottle 4
Nose: huge blackberry, blueberry, and massive chocolate
Palate: dark berries, blueberry (again!), some nice tannins, great structure, and explosive fruit flavors. I guessed Cab.
Jordan called it “very fruity, simple like a Cab.” Jason pointed out that there was no pepper on the palate. He guessed Cab.

1. 2003 Groth “Oakville” Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
2. 2006 Cycles Gladiator Syrah (Central Coast)
3. 2006 Razor’s Edge Shiraz (South Australia)
4. 2005 Bernard Griffin “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley, Washington)

What a round! I was thrown for a loop by the Groth; the big, tannic monster that I suppose I’d expected had mellowed out to a smooth, sleek, velvety wine with a tendency to glide down your throat and trick you on the way. Several others were baffled by that one as well. (Not Jason, Jordan, or Joe Marcello, however; they all went 4 for 4!) We re-calibrated our pals and moved on to round two.

Bottle 5
Nose: dark, dried fruit. Very inky, some blueberry, some prune.
Palate: big dark fruit. Almost oppressive in its plum pudding character. Chewy, intense raisin, and rum punch. I guessed Syrah.
Mary found it both peppery and tannic (complicating the simple Syrah vs. Cab algorithm she’d depended on). Jeremy got dark berry, leather, and pepper, and Jessica described it as “chewing grape stems.”

Bottle 6
Nose: no huge impressions jump out at you; some ink and dark berries. This wasn’t the biggest nose ever.
Palate: medium body, some charcoal and chocolate peeking through. Powdery tannins and some acidity as well. This one stressed me out, due to the relative lightness of the body, but I went with Cab.
Andrew described bright fruit and a “comeback finish,” as well as “signature” Cab tannins. Max called it a “textbook New World Cab,” but Jessica disagreed, picking Syrah because of the “light tannins” and “mulchy, fruit-forward palate.”

Bottle 7
Nose: straight sewage. No kidding.
Palate: more of the same. Bile. People were revolted. Jason had them funnel their glasses back into the bottle, and he returned it the next day. I’ve never smelled or tasted a wine like that in my life. Purely by process of elimination (since I knew how many bottles of each were in the game), I picked Syrah.

5. 2001 Duchamp Syrah (Dry Creek Valley)
6. 2004 J. Lohr “Seven Oaks” Cabernet Sauvignon (Paso Robles)
7. 2005 Koehler Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley)*

*Jason brought this back to the store the next day, where an associate smelled it and didn’t detect the raw sewage that had so flummoxed us. However, he gave Jason a new bottle, which several of us drank later that week. The initial nose featured a toned-down version of the same: a strange and unappealing fecal character. However, this eventually breezed off, and the wine underneath was rich, fruity and nicely balanced, just as we’d initially enjoyed it in the Wine House’s tasting room. We still believe, though, that something about that first bottle was way off, and perhaps even other-worldly.

Due to the reluctance of just about anyone to taste much of that third bottle, results from the second round will always carry an asterisk. That said, Allison did manage to guess all three correctly (as did Jason and I — again, with the advantage of knowing what kind of wine was left).

Overall the tournament was a trial, but a rewarding one; we discovered several delicious wines and had a decent amount of fun in the process. Full results can be found in this blog entry. Lets do it again soon!


  1. “forcing myself not to consider the improbability of three of the same varietal coming up in a row.”

    Just so you know, it’s not any more “improbable” to draw three Syrahs in a row than any other combination, assuming you don’t know how many Syrahs and how many Cabs there are. In this case, since you did know there were 4 blind Syrahs and 3 Cabs, and you assumed you guessed the first two right, then you should assume there are 2 Syrahs left and 3 Cabs, making Syrah slightly less probable than Cab. Of course, you were wrong on your first guess, and had you been right there would have been 3 Syrahs left and 2 Cabs, making Syrah more probable than Cab.

    That’s your basic probability lesson for the day. It’s actually a bit more complicated if you put in your estimates of guessing right on previous bottles.

    Comment by jasonm1 — May 6, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

  2. Next time we should do a right-bank vs left-bank blind tasting! We can see just how badly we screwed up in buying that rogue Bordeaux.

    Comment by jasonm1 — May 6, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

  3. No Jason, I know that “technically” it’s not more improbable, but honestly, when does that happen?! Never. It’s like if you flip a coin 50 times: a total of 50 heads is just as probable as 25 heads and 25 tails, right? But honestly, lets be serious here… which one is more likely?

    Certain things just don’t happen. Like three Syrahs in a row.

    Comment by Jesse — May 8, 2008 @ 2:30 am

  4. Well, the coin flipping thing is totally different, actually. Don’t confuse our dear readers!

    Comment by jasonm1 — May 9, 2008 @ 11:59 pm

  5. One time Jason’s mom poured me 3 Syrahs in a row. I found it the entire situation to be very probable.

    Comment by Andrew Lang — May 10, 2008 @ 12:53 am

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