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Tale of the tasting: expensive wines shine … barely

A $25 Carneros pinot noir just barely edged a pinot from Monterey that costs half as much, while a $50 to $85 Grand Cru Chablis outscored a $13 Chilean chard by just 1/4 star on a 5-star scale.
A $25 Carneros pinot noir just barely edged a pinot from Monterey that costs half as much, while a $50 to $85 Grand Cru Chablis outscored a $13 Chilean chard by just 1/4 star on a 5-star scale.
Rob Garretson

With summer has come the return of the Wine for the Rest of Us Friday Night Blind tastings, and they continue to underscore our contention that price has very little correlation to wine enjoyment. That said, our first of the season found the pricier red and white wines edging their affordable counterparts as favorites of the tasting panel, if only by the slightest fraction of a star.

Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir Carneros 2012, which costs $25 a bottle ($24.99 at Rodman’s to be exact) beat out Mandolin Pinot Noir Monterey 2012, which costs half as much, yet by the paper-thin margin of just 3/100 of a star. The $25 Mondavi earned an average rating of 2.81 stars from our tasting panel of casual wine drinkers, compared to Mondolin’s 2.78-star average. Both earned a solid score on the Wine for the Rest of Us five-star scale:

* Yuk, where’s the spit bucket?
** Drinkable, but I don’t need another taste, thanks. …
*** I like this, please fill my glass.
**** I love it; I’d buy a bottle if it’s less than $20.
***** This one’s a ringer; what’s this $35 bottle doing at this two-bit tasting?

But does an extra 0.03 of a star really merit twice the price?

As always we tasted the wines double blind—meaning the tasters not only don't know the producer or price (single blind), but also don't know the type of grapes used or place of origin. The brown paper bags we cover the bottles with obscure these relevant facts, which have been proven to influence people’s perceptions of wine, and also whether that are winery freebies or purchased. (In this case, all but the outrageously priced French white below were winery samples.)

“Nice tannins; good finish,” was the note of one taster who awarded the Mondavi four stars. “An okay table wine,” wrote another who gave it just two, while scoring the $13 pinot four stars. “This begs for a pepper-crusted filet mignon,” scribbled another, calling the Mandolin, “A cheese-plate drinking wine.”

“Trim and spicy, with dried herb, mint, black tea and black cherry flavors, showing touches of baking spices and firming on the finish,” is how Wine Spectator’s James Laube describes the $25 Mondavi in the August 31, 2014 issue, scoring it 88 points.

Generally, one taster’s “good tannins” is another’s “black tea,” but none of our tasters picked up the dried herb, mint or baking spices. (Tannin is wine-speak for the astringent, drying characteristic typical or red wine that is similar to that feature of tea.)

[Find Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir Carneros or Mandolin Pinot Noir Monterey online or at a wine shop near you.]

Our tasting panel also scored the two white wines very closely, but the gap of about one quarter of a star was not nearly as tight as between the reds. Yet the price difference between the Grand Cru Chablis—an expensive, aged white Burgundy that averages more than $50 a bottle—and the $13 Chilean chardonnay it was up against made that quarter of a star seem even more insignificant. (Chardonnay is the lone grape used in the iconic white wines from Burgundy in France, so this was a head-to-head taste between and Old World chardonnay and one from the New World.)

Louis Michel Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles 2005 averages $52 a bottle nationally, but locally you can only find the more recent 2010 vintage, for a mere $85 at Chain Bridge Cellars. For that price, you could buy a six pack of Viu Manent Gran Reserva Chardonnay 2011, which our tasters gave a 2.25-star rating, compared to 2.56 for the nine-year-old French white.

[Find Louis Michel Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles or Viu Manent Gran Reserva Chardonnay online or at a wine shop near you.]

“More balance, less pizzazz,” was one taster’s comparison of the Chablis Grand Cru to the Viu Manent Chardonnay, which pretty well summed up the consensus of the panel. Many noted both sweet fruit with an acidic bite in the Chilean wine. While a drier, milder flavor profile came through in the French wine, probably due in part to its extra six years of bottle age, if not also from its expensive pedigree.

“I want a citrusy chicken dish with this,” wrote our food-pairing taster, giving it just a two-star “drinkable” rating. By comparison, that same taster awarded a solid three-star score to the Chilean chardonnay that costs a small fraction of the prestigious French Grand Cru. “Easy to drink, summery and pleasant,” he or she described the Viu Manent.

You can’t ask much more of a $13 bottle of wine. Now for $50 to $85 a bottle …


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