Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Right Bank rules: French versus Italian Merlot tasting

Bordeaux and Italian Merlots are, for the most part, markedly dissimilar. That is the conclusion of a tasting that encomapssed 10 Merlots from each of the areas. The tasting (which I hosted) had two objectives: (i) to identify and describe differences, if any, between Merlots produced in France and Italy and (ii) to identify and describe the differences, if any, between Merlots produced in different Italian wine regions.

The setup of the tasting unfolded over an extended period. First, I contacted Italian wine professionals and persons with knowledge of Italian wines in order to develop a preliminary list of Merlots to be included in the tasting. Once I had this information in hand, I set about procuring the wines. Simultaneously, I researched the wines and producers and reported my findings in several posts on this blog.

In terms of the French wines, members of the tasting panel were asked to propose selections from their cellars for inclusion in the tasting. Requirements for the wines were (i) a minimum 75% Merlot and (ii) at least five years old.

The pictures below show the wines that comprised the tasting population.
Distribution of Tuscan Merlots to be tasted: by sub-region and year
Distribution of Friuli Merlots to be tasted: by sub-region and year
Distribution of Right-Bank Merlots to be tasted: by sub-region and year

The tasting was designed as a flighted-pair, double-blind, comparative tasting with random allocation of pairings. It was felt that such a design would eliminate label and (unconscious) pairing bias. Panel members were asked to open their wines at home and to give me their wine bags as soon as they entered the premises. I had developed a numbering scheme for the population of wines and placed each into its associated numbered paper bag. I had also numbered a set of corks and they were placed into a "hat." Numbers were drawn from the hat until a French and Italian "number pair" was selected then these numbers were matched against the numbers on the paper bags to get the associated wine pairs.

It was decided that we would taste a flight, comment on it, and then reveal the identity of the wines. We used the wine number to describe it until the reveal. So, for example, on pouring, everyone would be made aware that wine #6 was in the left glass and wine #14 was in the right. At the reveal, they would learn the identity of each wine.

The course of the tasting was set by the first flight. Wine #18 was poured into the right glass and wine #5 into the left. Participants felt that wine #18 exhibited flavors and aromas of blue fruit, balsamic, Chambord, and raspberry liquer. It was "porty" and seemed to be produced from over-ripe fruit. Called decadent and Shiraz-like. One of the participants said this was definitely Bolgheri. Wine #5 was widely acclaimed as Bordeaux. It was described comparatively as "restrained," and being of "better quality." Russell said that the rose petal and tar aromas screamed Pomerol. At this point the wines were revealed and wine #18 was in fact the 1998 Messorio and wine #5 was the 1998 L'Evangile. The table below shows the distribution of wines by flight over the course of the tasting.

In flight after flight, with two exceptions, the team had little difficulty in differentiating between the French and Italian Merlots and were less than complimentary about the Italian wines. The words "porty" and "balsamic" " and Napa-like" reared their heads often. The Redigaffi was described as vegetal and being bright but having no fruit. It tasted, according to one panelist, like an off-vintage Pomerol. The L'Apparita's balsamic character was "a dead giveaway for an Italian" and it had a "Chianti smell." The La Ricolma was described as a Calistoga Merlot, then a Napa Cab. One reviewer felt it was the worst wine he had tasted so far. And on it went.

Two exceptions to this drumbeat were 2004 Galatrona and the 1993 Masseto. The Galatrona was described as having the coffee smell of the Right Bank and was riper than its counterpart (which turned out to be the 2006 Bellevue Mondotte) but with a limited finish. The room was split on this pairing with some panelists finding the Galatrona more complex than its flight partner. The finish on the Bellevue was held to be longer. After the reveal, panelists said that Galatrona was a wine that they would be buying in the future. The Masseto was paired with the 1996 La Mondotte and everyone agreed that this was a very strong pairing. Panelists had difficulty picking out the Bordeaux in this pairing and could not wait to see which Italian Merlot was standing toe-to-toe with a Right-banker and not giving any ground. This wine is one of my favorite wines period and I was extremely pleased with its performance.

The consensus best wines of the night were the Petrus, Masseto, Clos L'Eglise and L'Evangile. The wine which was least appreciated was the Miani. The Gravner-Clinet flight was classed as horrible because the Clinet was corked and the Gravner might as well have been.

As Steve Alcorn points out, Pomerol Merlots are among the finest wines in the world. That title is still intact post this tasting.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. Con un Merlot del Pomerol llegue a sufrir el "Síndrome de Stendahl vínico", mi enhorabuena por la cata y los emparejamientos.

    Un saludo.
    Javier López Lorenzo

    1. Did not mean to make you faint. Thanks for the kind words.