Opinion: Blind-tasting Virginia

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

10 June 2016

Sommeliers might lack the wit, charm and rakish good looks of most of us journalists but in one way, at least, our two professions are similar: we get bombarded with invitations.

And, understandably, after a while, a certain 'entertainment fatigue' sets in.

Can we really be bothered to go on that trip to Romania, even if we've never been to the country before?

Are we sufficiently interested in 2014 Bordeaux to make the five minute journey to the other side of town?

Do we have time in our busy lives to spend half an hour with a winemaker from the other side of the world who is prepared to bring his wines to us so we don’t even have to go anywhere?

It's all so much effort…

And yes, you're right. We're disgracefully spoiled.

But should you ever be lucky enough to receive an invitation from the team at Zonin to one of their Sommeliers Themed Lunches, I'd urge you to accept.

The tastings take place at restaurants – currently, as far as I know, only in London, but it'd be nice to see them rolled out around the country. Numbers are limited to around a dozen somms, plus the odd stray journalist and various members of the Zonin team.

Be warned – the actual family Zonins are tall, handsome, beautifully dressed and utterly charming. So maybe don't go on a day when your self esteem is in need of a boost.

The UK office is headed up by Alessandro Marchesan – one of the UK’s most respected sommeliers (ex Zuma, Roka, Oblix) who joined them a year or so ago. I don’t know if the tastings are his idea, or a format that they've imported from elsewhere, but they really work.

Essentially, throughout the dinner, pairs of wines are brought out blind, and the attendees are asked to guess either what they are, or which of the two wines is, say, a Franciacorta, and which is a champagne.

At first, everyone is nervous and scared of making a mistake. By the end (after a couple of glasses of wine) opinions are being thrown around with gay abandon, wines are swapped and tasted with different dishes, opinions are formed and friendships are made.

It's a noisy, lively, educational yet fun experience and I urge you to give it a go.

The last one, in particular, was a real eye opener, pitting, as it did, Zonin's range of Virginian wines against some of their Italian examples.

(Why did Zonin end up in Italy, you may ask? Because everyone else invested in California, and they wanted to be pioneers somewhere different!)

Now, given that Virginia is better known for its tobacco than its wine, and Italy's wines are nothing if not distinctive, you'd think it would be obvious to tell one from the other wouldn't you? Certainly we had no trouble picking a Tuscan Vermentino from one from Barboursville. But thereafter it got more complicated.

Those of us (like me) who were expecting the richer, heavier wines to be from Virginia soon found ourselves reassessing our opinions. A fragrantly expressive Virginian Viognier kicked the arse of an oilier Tuscan version, and would give many Rhônes a run for their money; the Barboursville and Sicilian Chardonnays were neck and neck; while a Virginian red blend made (amazingly) mostly from Petit Verdot was an undeniably classy star of the tasting.

Yet perhaps the most eye-opening moment was the penultimate pairing. One wine was obviously a very good Barbaresco, and the tasters duly sung its praises, comparing it favourably with its opponent – a 'warmer, squashier, less precise' wine, as I recorded it.

It was proof, we decided, that there are simply some things that the Old World can still do better and that will never be replaced by Johnny Come Latelys from the New World.

Except that our star 'Barbaresco' turned out to be a Nebbiolo from Barboursville…

So was it, perhaps, a freakishly good year? The (Italian) winemaker shrugged. 'Every year we can make wine like this,' he said.

It was a brilliant end to a stimulating event – a fun way of learning and making you hone your tasting skills and question your prejudices at the same time. I'd strongly recommend trying to get to one of these Zonin tastings if you can.

Even if it means a five minute journey…

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