The 2nd Annual Wolf Blass Cabernet Classification

The Assignment: Put 30 of the World’s Top Cabernet Blends in front of 30 of the World’s Top Critics (seven from WineAlign), Taste Blind, Rate and Discuss

with David Lawrason, Bill Zacharkiw, Anthony Gismondi, Rhys Pender MW, Margaret Swaine, Marc Chapleau and JohnSzabo MS

Last autumn Wolf Blass of Australia conducted three identical blind tastings of the world’s top thirty cabernet-based blends for thirty of the world’s top wine critics – in Montreal, London and Melbourne. All the wines were from the 2009 vintage, and all were triple-digit priced (in Cdn$), with the first-growth Bordeaux crossing into four-digits. (Chateau Margaux 2009 is selling in Toronto for just under $2000 a bottle).

Among them was a Wolf Blass 2009 Black Label, the company’s top classic red selling for $100 in Canada.

The objectives of this tasting were as subtle and layered as the wines themselves. It was called a classification, in reference to the famous classification of 1855 that – at Napoleon III’s behest –  separated out the best chateaux of Bordeaux and established a hierarchy that still sets Bordeaux’ compass today.

The final results, which can be viewed at 2013 Master Blend Classification do provide a sense of which wines were rated more highly, but with the top 20 wines scoring between 90 and 92 points – and four ranked at 92 there is no clear-cut winner. And when you dig into the regional results there was far from unanimity on the top wines.

However, Wolf Blass Black Label finished number one in Melbourne, and was one of the four rating 92 points globally, placing second overall.

2013 Master Blend Classification

Wolf Blass winemaker Chris Hatcher, architect of the tasting, said the exercise was not so much about winning as it was generating discussion about style. “The discussion among the judges was fascinating.” he said. “Common themes were vintage conditions, the tolerance of brettanomyces in wines, use of oak and the effect of wine closure – although the views between judges often differed”.

They certainly did, and we capture some of it below among some of the seven WineAlign critics who were present at the Montreal tasting.

From Wolf Blass’s point of view, all that needed to be done in this exercise was have its wine dance the dance without falling off the stage. This event created a gusher of publicity among the world’s critics just by being held in the first place. Twitter was teeming.

But doing very well matters more to the mass market. “Wolf Blass leads the pack” said a headline on a wine story printed in both the Sudbury Star and Niagara Falls Review and doubtless other papers across Canada. At the grass-roots it was Wolf Blass in the headlines, whether the label was Black, Grey, Yellow or Red hardly mattered.

From here individual WineAlign critics draw observations and make comments. It takes you deep inside a terrific blind tasting – with all its strengths and foibles. Furthermore, our critics have uploaded their reviews for detailed tracking of who thought what about the individual wines. You can find all of the wines and reviews using this link: 2013 Master Blend Classification Wines & Reviews

David Lawrason, Toronto

The results – in terms of a classification or ranking that consumers might want to bank on – were inconclusive, and so was much of the discussion. I was surprised by the lack of unanimity among the world’s judges. Then again, everyone is different, which is why a tool like WineAlign that does not blend critical opinions is so useful.

2013 Master Blend ClassificationI was also shocked by the low scoring range, with 92 as the top average score globally, but I also understand how averaging over a narrow range of scores produces compressed, less effective results. I would have preferred to see us rank the wines (see John’s Szabo’s comments below).

Again; I was blown away by this tasting. I scored eight wines 95 or better and only three below 90. I could hardly stay in my seat as one by one these superb wines passed across my palate. My notes oft repeated words like elegant, nuanced, incredible length. Flavours barely mattered with such brilliant structure on display. Was I not being critical enough? Swept up? Perhaps. But I certainly understood why these wines commonly rank above 95 points in the world’s media.

Several wines other than Wolf Blass Black Label stood up very well to the Goliath first growths of Bordeaux – with Napa and Tuscany leading the challenges – Joseph Phelps Insignia, Opus One, Ornellaia and Ridge Montebello. And I was not at all surprised by this. Nor was I surprised to see Sassicaia finish so poorly (last globally) as I have rarely been able to muster 90 points for this wine in recent vintages.

The real question is whether Bordeaux’s top first and second growths deserve their reputation as the world’s best. My personal prejudice is that they don’t deserve anywhere near the price they command, a price set by traders and hoarders.

But that is a different argument from whether they are actually the world’s best wines. On this day in Montreal, in this vintage, in my view, they were. When it came down to my top wines, of eight I scored at 95 points or better and six of them were Bordeaux, including all the 1st Growths except Lafite-Rothschild which I scored 94. Margaux was my top wine at 98. For the record, my only non-Bordeaux 95 point or better wines were Ridge Montebello from California and yes sir, Wolf Blass Black Label.

Bill Zacharkiw, Montreal Gazette

It’s a rare occasion to find so many legendary, and expensive, bottles open at the same time. In terms of cabernet sauvignon, this was the world’s “who’s who,” and as we were tasting blind, it was a rare opportunity to see how wines from such varied terroirs stand up against one another.

But the results should be taken with a grain, actually a few grains, of salt. As we were tasting the 2009 vintage, the vast majority of these wines were in their relative infancy and quite “tightly wound.” So, were judges tasting on imagined potential, or how these wines were tasting at the moment?

A few of the bottles, most notably Sassicaia, to my tastes seemed “off.” I had the opportunity to taste the same wine a few weeks later, and with dramatically different impressions. Others, like Ridge’s Montebello, seemed to be in a state of dormancy. It is a wine I know well, and that was not the Ridge I know and have loved.

So in the end, this tasting was but a snapshot, a tasting moment, frozen in time. Would the results be the same if we did the same tasting five, ten or fifteen years from now? I doubt it.

That being said, this tasting put on by Wolf Blass, showed some serious testicular mass by the winery, taking its relatively inexpensive wine and putting it up against the greats, and in the case of Bordeaux, a pretty decent vintage.

Blass’ head winemaker Chris Hatcher told me that they decided to risk potential embarrassment, because they “just want to see where Wolf Blass stands.” Apparently, according to the results of our tasting in Montreal, it’s shoulder to shoulder with many of the world’s best.

Anthony Gismondi, Vancouver Sun

Fifteen of this country’s most experienced wine commentators and sommeliers gathered last October in Montreal to taste thirty of what arguably would be regarded as the best red Cabernet Sauvignon blends in the world. Given the difference of opinion among Canadian reviewers it’s clear there is no single style or blend that can lay claim to the world’s best Cabernet blend.

The quality gap between the vast majority of labels we tasted is closing quickly, even if their prices would suggest otherwise. But that is the beauty of blind tastings.

Anthony GismondiFor the record, the Wolf Blass organizers had a vested interest in the tasting. Among the 30 bottles of 2009 red blends selected to taste was the 2009 Wolf Blass Black Label ($100). It finished in the middle of the pack (in Canada), although given its price tag and high level of shiraz fruit, the 47/47/6 cabernet sauvignon-shiraz malbec blend gave the rest a pretty good fight.

These tastings have a limited shelf life, but they can be interesting snapshots in time, and an even more interesting insight into what turns the crank of writers from different countries, or in this case, tasters who span some 5,000 km. We were particularly tough on the Australian entries, almost all of which were out-classed on the day.

The stars, as you might expect, were the Bordeaux first growths – although I struggled to see the Grand Cru in some, given the massive amounts of smoke and heavily toasted oak currently masking much of the fruit. Chateau Margaux ($1,900) was a study of smoke and oak supported by an underlying complex mix of fruit other tasters regarded as close to perfection. I was more supportive of the Mouton Rothschild ($1,800) on the day the oak seemed less dominant. Prices are crazy.

Chris Hatcher was both gracious and humble when it came to talking about his wine. Hatcher suggested to the assembled tasters the task wasn’t about looking for champions, but rather it was a study of styles, even better to debate the many styles.

The discussion was spirited as we explored the value of pouring gobs of new French oak on some wines, while others preferred wines that related more to their terroir and climate.

The savoury, bright, red fruited wines are earning more respect at these tastings than the heavy makeup of smoke and oak dominating most Bordeaux first growths. Is Lafite Rothschild at $3,000 a great wine? Most judges agreed. But under a blanket of heavily toasted oak, I was happier to drink Chile’s Almaviva ($160), Italy’s Ornellaia ($190), or California’s Opus One ($400).

With New World wines tightening the acidity, picking earlier, shedding oak and heading down the cooler fruit road, and much of Europe turning out softer, richer, often more alcoholic versions, it is hard to know where it’s all heading.

Hatcher and the Wolf Blass team will be looking with interest at the global results, hoping to develop a blueprint that might define the Wolf Blass style for generations to come.

Rhys Pender MW, Similkameen Valley BC

The Wolf Blass Challenge was an amazing opportunity to try some of the world’s great wines, all blind, thirty of them side by side. No matter where we are in the industry and what credentials we have, tastings like these are incredibly rare.

Rhys PenderThere were also some very interesting trends that seemed to be evident in the wines. The Bordeaux was nearly all classic, structured, elegant and showcased the great 2009 vintage. But they nearly all had noticeable brettanomyces, something I personally liked in the wines as it added complexity, but something that will have others crying fault and, the way I see it, missing out on some incredibly tasty wine.

The American wines, with the exception of the Ridge, were all heading towards the sweeter, soupy style, a flavour profile associated more with introductory wines than great ones. The taste of the vineyard seems a long way away.

The Italian wines were also a surprise, very new world in their flavour profiles and seemingly heading in a similar direction to the USA style.

The Australian contingent was generally sticking with what has worked in the past, ripe fruit but retaining some savoury elements. It would be a shame if any of these great wines thought they had to buckle to the trend of soft sweetness and abandon making the wine taste like where it is from.

Marc Chapleau, Montreal

Love is Blind! As with the experience in 2012 when the Challenge was held in Toronto, this was a very instructive tasting. All the more since 2009 in Bordeaux produced very concentrated wines, often with lush fruit and tannins that gave them New World overtones.

But, again, blind tasting often confuses the issue… and it should also be remembered that this was not a real-life situation. Many of the wines would probably have fared even better (or at least differently) when consumed with fellow guests, where the ambiance and the intellect guide – or should I say, override – the senses.

Marc ChapleauAs a general rule there was a lot of wood in these big, sturdy red wines. And being quite young, they had a certain tendency to all look-alike due to that oak presence. Still, the Australian and Chilean cabernets were quite easy to pick out of the line-up, with eucalyptus and mint overtones in the former, and green notes (not unpleasant at all) in the latter.

It is sometimes said that Quebecers usually prefer Old World wines to New World ones. “Usually” is an important nuance here since, in this blind tasting, the Chilean Almaviva and the Australian Wolf Blass Black Label were among my best – even though I sensed they were not from Bordeaux. There was a great deal of rich fruit and oak in these two yet a lively freshness and some real depth. Bravo!

And so much for the so-called French palate…

Margaret Swaine, Toronto

I love a blind tasting competition like this “Master Blend Classification” when the vintage is the same and the grape varieties are akin. It’s as close as one can get to levelling the playing field and eliminating one’s own prejudices towards a certain wine region or country.

That said the New World and Old World wines do have their particular characteristics which makes it possible to guess their provenance. Like most of my colleagues however I scored the wines based on my opinion of their merits even if I felt I could guess the label. I did not favour New or Old World in my ranking and my scores showed that. Whether there was ripe rich berry or herbaceous forest floor in the taste, as long as there was balance, structure, style and length, I scored the wines high.

My very top wines each with scores of 96 were Chateau Lafite and Chateau Margaux. Next with scores of 95 came – yes – Wolf Blass Black Label, and Opus One, Joseph Phelps, and Chile’s Vina Almaviva. I gave a 94 to Leoville-Las Cases and to Ridge Monte Bello. What does it prove? For me – that both New and Old World can make stunning wines. And that Wolf Blass is right up there at the top.

John Szabo, MS, Toronto

This was certainly a very special tasting, and it was a privilege to take part in it.

One observation, weighing the exceptional quality of the line-up from the four corners of the wine world, is cabernet’s adaptability. The variety is clearly capable of performing at the highest level in a broad band of climate and soils types, and despite its otherwise rigid and imposing character, it’s flexible enough to welcome many varieties into its tightly structured folds, beyond the traditional Bordeaux blending partners, while still retaining a distinctive cabernet-ness.

John Szabo, David Lawrason, Anthony GismondiAustralia, along with southern France, have robustly shown that syrah/shiraz is a welcome collaborator in the production of fine blends, while tempranillo, and carmenere also have historical precedence at the top level. I’m excited to consider what other potentially spectacular variations on the theme of cabernet may one day be included in such a tasting – a blend with grenache, nero d’Avola, montepulciano, mencia, or touriga nacional? Or perhaps blaufrankisch, saperavi or plavac mali? Considering that cabernet sauvignon is the world’s most planted fine wine variety, and that proprietary blends and new regional blends will continue to gain prominence over varietal wines in my view, there is much to look forward to.

Another personal observation was the relative difficulty in guessing the origin of these thirty wines. As it turns out I was right for only about two-thirds. Part can be chalked up to inexperience (these are not wines I taste everyday), but part also to an international homogenization of style. It was how I imagined it must have been during Steven Spurrier’s famous 1976 tasting, in which many respected critics were repeatedly duped into believing that Californian wines were from France. Yet considering that California cabernets from that period were made to taste like Bordeaux (herbaceous flavours, <13% alcohol), it’s not that shocking.

Here, my uncertainty lay in distinguishing California, Australia and Tuscany, and I freely exchanged the origins of several iconic wines. Bordeaux, oddly enough, accused of late of becoming too “Californian”, stood out (the exceptions were Beychevelle, Montrose and Latour which I thought were from Australia, and Leoville-Las-Cases from California, a public statement that I’m sure will have me banned from these cellars for a lifetime). Chile stood out for its bay leaf and blueberry fruit, and South Africa’s medicinal note could be spotted a mile away. But elsewhere the lines were blurred. Should wines costing into the hundreds (thousands) of dollars have some distinctive regional stamp? For the record, Wolf Blass’ Cab-shiraz blend was distinctively Australian.

A more technical observation that affects the headline results is the fallacy of a consistent global scoring system. The 100-point scale that was used by all judges appears to be standard enough, but in practice is anything but, and the data can be interpreted in different ways. Even within Canada, the 100-point scale is applied with significant variations. In Québec, for example, 80 points applies to a very good wine, while in other parts of Canada, such a score would reflect a rather miserable one.

Neither interpretation of the scale is more accurate or “better” than the other. But it makes an average score less meaningful, and results in many wines with the same average score, which in turn doesn’t necessarily reflect the group’s overall preferences. The top scoring wine in Canada (Château Ducru-Beaucaillou) rated a ‘mere’ 92 points, weighed down as it were by the low-scoring judges, whereas the top scoring wines in both Melbourne (Wolf Blass Black Label) and London (Ducru-Beaucaillou) both rated 94 points, buoyed perhaps by overly enthusiastic scorers in those cities. Do Canadians judges enjoy wines less than their international peers? I think not.

I’m no statistician, but averaging out international results doesn’t take into account shifting scoring scales, and I wonder how the results might have changed had each judge’s score for an individual wine been added, instead of averaged, to arrive at a total cumulative score. There wouldn’t likely have been ties between wines in each city, and internationally, each wine would have had a total global score and thus a clear and definitive ranking of preference, while eliminating the blurring effects of rounded scores. Would Ducru Beaucaillou have finished top with 4,140 global points? Is this a better scoring method? I don’t know. Does it matter? Not sure. Just throwing it out there.

What did matter to me was how well Bordeaux performed on my score sheet, admittedly, somewhat to my disappointment. It’s far more satisfying to see the underdog win in such guerilla tastings, especially if one doesn’t have the disposable cash to lay down many thousands of dollars for a case of wine, and also far too easy to point out the distorted value equation for classified Bordeaux. But I’ll leave the question of value aside, and the pricing to the châteaux, merchants and speculators, and comment instead on quality.

In short, the Bordeaux, with the exceptions mentioned above, were spectacular. It’s certainly vintage related – 2009 was another ‘vintage of the century’ in the region. But I must also concede that there is something magical about the combination of Bordeaux’s climate, terroir and grapes, as well as validity to the historical classification of châteaux done almost 160 years ago. One can niggle over a few promotions and demotions, but overall, the top are still top. Damn.

There was some important discussion about what exactly was being scored – a wine’s current state or future potential, and most agreed that some crystal ball-gazing need be done, which is a challenging task. Yes, most were heavily influenced by oak, but with so much stuffing and structure underneath that there was no question in my mind that when the scaffolding is finally taken down, true monuments will be revealed. Would they be as great if they were fully open and ready to go now?

If spending $2000 on a bottle of wine wouldn’t cause me to wince, I’d buy the 2009 Margaux. Guess I just answered the value question.

You can find the WineAlign Critic reviews of these wines by using this link: 2013 Master Blend Classification Wines & Reviews

Prior vintages of Wolf Blass Black Label are still available in Ontario, Quebec and BC Liquors stores. You can find inventory at a store near you using these WineAlign links: 2008 at LCBO, 2007 at SAQ and 2006 at BCLDB.

Editors Note: You can find our Critics complete reviews by clicking on the highlighted link. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

Photos courtesy of Master Blend Classification Gallery