NZ Organic Wine Awards: 'Sustainable Vineyard of the Year 2024' plus 2 Gold and 2 Silver Medals. Full details

A Question of Taste

So what can go wrong? I'm sitting high up in the Canary Wharf offices of a well-known London bank, surrounded by teams made up of alumni of the some of the most prestigious and feared business schools in the Western world. Cass, Harvard, INSEAD, London Business School, Wharton—you get the picture. And we're blind wine-tasting, competing for the top prize in an annual inter-business-school charity event.

I've been invited along to observe proceedings but am eager to get involved, so I'm thrown in on the host table, which, compared with the others, is made up of virtual novices. And they're looking to me, as the "expert," to help them out. Oh, and if that weren't enough, did I mention Jancis Robinson is chairing the event? "Why do I put myself in these situations?" I ask myself as I sit down and give the first four white wines a preliminary sniff.

Two Paddocks 2009

Two Paddocks Pinot Noir

Central Otago, New Zealand

Vintage: 2008

Price: about £20 or €23

Alcohol content: 13.5%

Most of the blind tasters placed this wine in Burgundy, which is certainly a credit to Sam Neill's wine-making team. We guessed correctly, first time, that it was from Central Otago. This may have been because we had a New Zealander on our team, but also the nose was ripe, with distinctive black cherry and spice aromas—an immediate giveaway. The wine is a blend from three vineyards: Gibbston, Alexandra and Redbank, and although some Central Otago Pinots can be a little too fruity for my taste, the palate here is quite silky and fine. Taking into account that Two Paddocks only began in 1993, when five acres of vineyards were planted, the future appears very promising indeed. 

Actually, I'm pretty experienced when it comes to blind tasting. As an undergraduate at Edinburgh University, I helped inaugurate the annual competition between Edinburgh and St Andrews universities. Not that it has helped my form. Edinburgh lost that day, pipped at the post on the last port. But I'm proud to say that, since then, my alma mater has won an impressive string of victories. Identifying the grape, country of origin, region, village and vintage from the look, smell and taste of a glass of wine is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise should immediately be challenged to a blind tasting. The more you know, the harder it gets, as uncertainty creeps in and clouds your judgment. Which is what happened with the white wines— spectacularly so.

"That's a Sancerre, that's a Riesling, some sort of white Burgundy, and, in all probability, a Sauternes," I tell my neighbor after making my way round the table. At which point, with hindsight, it would have been helpful if we had agreed to leave it at that. For as soon as the competition started for real, doubt began to take over.

On the first wine I'm outvoted and the team agrees it's actually a Chenin Blanc. So when it comes up as a Sauvignon Blanc, they look to me as their new leader. If he was right on the grape variety, he must know what he's talking about. But I'm beginning to think it's not a Sancerre after all but actually, by a certain bitterness on the palate, from South Africa. I'm wrong; it is a Sancerre and on we go, like we started, punching in wrong answer after wrong answer.

So the Riesling is from Chile's Maipo. What? I guessed the right country, but Maipo? That's one of their warmest regions and was the only one I loudly proclaimed it wasn't. It threw us way off course as we began to think counterintuitively. So the white Burgundy couldn't be from Burgundy. "California," I say. "They're trying to trick us." Only they weren't. Wrong again. And so it went on. By half time, we're near the bottom and it's not looking good. In fact, it's looking far from good. It's embarrassing.

"OK," I say. "Let's go with our instincts. So far the wines have been pretty straightforward choices. Whatever I say first, punch in as the answer." First up is a red wine from New Zealand. A 2008 Pinot Noir from the Central Otago region—specifically, the Two Paddocks vineyard, owned by actor Sam Neill. We guess right: variety, country, island and region. We miss the vintage by a year. Ditto the second wine. We're on a roll. Next up is the Claret: Chateau Doyac 2006 Haut Medoc. Merlot, yes; France, yes; Bordeaux, yes; 2006, yes. This is it; we're climbing up the table. But I'm not celebrating. I rather agree with the philosopher Roger Scruton, who argues that to taste wine blind assumes wine is addressed solely to the senses and that knowledge plays no part in its appreciation. As he says in "I Drink Therefore I Am," "To think you can judge a wine from its taste and aroma alone is like thinking you can judge a Chinese poem by its sound, without knowing the language."

Back at the competition, the reds have saved us and we finish in the top half of the tables, which we agree is a perfectly acceptable finish. And given that we were the host table, it would have seemed rude to win.

Wall Street Journal

Be The First To Know It All

Keep up to date with all of the latest goings on at Two Paddocks. Enter your details below to sign up for our newsletter.
Subscription Form

Contact Us

[email protected]

+64 3 449 2756

PO Box 506
Alexandra 9340
Central Otago
New Zealand


Sale of Liquor License Ref: OF129
Licence No. 67/OFF/30/2022
Expires 24th August 2025

magnifiercrossmenuchevron-down linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram