I recently received three bottles of wine from Hess Select – white wines, to be exact – and I thought it might be fun to get a couple of friends together to taste them. But I decided to add a little twist: I asked my husband to bag them, so we wouldn’t know which wine was which. Blind tasting fun for all!
I’ve been a bit obsessed with blind tasting lately, thanks to my weekly WSET diploma class. Although the unit I’m taking has no tasting exam, developing blind tasting skills is critical to success in future units; our instructors at the International Wine Center are devoted to helping us improve.
We’ve had four classes so far, and three of them have focused on tasting. We’re learning how to detect individual components in a wine (acidity, alcohol, body, aromas, flavors, and more) and use that information to draw conclusions about its grape variety, age, and place of origin. It’s a humbling experience.
The only way to get better at blind tasting is to do more of it. Practice, practice, practice! Ever in search of improvement, I corralled my sister and a girlfriend into a blind tasting experiment featuring the three sample bottles from Hess Select.
Many thanks to Hess Select and Donna White Communications for sending me these sample bottles. It’s always nice to see the UPS driver unloading a box of wine! That said, I received no other compensation for this post; it represents my honest opinions, which I’m happy to share with you!
About Hess Select Wines
Hess Family Estate Vineyards is a fifth-generation company founded by family patriarch Donald Hess, committed to responsible agriculture and business practices, with a focus on new world wines, developing tourism and hospitality opportunities, and fostering and supporting contemporary art. In addition to their flagship Napa property, they own vineyards in South Africa and South America. I recently profiled their two Argentine properties, Bodega Colomé and Bodega Amalaya, in a post celebrating Malbec World Day.
Hess Select grew out of Donald Hess’s interest in working with fruit from Mount Veeder vineyards in Napa. He believed the unique combination of soils and microclimates produced grapes that were true to both their varietal character and their origins. Today, grapes for each Hess Select wine are sourced from family-owned estate vineyards or from grower families throughout California who practice sustainable farming methods and uphold the Hess credo of “nurture the land and return what you take.”
What We Tasted
2017 Hess Select California Pinot Gris (14.2% abv; $13 suggested retail price)
This was the first vintage for Pinot Gris, which is an aromatic grape that enjoys lots of sunshine and a long growing season. The challenge is keeping the acidity in balance with the ripe aromas and flavors that are so attractive about this grape. Vineyard sites that experience large diurnal shifts in temperature (warm days, much cooler nights) answer this challenge.
To preserve the aromas, winemaking methods are non-intrusive, meaning it was fermented in stainless steel tanks and saw no oak aging. It did spend a bit of time on the lees, adding a hint of richness to the wine’s mouthfeel. The result was a beautifully fragrant wine that is crisp and satisfying on the palate.
Color: Pale lemon.
Nose: Pronounced aromas of ripe Bartlett pear, white peach, and apricot; Meyer lemon; a hint of citrus and pineapple. Lovely!
Palate: Ripe peach and pear; lime and lemon flavors; medium acidity, medium+ alcohol; medium+ body. It has a rounded texture that reminds me a bit of Viognier, although the aromas and flavors are less floral.
2016 Hess Select North Coast Sauvignon Blanc (13.8% abv; $13 suggested retail price)
California’s North Coast has a mild Mediterranean climate and lies atop gravel and volcanic soils. It’s windy here, and the rolling hills of the vineyards drain well, making it a favorable place to practice sustainable viticulture. The 2016 vintage was near-perfect, according to winemaker Dave Guffy, giving the grapes extra hang time before harvest.
Like Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc is an aromatic grape. To preserve its characteristic fruit and grass profile, fermentation happens in stainless steel tanks, and no oak is used. The finished wine is crisp and clean, perfect for pairing with fresh seafood.
Color: Pale lemon-green.
Nose: Medium+ aromas of grapefruit, lemon, and lime, with a hint of passionfruit and sweet grass.
Palate: Tart lemon-grapefruit flavors are accented by tropical notes of mango and passionfruit. Acidity is medium+, body is medium+, and alcohol is medium+. It has a long finish marked by citrus pith, hay, and grassy flavors.
2016 Hess Select Monterey County Chardonnay (13.8% abv; $13 suggested retail price)
Monterey is an ideal place for Chardonnay: coastal breezes usher in the fog each afternoon, causing temperatures to drop. This phenomenon lengthens the growing season, ensuring that grapes ripen fully while keeping acidity levels high. Grapes for the Hess Select Monterey County Chardonnay come exclusively from the 352-acre Shirtail Creek estate vineyard. Another beneficiary of the perfect 2016 vintage, this Chardonnay exhibits citrus and orchard fruit flavors complemented by bright acidity. It has some richness, due to limited use of oak: 25% of the wine was aged in new French barrels.
Color: Medium lemon.
Nose: Medium-intensity aromas of ripe apple and pear, with Meyer lemon, lime, and pineapple. Just a hint of vanilla wafts in between.
Palate: More tropical fruit here, the pineapple is more pronounced than on the nose, as is the lime. No noticeable oak flavors here, more of a suggestion in terms of mouthfeel – the body is a bit more generous. Acidity is medium+, alcohol is medium+, body is medium+. The finish is medium+ with notes of sweet pineapple and lime zest.
Our Blind Tasting Experiment
My sister Lynne and my friend Maggie had never tasted wine blind before, so I tried to give them some basic pointers. I explained the difference between aromatic and non-aromatic varieties, and gave some examples of how oak might smell or taste in a wine. I also gave a simplified measure for determining acidity – counting how long your mouth salivates after taking a sip. Their goal was to differentiate aromatic from non-aromatic wines and to note the prominent aromas and flavors of each wine. My goal was to identify as many specific markers as possible, according to the WSET Level 4 Systematic Approach to Tasting grid – but without looking at it. (Ugh!)
So, how did we do?
Both of them correctly pegged the Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc as aromatic wines. They were a little stymied by the Chardonnay at first but, after re-examining the other two wines, decided it was not as powerful. They had fun describing the aromas and flavors, and came up with some great observations.
Lynne noticed that one of the wines (Sauvignon Blanc) had more herbaceous notes than the others. Maggie picked up on the textural difference in the Chardonnay. As for me, I was able to come up with five appropriate markers for each wine. A little progress – I’ll take it.
After our little tasting exercise, we sat down to dinner. On the menu? Roast chicken; an arugula salad with ripe pears, Manchego cheese, and spicy pepitas; and potatoes roasted in duck fat. Each of the dishes paired well with all three wines, but there were some stand-outs:
- The Pinot Gris got along with the salad like a house on fire! The pears, especially, drew out similar notes in the wine. A winner!
- The Chardonnay and the duck fat potatoes were heaven together. If you’ve never cooked potatoes this way – what are you waiting for? Duck fat has this light, somewhat floral aroma that infuses the potatoes – crazy good. And perfect with the Chardonnay.
- The Sauvignon Blanc worked with everything, but it really enhanced the herb flavors from the chicken. I roasted the spatch-cocked bird over a bed of rosemary, sage, and thyme, and the Sauvignon Blanc highlighted those flavors.
I was very pleased to have received these wines as samples. They arrived just as winter relaxed her grip on the northeast, allowing us to dream of spring – balmy evenings on the terrace, grilling something yummy while sipping a refreshing white wine. For the money, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend a better trio of wines for warm-weather enjoyment. And they will be easy to find: Hess Select wines are available at most wine shops and grocery stores. So stock up; summer’s coming!