The Art of Blind Tasting
By Sunny Brown
You have seen the masters do it and it seems incredible. They stick their nose in a glass of wine. They give it a couple of sniffs, a couple of swirls and a couple of sips. Then without so much as a glance at the label they tell you what it is. Sometimes they even tell you what vintage it was from or perhaps even the producer. You like wine. You drink a lot of wine and are pretty comfortable describing it. You even like to think that you know a thing or two about a thing or two. But nothing like this. How do they do it? Out of the oceans of wine out there, both good and bad, how could they possibly know what this one particular wine is?
Believe it or not there is an art to tasting a wine blind and then deciphering what it is. Like any query there is a set way to solving the problem. Think of a glass of wine as a jigsaw puzzle with the label of the wine the finished product. The sight, smell and taste of the wine are pieces of the puzzle. Each will give you clues as to the answer of your question: What is this wine?
But first things first: Why taste blind? Tasting a wine blind is one of the best ways to formulate an unbiased opinion about the wine. Any knowledge that you have about a wine can cloud your judgement or influence your assessment. Perhaps you don’t like Merlot? Any Merlot you taste will already have one strike against it before it even hits your lips. Maybe the wine was ultra-expensive. You may be willing to give that wine a better report card simply because it cost you an arm and a leg. These factors and many more can sway your opinion, subconsciously or otherwise. The best way to make an honest assessment is to know nothing at all.
There is another reason to taste blind. Tasting a wine blind forces the taster to concentrate on every tiny aspect of the wine. Since he or she may be struggling to pinpoint the style or origin of the wine they will try even harder to identify aromas, flavors or styles. Most wine professionals taste in either a single-blind (where you may know a piece of information such as the country of origin or grape varietal) or double-blind fashion. Double-blind means that the taster knows absolutely nothing about the wine before it is poured. This is a very good tool to use in honing your tasting skills.
The first area to cover is the sight of the wine. There are many factors that the color, viscosity and pigmentation of the wine can explain. Start with the color. Wines have a distinct color according to the variety of grape used in its production. Rieslings tend to be very light and almost white, while Chardonnays have a more full golden hue. Gewurtztraminers look like an apricot melted into your glass. Pinot Noir is a very light colored red grape, while Cabernet has distinct purple hues and Grenache displays inky, black depths.
Next is the viscosity, which is displayed by the way the wine clings to the side of the glass. A wine high in viscosity will have higher levels of glycerine, an indication of both sweetness and body. Crisp, clean whites will run down the sides into the bottom of the glass where a full or sweet wine will slide slowly down. Viscosity is also a good way to judge the level of alcohol. A high alcohol content is evidenced by the “tears” or “legs” of the wine, which gently run down the side of the glass when you swirl the wine. Wines high in alcohol have well-defined legs that crawl slowly back towards the wine. A general rule to follow is that wines from warm growing regions are higher in alcohol than wines from cooler climates. Wondering if the white you are tasting is a Riesling from Germany or Australia? Well, Australia is warm and Germany is (relatively) not, so how high is the alcohol content?
The pigment of a wine is also important. White wines tend to gain color as they age, whereas reds lose it. If given enough time both would be orange. This is a great indicator. Wines of age start to fade towards the edge of the glass as they get older. If a wine has light golden hues, just like a Chardonnay, but fades towards the edges maybe it is something else. An aged Riesling will have light golden hues, whereas an older Chardonnay will have a deep golden color.
Now for your sniffer. The aroma of the wine is the most important factor in determining what the wine is. The palette can differentiate only 5 different tastes, but the nose can identify up to 180 different aromas. Grape varietals have certain characteristics that are common to wines made of that grape. Chardonnays smell like citrus and tropical fruits. Pinot Noirs have aromas of flowers and red fruits. While you don’t need to be able to say “This wine has passion fruit, it must be a Chardonnay,” any fruits or spices that you can memorize will help you to ascertain the wine’s origin. One thing to remember is that sense memory is based on memory. If you have never had a Chardonnay how can you expect to remember what it smells like? Some people may be able to do this right off the bat but for the rest of us not blessed with that discerning of a schnoz practice will be very important.
There are several clues to be found here. Does the wine smell hot? That can be an indicator of high alcohol, which as we know is an indicator of climate. Do you smell a lot of fruit, or more earth? Wines from the new world (Australia, the U.S., and S. America) tend to be very fruit forward. On the other hand wines from the “old world” regions of western Europe tend to have more complex earthen aromas. These are not hard and fast rules, but guidelines. They do, however, bring a few more pieces to the puzzle.
Take a sip of the wine. Roll it around the inside of your mouth so that it coats all parts of your tongue. Each part of the tongue identifies different sensations so it is important to hit them all. Can you taste any residual sugar? Is the wine high in acidity or tannins? Is it simple or complex? Is it of a low or high quality? These and many other questions can be answered with the palette. Certain grapes are high in residual sugar such as Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gewurtztraminer. Others are high in tannins such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo. A wine that has just one flavor or aroma is called simple, while wines with many flavors and aromas are considered to be complex. Complexity is a sign of quality. These are all clues to the wine’s origin, style and age.
At the end you must add everything that we have learned about the wine and put the pieces of the puzzle together. Try not to fall into the trap of making a guess very early on and then sticking with it. It is very easy to convince yourself that you are tasting flavors indicative of a Pinot Noir if you decided on sight that the wine had to be a Pinot Noir. Try to keep an open mind, even if this requires you to repeat to yourself over and over, “I know nothing about this glass of wine.”
Making a correct assessment of a glass of wine is never easy. The masters may make it look like a piece of wine-soaked cake, but they have been doing it for years and have a well of experience to rely upon. Do not get discouraged by wrong answers. Take from each example a part that you did well, even if it is something as simple as finding raspberries in the aroma. Each time you will gain more and more experience that can be drawn upon the next time you taste blind. Before you know it you will be batting .500, which just like in baseball, is a heck of an accomplishment.