Blind tasting – it strikes fear into the heart of wine professionals and cork dorks alike. We all know someone who seems to have an uncanny ability to pronounce what grape has been used, what country or region it’s from and even what vintage it may have been made in simply after taking a quick sip and sniff of a glass a wine.
But alas, this is not a party trick. Tasting is different from drinking wine – it’s drinking while paying attention. And most importantly, so your judgement doesn’t become clouded, it must involve spitting. If you’re REALLY going to do a winery tasting or an event properly, you need to spit or within a very short period of time, you’ll be hooped.
Tasting wines blind has to involve a few things – a spit cup, good lighting and concentration along with a pen and some paper. There are 4 major assessments to make – appearance, nose and palate and quality.
For appearance, look at the clarity and brightness, the deepness of the colour and the colour itself. Is it pale, medium or deep? That can indicate the type of vinification method or what country it was made in – cool climate or warmer? Colours range from the palest lemon-greens, golds or ambers all the way through to pinks, salmon, orange or onion-skin roses to red wines with purple, ruby, garnet, tawny or even brown hues. Colour can even tell you how the wine was made – carbonic maceration? Or perhaps free run? Was it fined or filtered? Pressed, racked, pumped over?
Smelling the wine after you swirl it to pass air through it tells you its condition; is it faulted or clean? Do you smell rubber or vinegar or do you pick up a salty tang, fruit or wood? How intense is the aroma? What stage of development is it at? And what aroma characteristics do you pick up? Do you smell fruit, flowers, spices, vegetables, oak or other wood aromas?
The palate considers many options – what level of sweetness does it have? How high or low is the acidity? This will also give you clues as to the type of grape used – Riesling has typically rapier high acidity whereas Pinot Blanc is usually only a medium or lower acidity. If it’s rose or red, what tannin levels are present? Do they make your gums coil or do you have the sensation of sand or dust as the wine passes through your mouth? This can tell you how the wine was made or how old it may be.
The alcohol and body levels will also indicate the type of grape and possibly how the winemaker made it. Is it heavy or light in your mouth? Could it have been aged in cask or stirred over its lees (the dead yeast cells) to give greater mouthfeel and flavour? Is it light and fruity and meant to drink young and chilled? How intense is the flavour and what characteristics do you pick up? These will usually echo the ones you found when you smelled it. Blueberries are markers for Merlot, blackberry for Cabernet Sauvignon, eucalyptus for reds from Australia and Argentine and even South Africa… cherry and cedar for Pinot Noirs. Rose petals and spices for Gewürztraminer and everything from citrus to apples to pineapples and mango for Chardonnay depending on where it’s from in the world. How long do the flavours last in your mouth? This will be a strong indication of quality.
Hopefully by this point you’re still swirling the glass and spitting after you take in wine over your palate. And it helps to be writing it down! So, what’s the verdict on this wine? Is it faulted, acceptable, good, very good or outstanding? Does the wine taste like wine, look like wine and basically do what wine is supposed to do and make you say, ‘Meh’. Perhaps you’ve you just thrown it down the sink? Or has it changed your perspective on humanity?
If you haven’t thrown it down the sink, you can consider at this point whether it it suitable for ageing. Over 90% of wines are purchased and consumed on the same day and wouldn’t benefit from time in your ‘cellar’ (for me this means the storage locker). But others will taste better with time depending on how much tannin, acidity and fruit they have. Those elements support development and time and wines that have high levels will be long-lived.
It’s really important if you’re truly assessing a wine that you do so without knowing what the bottle looks like, what kind of wine it is and where it’s from. For that you need an impartial person to prepare the wines and pour them. Even looking at the type of closure (cork or screw cap?) or style of bottle (flute or bordeaux?) will give you hints.
Last night a friend came to help me study. I had no idea where this wine was from and initially because of the colour and some of the flavours, I thought it was cool climate Syrah, then possibly Grenache. As it opened I realized it was a new world Pinot Noir; initially I was overwhelmed by the fruity field berry aromas and flavours but as it warmed and opened, I realized the cherry and vanilla – a new world Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley.
Clear and bright, medium ruby with legs, on the palate it’s clean with medium plus intensity and aromas of fresh fruit, field berry blend, ripe strawberry, cherry and vanillin. The palate is dry with medium plus acidity, beautifully medium ripe dusty tannins, medium plus body and flavours of plum, field berry, cherry, clove, light leather and sweet vanilla. An average finish rounds it out.
WSET Very Good wine; drinking beautifully now and not suitable for further ageing -the tannins are absolutely perfect.
Even after years of wine courses and thousands of dollars invested, I didn’t get this lovely wine on the first go. There are stories of winemakers not recognizing their own wines on blind tasting panels. And of course, the best blind wine story is the Judgement of Paris. So, throw caution to the wind, get a bottle and stick it in a paper bag.
Enjoy the wine, spit if you must.