The Art of Blind Tasting

How much would you bet on your wine’s identity?

 


It’s urban legend that top wine pros can blindly identify a wide array of wines. Blindly naming a wine’s provenance, vintage, and vineyard is the most humbling exercise in the wine world. But there are some things you can do to get closer to the correct answer. This is a rich, endless topic. For right now, we’ll focus on the identification of unique wine styles. Are you up for the challenge?
 
Starting Out: Set and Setting Matters
 
Attempting to blind taste in a bar, with a wine served at the wrong temperature, alongside a bunch of your most competitive friends who second-guess your choices, is counter-productive. You need good glassware, wines that will be served at the correct temperature, and most importantly, a chill atmosphere. You also don’t want a clinical setting with bright white lights and sinks that self-flush. Bottom line: Blind taste in a setting that feels comfortable to you. Stay relaxed and remember, no pressure.

What are you looking for?
 
Two major elements define wine styles: Origin and Climate. Indeed there are others, but this is the best starting point for a blind tasting.
 
Origin: Wines are typically divided between the Old and New Worlds. The Old World is Europe; the New World is everything else. Old World wines tend to show more mineral influences – smells of granite, slate, wet river bed and other such non-fruit aromas. New World wines usually smell super-fruity. 
 
Climate: It’s important to remember that Climate can change the perception of Origin. Warmer climate Old World regions show oodles of fruit. Cooler New World regions show less fruit and a perceived or real minerality.
 
Identifying Sweet and Fortified Wines: An Easy Win
 
These wines have definitive styles that are based on their winemaking. Book knowledge can actually help when blind tasting these wines. Study and practice can make perfect!
 
Sweets: Sweetness levels can indicate specific wines. A decadently sweet wine might be a Beerenauslese. An overwhelmingly sweet wine might be a Tokaji Aszú. Alcohol can do the same. Sauternes starts around 13.5% but is often 14.5%. Meanwhile, wines from the same grape varieties made in a similar style, but from Australia, tend to weigh in at around 11%. “Hacks” of this kind can help with your blind tasting.
 
Fortifieds: The high alcohol punch is a clear indication of fortified wine. Classics include Port, Madeira and Sherry. Port is always sweet. Madeira and Sherry range from dry to sweet. But color can be tricky -- Tawny Port, Palo Cortado Sherry and Bual Madeira can all look quite similar. However, their flavors are very different. 
 
Identifying Bubbles: Getting Tougher to Pop
 
Sparkling wines are seriously tough to blind taste. The bubbles in combination with high acidity and dosage (the sweetening liqueur added before corking) can mess with perception. Here’s what to look for in Old World classics:
 
Prosecco: You’ll detect white flowers, canned peaches, fine “mousse” and enough sweetness to make the wines imminently gluggable.
 
Moscato d’Asti: You’ll detect wildly aromatic wild flowers and beer-like alcohol. (It’s only 5.5%.)
 
Cava: You’ll detect “rubbery” or “earthy” tones from the Xarel-lo grape. 
 
Champagne: You’ll detect chalk aromas and textures along with finessed flavors that cover every crevice of your mouth. 
 
Identifying Rosés: An Incredibly Humbling Category
 
Rosés are extremely tough to identify because they are driven by winemaking. Just determining Old vs. New World is an accomplishment. Rosés can be so many things: varietal or blended, with or without malolactic fermentation (or partial malolactic fermentation), oak or no oak, dry or sweet. Be brave on these blind tastes. You may not always be right.
 
Identifying Vintages: Persevere! 
 
It takes lots of time, money and focused notes to get older vintages right. But it’s not so hard with vintages going back only five years or so. Here are some clues:
 
Color: Whites gain color over time. Reds lose color.
Fizz: Should there be youthful spritz à la German Riesling or Vinho Verde? Is it still there?
Fruit Character: Is the wine showing fresh fruit flavors or “tertiary” (aged) flavors, like fallen leaves, mushrooms and earth?
 
There you have it, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Here’s wishing you much fun on your blind essays. Just remember: it’s called “blind tasting”, but it should probably be called “blind spitting”. If you taste a bunch of wines to completion, your accuracy will surely decline!
 

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Comments

  • Snooth User: Winemaven
    45331 30

    Some observations:
    Firstly, tasting wine blind or not depends upon what the goal is. Too often tasting wine totally blind generally reduces the endeavor to a parlor game. Fine if you are just having some fun.
    Secondly, times have changed and much of the wine world is catching up. Terms like "old world" and "New world" are rapidly losing their meaning. The old world now makes wines that meet the notion of new world and vice verse.
    Actually, blind tasting in a comparative situation confirms this.
    There are now so many wines from so many countries/terroirs from so many grapes and blends of grapes that concepts like "typicity" and "classic" and "traditional" really have little meaning. Traditions change over time.
    I do think that wine is best identified by its flavor profile, its style rather than where it came from, a specific vintage or location. Basically more general terms that help identify a wine by how it tastes.

    Feb 05, 2015 at 12:57 PM


  • Snooth User: Christy Canterbury MW
    Hand of Snooth
    1060100 93,446

    Hi Winemaven,

    It is true that styles are converging around the globe, and there are absolutely some wines that show zero sense of place.

    However, it is entirely possible to blind ID wines from places, grapes, winemaking styles, etc. It's just a hard skill to learn AND retain as things change in all wine regions with every single vintage.

    Feb 05, 2015 at 1:03 PM


  • The sport of blind tasting is a personal challenge to those in the business who earn a living doing so. It is a fun thing and I refer to it as a sport, because it is a personal measure of ones own abilities. Blind tastings are not something that is prevalent in the consuming masses. Time is not going to eliminate a time tested tradition among professionals.

    Feb 06, 2015 at 5:01 PM


  • Dear Christy:

    I've been part of a wine study group off and on for over two years. I have made some precious friendships within my group, but it's pretty obvious that most of my colleagues are ahead of me as far as developing this particular skill.

    I respect and applaud their diligence and achievement. (And, in modestly, I have become a little better too.) But as much as I enjoy puzzles (and that's a lot), the largest puzzle to me is the point of all of this. Other than the fact that This Is On Our Exam, I am lost as to any practical value this skill has when we are one on one with a customer.

    In fact, if I were I winemaker, I would make one or two wines that deliberately F-ed with the experts' precious grid. That's just my rebel DNA talking. And I probably wouldn't have to try very hard to steer you off the predictable path.

    Feb 07, 2015 at 12:24 AM


  • Snooth User: Christy Canterbury MW
    Hand of Snooth
    1060100 93,446

    Hi Demilove,

    Blind tasting well is very important to some people's jobs. It certainly is to mine. I have to be able to evaluate a wine and figure out how it was made and its quality level...almost every day. What is the value as a regular Joe or Jane? Not much at all, save the parlor tricks mentioned by others here, unless s/he is looking to develop a serious expertise in a certain region or to pass one of wine's harder qualifications.

    Professionals that are good at blind tasting easily pick up on unusual wines. A variety or varieties as well as an origin(s) could be hard to pinpoint, but quality level, balance, complexity, ability to age to benefit (whether the wine has or will) and winemaking can all be tasted.

    I'm quite sorry to read that you are bitter about this process. If you don't want to do it, don't. Right? Anyone who blind tastes knows it is humbling. However, they are many excellent blind tasters, and they worked very hard to become excellent at this highly refined skill.

    Feb 07, 2015 at 9:39 AM


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