Wine Talk

Snooth User: TheWineGuild

Identifying Grape Varieties by Taste

Posted by TheWineGuild, Jun 11, 2011.

I have always wondered if it is possible to determine what type of grape varieties make up a wine by taste. We all have our favorites but can the pallet ever developed enough to distinctly point out,in a blind taste test..A is a cabernet, B is a merlot, C is a Pinot Noir etc.. What are everyone's thoughts? If anyone can do this, I'd be curious, as to what you did to obtain this skill.



Reply by outthere, Jun 11, 2011.

Sure, it's not very hard to distinguish Cab from Syrah or Pinot or Zinfandel and Sauv Blanc from Chardonnay or Roussane or Semillon as they all have thier distinct flavor profiles The harder thing is to determine the makeup of blends and I don't think anyone can really do that very efficiently due to the varying degree of blending %s.

But I've been worng before...

Reply by GregT, Jun 11, 2011.

Of course it's possible.

If someone poured you a Sauvignon Blanc in one glass (let's say we're using black glasses) and a Shiraz in another, do you think it's likely that you might be able to taste the difference?  Even if they were both from say, Marlborough in New Zealand?

So let's make it harder.  Let's make them both whites.  If one glass has a Gwertztraminer and one has Sauvignon Blanc, would you be able to tell the difference?  I suspect you would.

So you can make the differences finer and finer and at some point you might not be able to tell but someone with more experience would, and eventually that person wouldn't be able to tell the difference either, but maybe someone else would, and so on.

It's the same way you can tell the difference between apples - say a Crispin is very different from Red Delicious and that is very different from Russet, etc.

There are only a few things to remember.

I assumed you were talking about monovarietal wines - in other words they're 100% Merlot, Pinot Noir, etc.  That's actually fairly easy in most cases, especially if you're told ahead of time that you will have two or three or four or six or whatever, and you're told that they'll be such and such varieties.  It is MUCH harder to tell if you're simply given a glass and asked what it might be. In some cases, that's not all that hard either - some grapes are so unique you can pick them out almost anywhere - Riesling, Viognier, Gwertz, Muscat, Pinot Noir. But that's a very difficult thing in general for several reasons.  

First, there are so many different grapes in the world that it's unlikely anyone has tried them all. And even if someone has, the likelihood that he or she would be sufficiently familiar with all of them to ID them blind is  unlikely.  Second, there are families of grapes that share characteristics. Probably the most common would be the Carmenet family - those grapes are all related and sometimes hard to distinguish - Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, Malbec, Carmenere, etc. Some people claim that they can distinguish them easily - I just think those people haven't had enough wines.

Third,some grapes seem to stay true to what they are wherever you grow them.  Riesling for example, is grown all over the world and it's got such a strong personality, it always tastes like Riesling.  The Carmenet grapes above are kind of like that - you rarely mistake a Cab or Merlot for an Aglianico. But some grapes are more chameleon-like and they're much harder to identify because their environment makes such a difference.  Chardonnay for example, can taste very much like it's relative Melon if it's grown in cool places, picked early, and not put thru malolactic fermentation or oak treatment.  However, it's utterly different if any or all of those things change. Barbera is another example.

Fourth, and probably most important, all of the above assumes that there's some varietal "typicity" - in other words, Merlot always tastes like what you think Merlot is, etc.  To some degree that is true, but not always.  The Chardonnay I mentioned above is one example, but it has little personality of its own, which is why it's so different depending on how it's treated.  But let's pick a grape with more assertiveness. Say you imagine that there's usually a kind of meaty and peppery quality to Syrah.  Well, that may be true if it's one of the better known wines from Cote Rotie. But taste a Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero that's about 20 years old and guess what - it can actually start to confuse you. And taste a Blaufrankish from Eger and guess what - you're confused again.  And then taste a Shiraz from Barossa and guess what - you don't think it's Syrah and you think the first three unrelated grapes have more in common.

So even though you learn to distinguish by varietal typicity, you have to keep in mind that it's a general thing and not always applicable. What you're confronted with is whether variety trumps terroir or weather or winemaking. The only way to learn is to do a lot of blind tasting in which you explore precisely that.  I spend a lot of time doing it just because I'm curious. 

An easy experiment for you is to get some friends and then get some Beaujolais - keep it all the same vintage and get say, four or five or six bottles of Morgon or Moulin au Vent, which are supposed to be "heavier" and then get the same number of bottles from producers in St. Amour or Fleurie or some other "lighter" cru. If you can tell which six fit into which cru, you're tasting the terroir.  Next time get five or six Beaujolais and five or six Pinot Noirs and see if you can tell. I picked those because you can do the tasting pretty cheaply but you can do it with anything really.

Lastly, it's pretty much impossible to distinguish what makes up a blend solely by tasting the wine.  That's because the flavors blend together to become something different.  You can frequently tell if there's some Cab Franc or Merlot in the Sangiovese, and maybe if there's some Garnacha in a blend, but that's because you ID some dominant feature.  I've never met anyone who can taste a wine and identify all components of the blend and  I don't think such a person exists.

BTW - "palate" is in your mouth.  "Pallet" is what you load cases of wine on.


Reply by zufrieden, Jun 11, 2011.

It's all experience and to that extent all (blind) taste recognition of wine variety is an empirical exercise.  That's where it might end, though, as assumptions about the epicurean effects of terroir, climate, viniculture practice, clonal selection are not easy to agree upon.  If you develop a strong interest in a few varieties, you might also be able to determine some differences accruing from the aforementioned effects.  But it is worth remembering that there is a very large universe of possibility in grape expression as noted in the first reply.  I have been hoodwinked by some varietal wines due to bottle aging, winemaker "style", vintage and locale.

The best recommednation I can make is to experiment, experiment, experiment - and even take a few notes on wine particulars as discussed - if you are so inclined and don't mind the odd bit of heckling from friends.


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