Blind tasting wine is a true art form; however, anyone can learn how to do it. Guests consistently bring wine into the restaurant for me to blind taste and guess the country, region, vintage and grape variety. The common response is “How did you do that?” I would like to think that I have some sort of magical powers; however, I know that is not the case. The Court of Master Sommeliers has taught me the deductive tasting method, which allows me to be able to blind taste wine properly and quickly. The deductive tasting method, detailed below, is broken down into four categories.
It is important when assessing wine to be in a well-lit room. Pour a small amount of wine into a wine glass, and you should be able to lay the glass down completely on a white sheet of paper, without spilling. First thing is clarity. Can you see through the wine? Clarity tells you if there is any sediment, as well as determining if the wine is filtered or unfiltered. Next, look at the color of the wine, which will show you the grape variety, the age of the wine and climate. Most white wines become darker, meaning brown or oxidized, as they age. Red wines become lighter as they age.
In their introductory course, the Court of Master Sommeliers explains that “White wines that are green in color are youthful or are produced in a cool climate areas.” Rim variation, the "difference between wine at the center of the glass and the wine at the edge of the rim of the glass,” determines the age of the wine. This is seen when you lay the wine down on a white background. For example, if a white wine has some age, you will see more brownish tones on the rim. The older the wine, the more rim variation you will have.
Legs, also known as the tears, show the alcohol and the residual sugar. Thin, rapidly moving legs show that there is low alcohol and little or no residual sugar. Thick, slowly moving legs show that there is higher alcohol and more residual sugar.
Don’t swirl yet! It is important to wait to swirl until after you have smelled the wine a few times. You will loose some key nuances to the wine if you swirl immediately. The nose is the most important aspect of tasting wine. According to the Court of Master Sommeliers, “Smell accounts for 85 percent of what you taste. You are able to smell 10,000 or more different things versus only being able to taste five things.” The first thing you are looking for when smelling is whether there are any flaws to the wine. Corked wine will smell like moldy cardboard or musty. Oxidized wine will have dull or cooked fruit. Volatile acidity will have vinegar aromas. Next, we have FEW: fruit, earth and wood.
Fruit flavors are very important to tasting wine because they tell you what grape variety you are enjoying. The two distinctive categories are red fruit and black fruit. Red fruit flavors, such as strawberries, raspberries, etc., are indicative to the grape varieties pinot noir, gamay, sangiovese, nebbiolo, cabernet franc, tempranillo and grenache. Black fruit like blackberries, figs and currants are indicative of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, petit verdot, syrah, shiraz and zinfandel. Once you have decided whether you are smelling red fruit or black fruit, smell for non-fruit flavors. Non-fruit flavors are flowers, spices and herbs.
Next, you are smelling for any earthiness. Earthiness is more common in Old World wines. In red wines, you will smell nuances of mushrooms and damp earth, which does take practice, so don’t get frustrated your first time. Once you decide whether the wine is earthy, taste for wood. I tell my staff not to describe wine as oaky—let's not describe wine in a way that people cannot relate. When a wine is produced in oak barreling, there are distinctive nuances that you will smell. For example, you will smell baking spices, vanilla and butter in white wines. If the wine doesn’t possess any of these qualities, it is probably made in stainless steel.
Sight: Clear and bright ruby color with a small amount of rim variation
Nose/palate: Fruit, floral, earth and wood
—Fruit: Ripe strawberry jam, cherry, raspberry
—Floral: Violets, lavender and potpourri
—Earth: Some minerality
—Wood: Baking spices, cinnamon and caramel
Structure: Moderate tannin, moderate acidity, moderate to high alcohol, medium- to full-bodied
Conclusion: Pinot noir, Russian River Valley, California, 2009
When tasting wine, focus on how the wine changes as it moves throughout your mouth. The first thing is to assess whether the wine is sweet or dry—this is the body of the wine. The weight of the wine on the middle of your tongue is the body of the wine. The scale is from light- to full-bodied. The next key thing to tasting a wine is confirming what you already smelled (FEW). After you have confirmed FEW, you are tasting the structure: the alcohol, acidity and tannin. Finally, you are assessing the finish. The longer the finish, the longer you will taste the wine. Essentially, you are asking yourself, “Is this wine complex?” The complexity of the wine is what drives the price of the wine. The more complex, the better the quality of the wine is, meaning it will be more expensive—though this is not always the case.
After looking, smelling and tasting, it is time to decide what this wine is. You are deciding first whether this wine is New World or Old World. New World wines come from the United States, South America, South Africa, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. New World wines are more robust in fruit, higher in alcohol (typically) and have a presence of new oak. Old World wines come from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Greece and Hungary. Old World wines are more subtle, earthy, have more non-fruit flavors and are typically lower in alcohol. As a sommelier, you are expected to do this whole method for a wine in less then five minutes. An example is to the right.
This method takes practice, but these tools will help you blind taste like a sommelier. Cheers!
Michelle Richards is a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Along with hosting wine tastings for local organizations, she serves up wine goodness at St. John’s Restaurant. Your can contact her by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.