Blind tasting is a fun game and one of the best ways for wine lovers to broaden their horizon beyond their comfort zone wine regions. For those who have not yet participated in a blind tasting before, blind tasting involves tasting of a wine without prior knowledge of its identity. It often entails an elaborate description of the aroma and structure of the wine, a logical deduction of where it could have come from and finally, a fair quality assessment. The world’s best blind tasters often boast a combination of accurate and consistent tasting skills, a solid understanding of global wine styles and the ability to logically connect the dots. In this blog, let us go through how a trained blind taster tastes wines blind and the reasons behind every step.
Sight Step 1
Tilt the glass 45 degrees away from you against a white background.
Firstly, you would want to accurately gauge the intensity of colour at the core for that gives you reference on skin thickness of the variety. For example, a Pinot Noir always have a pale ruby core whilst that of a Malbec always have a deep purple core. Secondly, as you move on to observe colour gradation towards the rim, the colour gradient gives you an estimate of the potential age of the wine. The more a wine fades at the rim, the older it is likely to be. Finally, the colour of the wine also give clues on the origin and possible treatments of the wine. Presence of green tinge in a wine can be attributable to the presence of chlorophyll, suggestive of early harvest or stem contact. A medium yellow to pale gold colour observed in a dry white wine suggests oxidative winemaking treatment, if the nose eventually corroborates.
Sight Step 2
Swirl the glass to see whether wine legs form, and if they do, how viscous they are. Although, we generally recommend people to hold off doing this before getting an initial nose of the wine.
Generally, the more legs you see, and the slower they slide, the more likely that this wine either has higher alcohol or residual sugar or both.
Let us explain why it is beneficial to nose the wine before you swirl it. Wine tasting is essentially an act of detecting aroma esters as they volatilize. Oxygenation is the key way to encourage volatilization of aromatic esters – swirling, and likewise decanting, are all ways to facilitate this process. Nosing the wine before you swirl it allows for the taster to pick up aromatic esters that are present in the wine either in a lower concentration or have a faster volatilization rate. In practical sense, those are often floral, tart fresh fruit and inorganic earth or mineral aromas such as chalk, limestone, slate. Since some of these estery compounds can be key markers of a certain wine style e.g. slate as a key marker of Mosel Riesling, it is paramount to detect these aromas before you swirl the glass, after which slate might hide behind an array of riper, tropical fruit tones.
Nose Step 1
Swirl the glass to help yourself get the full spectrum of aroma characteristics from the wine
As explained above, swirling facilitates oxygenation, which directly increases the rate of volatilization of aromatic esters. In a blind tasting, moderate swirling over a brief period of time is recommended so to slow down the rate of volatilization and alcohol evaporation. This is crucial as you will need to buy time to catch and identify all aromas in a systematic way.
Nose Step 2
Define or adopt an aroma identification approach. The key goal of an effective approach is to help the taster to comprehensively describe the wine. Note though the ability to comprehensively describe a wine is rather different than the ability to accurately describe a wine. The latter requires additional practice and calibration where the taster familiarizes him or herself with commonly found aromas in wines, ultimately enhancing overall sensitivity threshold in aroma detection.
Without an effective approach, a taster might fall prey to missing a few aromas, ultimately leading to a wrong deduction of the wine’s identity. Identifying as many aromas present in the glass as possible is extremely important each and every correctly identified aromas either help pointing you towards the answer or eliminating what is not possible.
There are two commonly used approaches for aroma identification: Systematic Tasting Approach developed by Wines & Spirits Education Trust and Deductive Tasting Approach developed by Court of Master Sommeliers. WSET’s Systematic Tasting Approach categorizes wine aromas into Primary, Secondary and Tertiary characteristics. Primary characteristics refer to aromas deriving from the grape variety e.g. honeysuckle from Riesling, herbaceous from Cabernet Sauvignon. Secondary characteristics refer to aromas deriving from the winemaking process e.g. dark spices or coconut from oak, milk (diacetyl) from malolactic fermentation. Tertiary characters refer to aromas deriving from the ageing process e.g. nuttiness, gamey aromas, dessicated fruit characters.
The Court of Master Sommelier’s Deductive Tasting Approach encourages a more detailed description of aromas. Altogether there are 6 categories: Fruit (and its character), Non-Fruit such as floral, vegetal, vinification derived qualities, Earth/Mineral – Organic such as forest floor, farmyard, Earth/Mineral – Inorganic such as mineral, limestone, slate, Tertiary/Aged such as meaty, leather and Wood such as French or American oak, large or small vessels.
Palate Step 1
Sip a little and slurp the liquid so that it touches your tongue, mouth and palate. Instead of swallowing the wine, spit it out. Then, take a breath of air through your mouth and exhale through your nose.
Different areas of our tongues vary in terms of its sensitivity threshold to different tastes. The century-old tongue map developed by German scientist David P Hanig has been widely circulated as an explanation of that. The tip of our tongue is most sensitive to sweetness, front sides to saltiness, back sides to acidity and back of our tongue to bitterness. Sensitivity shows in form of biological reactions e.g. when back side of our tongues come in contact with high acidity wines, this triggers salivation. In addition to our tongue, gums offer fair assessment of tannin level. The roof our mouth i.e. hard palate is especially useful for detecting minerality. Wines of high mineral contents often send a tingling sensation on our hard palate. Body and flavor intensity require a bit of associative memory work whereby the taster is required to match the level of body and intensity in a wine with those of prior benchmark samples. Lastly, alcohol level is often gauged by the sensation of warmth felt at the back of our mouth in the throat area. Finish requires the taster to gauge how long s/he felt the flavours of the wines linger after spitting the wine out.
The need to spit wines out when blind tasting very much ties in with human’s natural propensity to suffer from lowered sensitivity to aromas and flavours under the influence of alcohol. In order to stay sharp, in serious blind tastings, all tasters choose to spit.
Lastly, let us explain why we ask all of you to take a breath of air through your mouth and exhale through your nose after spitting. This is essentially the retronasal tasting technique. When humans ingest food or take in liquids, the aroma of what we intake can be revisited when we swallow them as the aroma travels from our throat to our nose and hit the aroma receptors on the roof of our nasal cavity. To trigger this pathway for wine aromas whilst not swallowing, you simply have to take a deep breath and exhale. Sniffing the wine (scientifically, the orthonasal olfaction), then tasting and allowing the aromas to travel from mouth cavity and back out through nasal cavity (retronasal olfaction) help complete and offer a double exposure to the full spectrum of aromas and flavours a wine has to offer.
Palate Step 2
Define or adopt a wine structure assessment approach. The key goal here is same as that of the aroma identification approach – to comprehensively describe the wine. Instead of the aromatic profile, structural assessment profiles the wine’s dryness, acidity, sweetness, alcohol level, body, flavor intensity, tannin level, mousse and finish, whichever is applicable. Some advanced tasters will also comment on texture, balance, pH, dry extract level and more. Whilst most people consider aroma identification one of the toughest tasks in blind tasting, trained tasters will tell you wine structure assessment requires a lot more techniques and self awareness of sensitivity threshold.
The same reasons as we have explained above regarding why you need a good aroma identification approach. Being able to correctly and completely assess a wine’s structure allows you to confirm what the wine may be, or sometimes, help you identify logical loopholes e.g. a dry white wine of tart lemon, high acidity and light body most likely will not have high alcohol; and should reasonably come from a cooler climate wine region. Whilst aroma identification might welcome certain dose of creativity, structure assessment requires one to be technical almost to a perfectionist degree.
Final Task: Deduction
Now that you are in the final stretch, it is time to look at all the clues that you have drawn from observing, sniffing and tasting the wine. This is where a solid theory understanding comes in as important as that of tasting skills. Assuming that you have been given an archetypal wine to blind taste, now is the time for you to mentally review classic benchmark wine styles and try to match the unknown wine in front of you with one of those wine styles. In our next tasting blog, we will summarize key markers, whether that of aroma or structure, of classic wine styles of the world. Until then, happy blind tasting!