How to Blind Taste Wine Like a Sommelier
ONE OF THE MOST satisfying achievements of any oenophile is an ability to recognize a wine whose identity is concealed. Equal parts talent, training and luck, blind tasting is the elusive grail of the professional wine world. I've had some great blind-tasting successes—and many failures—but my favorite experience took place 15 years ago at the now-closed Montrachet, in New York.
The restaurant's then-wine director, Daniel Johnnes (now wine director of Dinex, the Daniel Boulud restaurant group) conducted a game called What's My Wine? The challenge was quite simple: Mr. Johnnes poured willing diners a glass and asked them to correctly identify the grape, appellation, region, vintage and producer. For each correct answer, Mr. Johnnes deducted 20% from the price of the bottle. Anyone who answered all five correctly got it free.
I answered four out of five questions correctly: Chenin Blanc, Savennières, the Loire Valley and 1995. I didn't name the producer, Nicolas Joly. I can't remember why. Perhaps it was too obvious. "Only about 2% of all the people who played the game got as far as you did," said Mr. Johnnes reassuringly when I recalled the competition during a recent phone call.
But when I recounted my almost-total triumph to a wine-savvy friend, he scoffed that people almost always guess wrong at blind tastings. "They only remember the one time they got it right," he said.
The practice purportedly evolved from a professional need to identify fraudulent wine (bottles didn't come with labels long ago). Today this type of tasting is considered the best way to assay the true quality of a wine. When a drink's identity is unknown, a taster can (theoretically) reach an objective conclusion as to its worth. Then there is the other type of blind tasting—practiced by professionals and amateurs alike—which is more of a parlor game meant to challenge and/or humiliate wine-drinking friends. Both kinds generally involve shrouding the bottles with brown papers bags, but anything all-concealing will do. I've even seen aluminum foil employed.
The reviewers at Wine Spectator certainly go through the exercise for the first reason, as executive editor Thomas Matthews noted in an email. It is important to avoid "the inevitable bias adduced by knowledge of price and producer," he said in an email. The magazine's critics review all new-release wines in independent blind tastings, he added.
Daniel Posner, owner of Grapes the Wine Company in White Plains, N.Y., blind tastes with his staff for fun. It can be "very humbling," he said. He also does so to assess the quality of wines wholesale sales reps present, as his shop is small and he must be selective about what ends up on the shelves.
These evaluations are generally "price blind." That is, Mr. Posner might know the wine's name but not the price. Mr. Posner offered an example of one such tasting. A salesman brought him an expensive ($50) Pinot Noir along with other, less-costly wines. The pricey Pinot was disappointing while the cheapest, the 2012 Ramsay Pinot Noir ($12), was a hit. If he hadn't blind-tasted the Ramsay Pinot, Mr. Posner said, he probably would not have stocked it.
“ One can follow specific steps to improve the odds of a correct guess. ”
Sommeliers must also be proficient in the skill. This is particularly true for those who aspire to be master somms. In fact, a variation on this theme is an important part of the exam conducted by the Court of Master Sommeliers, an accrediting professional organization. Candidates must correctly identify at least four of six grape varieties to pass the test—something fewer than 10% of the would-be masters manage on their first attempt, according to the court's Seattle-based examination director, Shayn Bjornholm.
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Some sommeliers, such as Raj Vaidya, head sommelier at Daniel restaurant in New York, like to eliminate preconceived notions as a means of checking their palate. For example, he said, "You expect certain things in a wine like Chablis—minerality, high acidity." If it's oaky, you might incorrectly think it's flawed, he said, adding that without a label, he is responding only to "the wine in the glass."
Winemakers frequently taste blind as well—not just their own product but others' too. Aaron Pott, an acclaimed vintner and consultant in Napa (Blackbird Vineyards, Pott Wine) said he rarely tastes his own as it always stands out, but he employs the method elsewhere, in part to avoid "cellar palate," i.e., becoming overly fond of his own beverage.
Mr. Pott also uses the technique for fun. He doesn't take blind tasting—or himself—too seriously. He recounted an event attended by 100 or so wine professionals who were offered the opportunity to participate in a challenge. Mr. Pott was the only one who volunteered—and he got every bottle wrong. But a week later someone brought to his house two wines that he blind tasted, and he "nailed them," he said. They were a 2005 JJ Prüm Kabinett Riesling, from Germany, and a 2000 Troplong Mondot, from St.-Èmilion, Bordeaux. Luck does figure in success: Sometimes a taster is on, sometimes he's not.
Although sampling widely is one of the best ways to become a better blind taster, one can follow specific steps to improve the odds of a correct guess. The first step requires a visual examination (something casual drinkers often forget). Certain wines are much lighter than others. For example, a Pinot Noir will almost always be lighter than a Cabernet. Same with a Pinot Grigio versus a Chardonnay.
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The second step requires tilting the glass to check the liquid's viscosity. A viscous wine will usually be higher in alcohol, and a higher-alcohol wine usually comes from a warm climate.
Smelling and tasting are the third and fourth, and most important, steps. The aromas will tell you almost everything you need to know, and the flavor should confirm it. Aromas of red cherries and spice? Pinot Noir. Earth and black pepper? Maybe Syrah. (Of course, you need to study and drink a great deal to have these reference points.)
How well does the average wine drinker perform in a blind tasting? I decided to conduct one of my own for three savvy friends. I chose single varietal wines (blends are too difficult) that are widely available and true to place and type. They were about the same price ($20), save for the California Cabernet, which was more than twice the average price. (It's hard to get a great California Cab for $20.)
The whites included the 2013 Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner, from Austria, the 2013 Domaine Pastou Sancerre, from the Loire Valley, and the 2013 Abbazia di Novacella Pinot Grigio, of Alto Adige. The reds included the 2012 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Hills Merlot, from Washington state, the 2010 Laurel Glen Cabernet, from Sonoma and the 2011 Yann Chave Le Rouvre Crozes-Hermitage, from the Rhône Valley.
The results were surprising—or not. The most knowledgeable oenophile took the longest to evaluate each sample and had the most articulate descriptions and rationale, but he also got every wine wrong. The least experienced correctly identified two (Grüner Veltliner and Sancerre), and it turned out that he drank those "all the time," while the third taster nailed every vintage—and nothing else. Sometimes the guesses were close (Cabernet Franc instead of Cabernet Sauvignon) and sometimes they were quite far (Pinot vs. Syrah).
What do blind tastings prove? The professional version can definitely deliver an unbiased opinion—and aid in the discovery of some very good deals (such as the inexpensive Pinot Noir that surprised Mr. Posner). And the parlor-game variety that I practiced on my friends?
They can help you remember and recognize wines in the future, potentially adding to your connoisseurship. But that doesn't guarantee you'll recognize those wines if they're served blind again. As my wine-savvy friend can attest, accurately identifying wines in a blind tasting isn't just about knowledge but a bit of luck too.
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