The “Practical Tasting” portion of the Master Sommelier exam is scored on the candidate’s ability to blind taste and describe six different wines. In less than a half hour, he or she must identify grape varieties, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintages of the wine. Passing this test takes unprecedented passion and commitment and watching the pros sniff, sip, and ultimately identify wines is remarkable.
Blind tasting is a little like solving a complicated proof in geometry. You need to approach it step by step, drawing conclusions based on specific things you see, smell, and taste along the way. The Court of Master Sommeliers separates tasting into five parts: sight, nose, palate, initial conclusion, and final conclusion. Everything (from color and sediment to acidity and tannin) comes together like pieces to a larger puzzle.
If you are interested in improving your wine tasting skills, using this deductive tasting method is a great place to start. Blind tasting is also the best way to form unbiased opinions about wine that have nothing to do with critic’s scores, label design, or preconceived notions about a specific grape.
Before sipping or even sniffing the wine in your glass take a few moments to inspect it. Visual cues can reveal quite a bit about the wine’s age, cellaring, and winemaking process – all key components to determining its identity.
What should you think about when looking at a glass of wine?
Is the wine clear or cloudy? If it is clear, it is likely filtered, which may point to a domestic wine.
Tilt your glass a little and observe how much light is reflected in the glass. The brightness scale ranges from cloudy to brilliant. A brilliant wine is usually very pale, almost like water – white wine that has been in the bottle for a year or less. Red wines are rarely classified as brilliant.
(The seven-point brightness scale is: Cloudy, Hazy, Dull, Bright, Day Bright, Star Bright, and Brilliant)
Color will give clues to the age and health of the wine. Generally, red wines lose color and gets lighter as is ages while white wines deepen in color.
What color do you see in your glass?
White wine: Straw, Yellow, Gold, or Brown
Pink Wine: Pink, Salmon, or Brown
Red Wine: Purple, Ruby, Garnet, or Brown
If the wine at the center of the glass is a deeper color than the wine at the rim (like a gradient), you’ll know the wine is older. Rim variation is easier to notice in red wines but with considerable age, can be seen in whites as well.
As red wine ages, it tanning precipitate, creating sediment. Sediment in older wines can range from very fine to thick, depending on the style. In younger wines, sediment can be a sign of no filtration.
Set your glass on the table and draw small circles to swirl the wine. When you hold the glass up again, observe the width of the legs and the speed at which they move down the glass. The legs reveal the level of alcohol and/or presence of residual sugar. If the legs are thick and slow, you can expect a full bodied red that is either high in alcohol or residual sugar (or maybe both). A lighter bodied wine with low alcohol or no residual sugar will have thin, quickly moving legs.
A team of neurobiologists at Rockefeller University in New York City, recently discovered humans are capable of detecting roughly a trillion smells. And smell and taste work together to determine the flavor (smell carries the team, accounting for more than 80%).
There are various techniques for sniffing wine, try them all to determine what works best for you.
What are you smelling for?
There are a number of wine faults you can smell for – TCA for example, smells like a moldy, damp basement or a wet dog. If something goes wrong in the wine making process and sulfur levels are off balance, you may notice the smell of rotten egg or skunk. Check out this Wine Folly post for the seven most common faults and how to spot them.
Depending on the grape varietal, different fruit characteristics will be present. Red wines generally display red or black fruit flavors while white wines are citrusy or tree-fruity.
In addition to fruit, wines have non-fruit aromas like flowers, spices, herbs, and nuts. These aromas tend to become more prominent as the wine ages.
Old world wines tend to have an earthy quality to them while new world wines tend to have very little (fruit is much more prominent). Smell for things like mushrooms, wet grass, or soil.
The presence of aromas like smoke or oak plank is another piece of the puzzle. Certain wines have very few (if any) wood aromas while others have quite a bit.
When you sniff the wine do you feel heat in your nose? If so, the wine has high alcohol content. You can confirm by remembering what you saw when you examined the wine’s legs earlier.
Again, use your nose to confirm what you saw when you inspected the wines color, sediment, and rim variation. Do you smell bright fruits (young) or spicy, bold aromas (aromas)?
Now it is time to taste the wine, which should confirm everything that you just smelled and help you determine exactly which wine is in your glass.
Remember, sip with a purpose, paying attention to individual components to how the wine tastes.
The range for sweetness ranges from bone dry to very sweet. The level of sweetness can point to varietal, style and origin of wine.
How does the wine feel in your mouth? Does it coat your tongue? Think about how skim milk feels in your mouth – it moves quickly over your tongue, almost like water. This is similar to how a light-bodied wine would feel. The heaviest bodied wines coat your mouth just like heavy cream would. In addition to revealing clues about the wine, understanding body plays a big part in food and wine pairings.
FRUIT, EARTH, WOOD:
Your goal here is to confirm everything you smelled. Are you tasting the same flavors that you smelled earlier? Is anything different? More or less pronounced?
Tannins are used to age wine and in excess can leave the wine very bitter (think of over-brewed coffee or iced tea).
We’re still looking for heat, but this time in your throat or chest. Again, this should only confirm what you have already smelled.
Acidity greatly impacts the taste of wine. Too much acid will render a wine incredibly tart and probably undrinkable but too little, and the wine will lack crispness and be incapable of aging.
How well do the fruits, acids, and tannins coexist? Are they battling each other or perfectly in sync?
How long does the taste of the wine continue to linger on your tongue? Generally, the best wines have the longest finishes.
If the wine were a party guest, would it have a lot of interesting things to say about itself or would it be one-dimensional (boring)? Simple wines tend to be fruity with no nuance or layers while complex wines are the exact opposite.
It is time to profile the wine, just like a detective might do in a case he is trying to solve. All of the clues you have seen, smelled, and tasted allow you to begin to paint a picture of what the wine is and where it may be from. Don’t get too caught up in details yet, we start by painting with broad strokes.
OLD WORLD/NEW WORLD:
Is fruit the most prevalent component to the wine, standing out far more than non-fruit components? This is a new world wine. Old world wines are driven by earthy and mineral aromas and flavors.
Dark color? High in alcohol? Intense flavors? Your wine is from a warm region where the grapes have been fully ripened. Grapes grown in cooler climates don’t get fully ripened, and as a result, the wine will be lighter in color, high in acid, and low in alcohol.
This is where practice makes perfect. You will need to make an educated guess based on all the clues you have been compiling – fruit, earth, and wood are all strong indicators as all grape varietals have different hallmarks. The more you taste, the greater your frame of reference will become.
Is the wine full of fruit or secondary flavors (earth, chocolate, licorice, leather) from aging? Assign the wine an age range (1-3 years/3-5 years/5-10 years/more than ten years).
The final step to blind tasting is the final conclusion. The pros get to know their wines so well that they can state with conviction the country, region and appellation of the wine, along with the grape variety and vintage.
It may seem like a daunting process – and there is no question that the experts pour years into learning the art – but the good news is that becoming a great blind taster requires quite a lot of tasting which is certainly not the worst thing in the world!