Is it a parlor trick, an unattainable skill, or just a way for a sommelier to show off? No matter what, the art of blind tasting is very alluring to the everyday wine drinker. Blind tasting's name says it all. The outside world is truly blind to and mystified by the craft. As mysterious as it seems, anyone can understand what it's all about. The true purpose is to hone one's palate into being able to identify quality wine. That's not quite as sexy as being a wine Jedi, but it's so vital to being a quality sommelier.
First things first, how does one acquire this skill? Sure there are some abilities people are born with concerning tasting wine, but the true skill comes from hours and hours of sitting in front of wine glasses in a study setting. There are four things you want to examine very closely with blind tasting. You check out what the wine looks like, what the wine smells like, what flavors hit your palate, and what the overall structure of the wine is. These four aspects are worth diving into a bit deeper.
The appearance of the wine can be a bit broader than it just being white or red. You want to look at the character and depth of the color. For whites, this can be tricky. The main types of white wine color are white water, straw, and yellow. Wines that will appear white water are Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Wines that can be straw in color are more bountiful. The slightly darker appearance is found in Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay from Chablis, Torrontes, Gruner Veltliner, and Albarino. Wines with a deeper more yellow color are Chardonnay from California, Viognier, and Gewürztraminer.
For red wines you have another question to ask yourself. Is the red wine more ruby, purple, or garnet? Ruby is a color more associated with Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Grenache, and Gamay. Purple is more associated with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Carmenere. There are also a few wines lie somewhat in between. Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Tempranillo, and Corvina can be different variations of ruby. The garnet color is found in older wines. This is because as wines age the color starts to fall out due to slow oxidation.
Once you have given the wine a good look, it's time to really discover more about its identity. The key aromas to search for are fruits, non-fruits (flowers, herbs, vegetables, savory aromas, and pretty much anything you can think of), minerality (earth, rocks, stones, chalk, clay), and oak influence. It seems daunting, but the more you smell with a purpose the more you will discover in the wine.
You can separate wines by how powerful or weak the aromas are. Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier, Gewürztraminer, and Torrontes are all quite aromatic. For Sauvignon Blanc, the main driving aromas are citrus fruit, herbs, and grassiness. Riesling has signature stone fruit of apricot and peaches, honeysuckles, and a distinctive limestone/slate character. Viognier is driven by aromas of white roses, ripe stone and tropical fruit, honey nut cereal, and potentially the toast and vanilla of oak . Gewürztraminer has quite distinctive notes of lycées, melon, flowers, ginger, baking spices, and wet rocks. Torrontes has a huge aromatic presence with copious ripe fruits, soapy/slight synthetic smells, fresh herbs/flowers, and reduced minerality. Wines with more medium aromas are Chardonnay, Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, and and Chenin Blanc. The wines with more delicate harder to find aromas are Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay from the Chablis region of France.
The grapes with less obvious aromas can be more exciting to draw smells from. Chardonnay is called the "chameleon" grape because it has a huge threshold for variation based on where it is grown and how it is made into wine. In general, Chardonnay has aromas of apple/pear with tropical fruits, honeysuckle flowers, a savory note of butter and toast, along with vanilla and spice coming from oak. Albarino gives off a tangerine citrus fruit character, apple blossoms, saltiness, sandalwood, and agave smells. Gruner Veltliner is sometimes thought of as being highly driven by "veggie notes." However, the Gruner Veltliner grape is a bit more complex and versatile than that. Along with the arugula, watercress, white pepper, lentil, and wasabi vegetable driven notes, there are also citrus combined with tree fruits aromas, and white rock minerality. Chenin blanc is the sommelier's sweetheart. I love it, too. Despite all of its versatility around the world, the grape has consistent core characteristics. Chenin has unmistakeable apple/pear fruit notes, wet wool, honey, and crushed rock minerality. Pinot Grigio can be unassumingly tricky. However, the faint aromas of lemon and green apple, white flowers, peanut shell, lager, and ash and help guide you in the right direction. Chardonnay from Chablis can be on the less aromatic side. Tell tale signs you are dealing with this wine are lemon curd and golden apple, oyster shell, cheese rind, and sea spray.
Once you have gotten through the smelling portion, you will get to the part you have been waiting for. You get to taste it! Much like the previous explanations, you should key into a few major features when you taste wine. The main things you want to look for when you drink a wine is to look for how sweet it is, how mouth-watering it is (acid), how drying/gripping it is (tannins) for reds, and how heavy or light it is (body.) We can stick with the same grapes we have focused on, so far.
A major source of confusion for wine consumers is sweet vs. dry. Many people start a wine conversation with, "I don't like sweet wine." However, 90% of the world's wine is technically dry. People often confuse flavors ripeness with actual leftover sugar in the wine. Thus, unless you actually feel leftover sugar in the wine, its dry. It can be difficult to explain this principle to people. The best to understand is to put the idea into practice. The wines to taste are a dry Riesling and off-dry Riesling (find two examples below.) If you do this, you will understand the difference between dry and off-dry wines.
(These wines are made by the same producer in Germany, but in different styles.)
*The wine on the left is "Trocken" and dry.
*The wine on the right is "Spatlese" and off-dry.
A good place to start when the wine hits your palate is to separate your whites into light, medium, and full bodied. Then, you can think about the overall acid and texture. Thus, your lighter bodied grapes will be Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay from Chablis. The medium bodied grapes are Chardonnay, Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, and Chenin Blanc. The full bodied grapes are Viognier, Torrontes, and Gewürztraminer.
As you think more about the wine in your mouth, you move into acid and texture. The grapes with the most obvious acid are Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc. That the acid contributes to a typically more lean texture on your palate. The lower acid grapes are Viognier and Gewürztraminer. With these grapes, you will naturally feel a more rounded texture on your palate. Many of the other grapes we have talked about will fall somewhere in between and change greatly based off of where they are grown in the world.
For the red grapes, you can do the same. The lighter bodied reds are Gamay, Pinot Noir, and Grenache. The fuller bodied wines are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (Shiraz in Australia,) Carmenere, and Malbec. The wines that fall somewhere in the middle in terms of body are Zinfandel, Corvina, Tempranillo, and Cab Franc.
Acid and texture can be more difficult to identify in reds because the wines are more distracting on our palates. However, we can break down red wines more completely by focusing on tannin. The wines with noticeable drying character and higher tannins are Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines with more medium tannins are abundant. Zinfandel, Corvina, Tempranillo, Malbec, Merlot, Syrah, Carmenere and Cab Franc all have less intense tannins than previous mentioned grapes. For these wines, the tannins are present, but less noticeable. Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Grenache are all wines with the least tannic presence on the palate. Aka, these wines go down the hatch very easily.
An important point can be made concerning acid and texture in red wines. Wines with a combination of high acid and high tannins have a greater ability to age. That being said, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Cabernet Sauvignon are the classic examples of wines that evolve wonderfully in the bottle. They have higher tannins, which are broken down over time with oxygen. This phenomenon gives the perception of more smoothness on your palate. They also have a more harsh texture in youth, which can mellow out over time. Finally, the higher acid allows for the wine to maintain a brightness on the palate despite years in the bottle.
Hopefully, you got a good look behind the blind wine tasting curtain . Even using this very basic guide, you can achieve a greater awareness with every wine you drink. You will be much more confident to branch out with the wines you order at a restaurant, or drink with dinner. By broadening your horizons in this way, you are on your way to start nailing blind wines left and right!