A long table in a quiet room is festooned with stemware and spit buckets. Each person seated has a flight of wines before them, poured and waiting. They don’t know what the wines are, where they are from, or how they were made. For the next 40 minutes, they will sniff, swirl, sip, slurp, swish, and spit. Each hopes to emerge from the oenological crucible having been able to identify the wines on the table — without seeing the labels or being told the names.
These people may be in training for a competition, or they may be studying for a wine exam. Whatever the reason, they are attempting a difficult sensory feat — but one that can be learned.
What, exactly, is blind tasting?
Blind tasting, also called deductive tasting, is the act of determining the variety, vintage, region, and subregion of a wine using only the senses: the appearance of the wine, its nose, and its effect on the palate. In other words, the drinker looks at the wine, smells it, and tastes it, and from those acts alone, concludes something about where it comes from. That it is a ten-year-old Sauternes from Bordeaux, France, for example, rather than a German ice wine.
Because it takes years of monk-like devotion and thousands of bottles of wine to develop, few have that power. Someone who does have it is Janice Wang, a psychologist and assistant professor at the Department of Food Science at Denmark’s Aarhus University, who first encountered blind tasting as a student at the University of Oxford. “I thought it was the most Harry Potter thing I’ve ever heard of,” she said, “and I wanted to be a part of it.” She would eventually become president of the university’s Blind Tasting Society.
At its core, blind tasting is about experience: both the live, physical experience of divining the characteristics of a wine using only your senses, and moreover, the possession of broad, deep experience in tasting — really tasting — wines from around the world. To that end, life on the Oxford team was relentless work and involved 60 to 70 tastings per year and swishing wine in the morning before even brushing teeth. The only way to learn wines with precision is to bring the glass to your nose and then pour its contents into your mouth.
How to do it
Anyone can learn the basics of blind tasting. It constitutes one part of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) accreditation program, whose classes are offered across the country in classrooms and local wine shops. Those courses take students gradually through what it calls the systematic approach to tasting, in which students use an approved vocabulary of descriptors to correctly identify a grid of information — the basic levels of which are a wine’s appearance, nose, and palate — and to summarize the wine’s quality and readiness for drinking. The further along a student gets in the WSET program – levels range from 1, a rank beginner, to 4, an authoritative specialist with a minimum of 500 hours of study time – the more highly detailed the insights are expected to be during the blind tasting portion, until the taster can identify the grape and where the wine came from.
Identifying wine without looking at the label is possible because the same wine made from the same grapes in two different regions will not taste the same. To drink wine is to drink the earth itself, and the history and composition of the soil below, and the caprices of the weather and climate above, conspire to give different regions distinct flavor profiles.
The whole thing might seem like nonsense — a biological impossibility wrapped in pretension — but peer-reviewed research has confirmed that blind tasting is a real skill. No one, it turns out, has an inborn talent for deductive wine tasting. It is an ability that can be cultivated like any other.
Wang and Domen Prešern, also of Oxford University, devised an experiment to learn if training could improve blind tasting accuracy. They also wanted to know whether having a deeper understanding of the wine would change someone’s taste preferences. The answer to both was, yes; the more the study participants, who were all beginners, learned about wine and wine tasting, the more expensive their tastes became. This suggests that even novices can identify fine wine when they encounter it. And also, that blind tasting is not to be taken lightly — developing the skill will put demands on the wallet.
Competitive blind tastings take the deductive process one step further. They’re not sexy affairs. “It’s basically a room in dead silence, with the occasional sounds of a lot of people swishing wine and spitting,” says Wang.
The spitting is essential. At the competitive level, sobriety is a necessary evil. The process requires the careful detection of a wine’s characteristics, and access to a mental, experiential database of which traits match which wines. For one such wine competition, the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup, preparation requires teams to do plenty of tasting in preparation. Deductive reasoning is required, along with a knowledge of vintages. Depending on when it’s opened, for example, a Bordeaux with higher alcohol is more likely to be from 2009 than 2007. A 2003 Sauternes might have more dried fruit than botrytis, but a 2001 bottle is noted for both acidity and botrytis — and the tasters need to know this.
To drink wine is to drink the earth itself, and the history and composition of the soil below, and the caprices of the weather and climate above, conspire to give different regions distinct flavor profiles.
Try this at home
Fortunately, casual blind tasting can be done without access to such expensive wines. Any drinker who wants to take his or her relationship with wine to the next level can start with as few as two bottles made with the same grape. “What we do with beginners, sometimes, is serve wines in pairs,” says Wang. “For example, we can do two Chardonnays — one from a cool climate, one from a warm climate — to demonstrate how they are different in acidity. Notice the way each one makes you salivate. And then remember, that one is a high acid example, and one is a low acid example.”
A wine’s structure — which consists broadly of the relationship between its acidity, alcohol, glycerol, and tannin — is the first, and sometimes most important, thing to learn how to analyze. “You can teach people quite quickly how to recognize structure,” says Wang. “Blind tasting is really all about that, and not so much about the flavor.”
A wine’s nose takes longer to learn, and that training doesn’t involve wine at all. Rather, it involves smelling things. Wang does not recommend smell training kits, which she says tend to have an artificial quality about them. “I find it’s easier to just go and smell the real thing,” she says.
Yet the memorization of scents and their associated descriptors is a surprisingly difficult task and taxing to the brain, which does not generally associate words and smells. “You have to have the linguistic ability to describe what you’re smelling,” says Wang. “What wine tasting requires you to do is take this single, quite complicated smell, and try to break it down into component parts.”
Wang recommends going to the supermarket and sniffing everything in the produce section. What does asparagus smell like, for example, versus apples or apricots? And then apply this scent memory to wine — but go further. Does the wine smell like fruit? If so, what kind of fruit? If there are citrus notes, what kind of citrus? If it is lemon, in what way does it smell like lemon? Lemon zest? Lemon juice?
The WSET program has a helpful list of smells and flavors commonly evoked by a glass of wine and what it means. A wine with notes of chocolate and cedar might have been aged in an oak barrel. Such descriptors are important in discussing a wine with others. Finding that a wine smells like grandma’s perfume isn’t helpful, but saying it smells of rose or lime or toasted bread will resonate with many people.
On his blog, Tim Gaiser, a Master Sommelier and former director of education for the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, has also published a decision matrix for blind tasting that might act as a foundation for aspiring deductive tasters to develop a matrix of their own.
From there, the urgency of experience takes hold. It requires tasting as many wines as possible to learn about the respective harmonies found on the nose and palate. It requires taking good notes — the WSET has a tasting booklet that will help get those notes organized — and remembering them, ever growing one’s mental database.
Do it with friends
Outside of formal settings, Wang suggests novices host blind tasting parties, where each person can bring a bottle of wine wrapped so that the label is covered. Independent wine shops can be helpful in recommending wines that are easy to taste. During the tasting, she advises, leave some wine in the glass. Once the wine labels are unveiled at the end, re-tasting the wine can be useful in calibrating what was found on the nose and palate, with what was actually poured.
“The point of blind tasting is not to get it right,” Wang explains. “The point is to get it kind of right. The whole exercise is about the epistemology of the chemical senses. How do we make knowledge out of our senses of smell and taste?” Through those senses alone, not only can a grape variety be determined, but the story of the wine. “You can deduce climate conditions: is that a hot region, is it a cooler region? You can taste if the wine was aged in oak. Has it seen malolactic fermentation? You can actually taste these clues, and blind tasting is actually about putting together these clues to make a reasonable guess of where the wine is from. It is like being a detective. You’re starting with smells and tastes, and you are solving a puzzle.”
And the reward for all this? The goal isn’t to be able to identify wine as a party trick, but to come to an understanding of wine as a path to even more enjoyment. And for those who are dedicated enough, there are other experiences to aim for — wine competitions and formal blind tastings. The masked bottle awaits.