Originally published in Food Republic
When someone hands you a glass of wine and says, “Here, try this Cali Chardonnay,” it’s hard to be objective. Without realizing it, you’re already judging the wine based on all the Cali Chard you’ve had in the past, or what people have told you about it.
That’s partly why, hands down, the best way to get to know wine is to blind taste on a regular basis. It’s easy. You don’t need a blindfold, though some ultra-literal types do, in fact, go for the bondage look. All you really need is some way to conceal the labels (wrapping bottles in foil is one method), so everyone can sip without any hints of what’s to come. This is how sommeliers train and educate their staff, and how wine retailers check their knowledge. Thomas Pastuszak, wine director of New York’s NoMad, uses blind tasting in two different ways with his staff. First, he conducts a weekly hour-long tasting with all the sommeliers on his team, where each of them brings a wine priced no higher than $200 on the menu. Then, he does a separate, “more approachable” tasting with the servers and kitchen staff. Ideally, your own tasting group has a fairly even level of knowledge.
Whether you’re a formally educated expert or just a normal guy or gal who likes grape juice, the results of tasting blind are usually pretty interesting. Even the most esteemed sommeliers get tripped up from time to time. And, that’s what makes it fun. “Sometimes you think it must be Chablis, definitely premier cru, super minerally — and then it’s Greek Assyrtiko,” Pastuszak says. “But it’s not like, ‘Oh, you suck, you didn’t get it right.’ It’s, ‘How cool! Now, we can tell our guests, if you didn’t know what it was, you might guess that it’s this.’”
Indeed, the general idea of a blind tasting is quite simple: mask the label, sniff and sip, then start guessing. But, as I’ve learned after several months of weekly blind tastings with a group of dedicated wine professionals, there are some “best practices” that will help ensure that the experience is as educational as possible.
Start with very general categories of wine, picking a different one each week. Start with, say, Italian whites, then move on to Italian reds. Italy has many varieties, so it’s good to split them up. French and Spanish wines each deserve their own week. But, staying within national borders doesn’t always make a good grouping. Alsace is a great example. Though the region is geographically part of France, the wine arguably has more in common with stuff from Germany and Austria. Likewise, New Zealand and Australia generally make a good pair. If regionality isn’t your thing, you could also group by style. For instance, devote one week to sparking and the next to rosé.
Picking Your Wine
Once you’ve selected your region, it’s a good idea to choose wines that represent what that particular place does best. In other words: wines that capture typicity in terms of a varietal or regional style. Although you might be a huge fan of Chris Brockaway’s Solano-grown, Berkeley-vinified Valdiguié, it’s not exactly the best representation of a California wine. That doesn’t mean you have to bring the oakiest, butteriest Cali Chard out there, but you want to consider what you’ll actually learn by blind tasting the wine. If it’s a wildcard wine (like an orange-vinified Greco from Campania), be prepared to justify what it teaches the group.
Ensuring Total Blindness
Unless you let a retailer pick your wine for you, you’ll be the only person who knows what you brought. To cover it up, wrapping it in tinfoil is a solid method. But, in some cases, you’ll want to cloak the entire bottle with a large bag, or even decant the wine, so as to hide the bottle shape. Most wine drinkers recognize a signature Burgundy or Bordeaux bottle right away.
If you open the wine some time before the tasting, you may want to record the time you open it, as this will likely impact the taste. Likewise, if you choose to decant, do yourself the favor of tasting it from the bottle first, just in case there is a drastic change once it opens up in the decanter. You may want to let your fellow tasters know how many hours the wine has been open, or whether it changed through decanting.
How To Taste The Wines
A proper progression is important. Ideally, you go from whites to reds, or light to heavy wines, without giving out too much information. Of course, it’s hard to follow a formula like this without dropping hints along the way. For instance, the first bottle to arrive in a light-to-heavy sequence is more likely a Gamay than a Syrah. But, that’s OK — you don’t want to sacrifice your precious palates for the sake of simply maintaining darkness.
Guess Like A Pro
Some people will be tempted to announce their guess right away, or start firing away questions. But first, take a moment to swirl, sniff, and sip the wine, letting it tantalize you, before you begin judging. And there are various formats for expressing your observations. Remember the movie Somm? That’s the Court of Sommeliers method, where you systematically go through each category of a wine’s attributes. This is what Pastuszak uses with his own sommelier team. The WSET method is similar. Tasters are first asked to comment on a wine’s appearance, remarking on qualities such as clarity, intensity and color. Then, they move on to the “nose” (intensity, aroma) and “palate” (sweetness, acidity, tannin, body, flavor characteristics, finish). Finally, they come to some conclusions on the overall quality. You use a gradient of “low,” “medium,” and “high” to gauge where a wine sits on all of these spectrums. Unless you’re going for your somm qualifications, there’s no need to adhere rigidly to these guidelines, though they can be very useful.
Guess Like A Regular Joe
A more relaxed approach would be allow each person to say a few things about the wine. Then, begin a round of yes or no questions, starting with general things, like: “Is this wine a blend?” “Is this wine from Northern Italy?” “Does this wine age in new oak?” “Is this wine considered ‘natural?’” If someone’s question is answered with a “yes,” he gets to keep on asking. It’s up to you whether you want to disclose something about your wine before the round of questions begin. For example, you may want to just say up-front if it’s a blend, or if it’s a wild card. Eventually, someone will guess the wine’s location and varietal or blend, and maybe even the vintage and producer. It’s also fun to guess the wine’s price, or whether it’s considered high-end or grocery store quality. If not, you can always come to a consensus that it’s time to reveal. Then you move on to the next wine. You can take notes throughout the process, and at the end you should do a line-up of all the wines, showing the labels, take a photo, and send it around to the group.
Things To Have Handy
Obviously, you’ll want to research your wine as much as possible, probably from the importer’s web page, prior to the actual tasting. But, it’s also good to have some maps and information hanging around, whether on a device, with apps like Wine Maps orWine Folly. Or, just a good old fashioned book like Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine or the World Atlas of Wine, which she co-wrote with Hugh Johnson. The other thing you’ll need: a few strips of white paper, so people can tilt their glasses over it to see the wine’s color. The back of a white iPhone works for this, too. And tinfoil to cover wines is useful.
Once you’ve done the larger categories, you can start to play around. Why not do your own “Judgment of Paris,” pitting American against French wines. Or, you could focus on sub-appellations and see if you can tell the difference between Pinot Noir from the Cotes de Beaune and the Cotes de Nuits, or between Left and Right Bank Bordeaux. Or, you could just bring a hodgepodge of wines, and test the knowledge you’ve gained over the months.
Keep On Sipping On
Wine is a lifelong love affair: you have to continually keep learning and challenging yourself. Pastuszak, who used to be a professional classical pianist, likened blind tasting to daily practice of an instrument: “You learn to perform a piece based on the technique and the fingerings, the volume adjustments. Only when you have the technical components down can you express yourself in a way that’s beautiful, not just rote and mechanical.”