No Peeking! Quick guide on how guess when you can't see the label
Thanks for checking in and reading this post! Blind tasting is an area of the wine world that I find fascinating! Blind wine tasting is used as part of the certification process for many students of wine. A sommelier or a WSET Level 3+ both need to pass a rigorous blind tasting exam to get their certification. But it can also be a fun party trick or event.
Perhaps the most famous blind tasting event was held in 1976 in Paris by a panel of French wine critics. It's referred to as the "Judgement of Paris" and pitted California wines against some of France's best. The event rocked the wine world as California wines bested the French in both the red and white categories. Since then there are both fans and critics of this blind tasting event and blind tasting in general. But there is no doubt that the outcome of this event put new world wines and California in particular on the worldwide wine map.
Ok but you didn't come here for a history lesson, did you? You came here to learn some tricks to help you guess better at what might be in your glass if you're ever in a blind tasting party or event.
Blind tasting means that the wine labels are obscured from you and you don't know what is in your glass. Sometimes you might not even be able to see the color of the wine (if you're blind folded or the wine is in a black glass).
Here's how I think of the experience. You're going to assess the wine first on some very basic qualities. Starting from most obvious to most specific.
Are there any hints the color of the wine gives you? You might get clues about the varietal, age, use of oak... If you can see the wine here are some tips for deducing certain characteristics:
Is it very pale, almost like water? The lighter in color and more translucent the wine the more likely it was not oak aged and is also a younger wine. White wines take on more of a golden hue as they are exposed to oak aging, oxidation and even time in the bottle. So look carefully at that color!
Is the wine a bright red and pretty translucent? Get familiar with your light and bright colored varietals: Pinot Noir, Grenache and Gamay are the most typical.
Is the red wine almost opaque in color? The darkest red wine varieties include Tannat, Mourvedre, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec. Slightly lighter in color but still dark: Zinfandel, Merlot, Barbera, Cabernet Franc.
Does the red wine look brownish in color? Oxidation turns wine brownish. It has a similar effect on reds and whites so look for clues in both. Oxidation is associated with some sherries and tawny ports.
How about the "legs" or "tears"? Alcohol evaporates quickly and has less surface tension than water. The more tears, the higher the higher the alcohol. The more viscus the tears, the more that could indicate sweetness.
If you can't see the wine, you can guess the color based on flavors and aromas. I'm listing both the fruit characteristics and some typical flavors that come about by oak aging and other winemaking techniques.
White wine aromas/flavors: lemon, apple, grapefruit, petrol, coconut, fresh cut grass, ocean breezes, yogurt, nutty flavors like almond or pine nuts
Red wine aromas/flavors: raspberry, blackberry, currant, cherry cola, cream soda, cloves, smoke, coffee, chocolate, tobacco leaf, baking spices, forest floor, caramelized and toasted nut flavors
Aromas & Flavors
First see if you can detect anything about the style at a high level. Look for sweetness to indicate this is a sweet wine. Would you sip this with a dessert? Also lookout for flavors of fortification and oxidation: is there a note of brandy that might tell you it's fortified wine like Porto? Indicators of oxidation (both in the wine making process and via extended aging) include some nutty flavors.
The flavors can sometimes help you assess varietal and the region the wine hales from. Of course nothing I can write in this post will replace years of practice and experience but here are a few quick pointers you can use and expand on to help you assess varietal.
What fruit aromas/flavors do you get?
- Red fruits like strawberry and raspberry are usually associated with Pinot Noir and Grenache.
- Black fruit flavors are associated with those darker varietals: Tannat, Mourvedre, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec.
Acidity: Acidity (detected based on how much your mouth waters after sipping the wine) is associated with certain varietals more than others. Whites are more acidic than reds and the most acidic whites are those from colder climates such as Riesling, Chablis (Chardonnay) and Muscadet. The highest acid reds are also those associated with lighter color: Pinot Noir and Grenache.
Body: Body is the viscosity of the wine in your mouth. It can be enhanced by higher alcohol levels, by oak aging, by lees stirring and malo-lactic conversion. So body will mostly tell you about the region and the wine making style used. I'd consider these deductions rather advanced for this little post but tuck it in your back pocket for now.
Tannin: Tannins are the phenolics that make your mouth feel dry when sipping a red wine. The most tannic reds include Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Malbec. Cabernet Sauvignon is often confused with Merlot and you can use the tannin level as a clue: Merlot is more smooth and less tannic than Cab Sauv in general.
Some keys at a quick guess
- Smell petrol/gasoline in your white: think Riesling
- Taste grapefruit in the white: Sauvignon Blanc
- Lychee: Gewurztraminer
- Bell pepper in a red? Cabernet Sauvignon
Based on what you've seen and tasted... can you make some deductions... Do you have other classic flavor markers by varietal you'd like to share? Please pop them in the comments below!
I could go on here and I really want to! I want to talk about how to guess the region but you'd be reading forever. So if you're curious to know about guessing the region in a blind tasting, let me know by posting comments below and I'll work on it. Thanks in advance for reading this far!
This is a key factor to keep in mind. Any formal blind tasting event will stick to some key "classic wines such as Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Alsacian Gewurztraminer, Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Chablis Chardonnay, etc. You're unlikely to be blind tasting a Cabernet Pfeffer from Australia. If you get an odd-ball combination like that, no one stands a chance.
If you want to learn more about blind tasting techniques, I'm available to host private sessions currently and will soon be launching this as a publicly available class. In the meantime, have fun practicing!