Wine Blind Tasting Guide Part 4: An Approach to Blind Tasting

Welcome to the fourth instalment in our six-part series on wine blind tasting.

As a blind taster gathers increasing experience, he or she develops a memory bank of wine styles that makes identification faster and more instinctive. Even then, the blind taster needs a framework to fall back upon to confirm an initial impression or come to grips with an unfamiliar wine style. Even the most experienced blind taster can stumble upon terra incognita, and the sheer number and diversity of ever-changing (and evolving) wines is one of the many fascinations of blind tasting.

Preparing the tasting

Broadly speaking, a blind tasting can be horizontal, vertical, or a combination of horizontal and vertical. In a horizontal tasting, different wines (sometimes although not necessarily from the same vintage) are tasted, whereas in a vertical tasting different vintages of the same wine are tasted. Horizontal tastings in which grape varieties and regions and terroirs are compared are much more common than vertical tastings. A typical tasting consists of between six and twelve white and red wines, sometimes with a focus or theme such as ‘Italy’, ‘the Rhône’, or ‘Oak’. The white wines are served first, to be followed by the red wines. This reduces the number of glasses required (and the washing up!), while still enabling white wines to be compared with white wines and red wines to be compared with red wines. Obviously, if the theme is ‘Chardonnay’, then only white wines can be served, so maybe choose a theme such as ‘Chardonnay and Pinot Noir’.

The best glasses for tasting are long-stemmed and tulip-shaped. The long stem ensures that the wine does not warm up through contact with the hand. The tulip-shape concentrates volatile compounds inside the glass. As the bowl is wider than the rim, the wine can be swirled without fear of spillage, and the glass and its contents can be tilted to near horizontal for a proper inspection of colour. The ideal shape of the tulip varies according to the wine style, hence the Bordeaux glass, the red Burgundy glass, and so on. However, when blind tasting, it is best to use the same style of glass for all wines, thereby establishing a standard for making comparisons. The style of glass that is used in most blind tasting societies and blind tasting competitions is the International Standards Organisation (ISO) glass, which is cheap, sturdy, portable, and suitable for most purposes.

When conducting a blind tasting, the wines ought to be decanted into neutral, clear bottles or decanters. Bottle sleeves, which are available commercially, may be adequate for beginners’ classes or if there is no variation in shape or type of closure among the selected bottles. Alternatively, wines may be poured into glasses by the organiser or a non-participating person. It is important to pour the right amount of wine into the glass: too little and it is difficult to smell or taste all the components; too much and the wine cannot breathe in the glass. A fingerbreadth in an ISO glass is ideal. At most, a bottle of wine can serve 18-20 portions.

The temperature of a wine influences the perception of its aromas and structure. At higher temperatures, there is more energy in the wine, such that more and larger molecules can escape the surface of the liquid. On the other hand, if the temperature is too high, much of the aromatic subtlety is lost and the wine becomes much less enjoyable. In practical terms, this means that most white, rosé, and sparkling wines ought to be served at around 8-10°C (46-50°F), sometimes referred to as ‘fridge door temperature’. Highly aromatic sweet wines such as Sauternes are best served slightly cooler, while full-bodied, oaky white wines such as Meursault are best served slightly warmer. Red wines ought to be served at around 14-18°C (57-64°F). Pinot Noir and other light-bodied red wines with delicate bouquets are best served slightly cooler, while full-bodied red wines such as Australian Shiraz are (usually) best served at the warmer end of the quoted range. Eventually, the blind taster develops a feel for the temperature of a wine and the temperature range at which it ought to be served. If in doubt, err on the side of cool, as a wine that is too cool can easily be warmed up by cupping the glass in the hand. If the wine is still in the bottle, it can be cooled or kept cool with a thermic bag, frozen sleeve, or ice bucket. Depending on the weather, it might be possible to put the wine outside on a windowsill or even in a river or stream.

Other than glasses and bottles, you will need a foil cutter, a corkscrew, a pourer to minimize dripping (this is most commonly a metallic disc that is rolled into the neck of the bottle), a spittoon for spitting the wine (almost any receptacle will do), tasting sheets, writing materials, and someone to do the washing up! For further details on setting up a blind tasting, see Appendix A.

Assessing the wine: in the glass

Immediately after the wine has been poured, inspect it for any bubbles or ‘spritz’. Spritz is carbon dioxide coming out of solution, and is indicative of reductive wine making. Obviously, sparkling wine releases a stream of carbon dioxide bubbles, the volume and rate of which can be suggestive of the method of winemaking (see Chapter 11).

On a white background (for example, a sheet of paper), examine the colour of the wine. Look at the wine from above to assess the depth of colour, which can be gauged from the visibility of the stem of the glass. Then gently tilt the glass and inspect the liquid to confirm its colour and clarity. Especially with red wines, the colour at the centre or ‘core’ may differ from that at the edge or ‘rim’. Finally, note any deposits of tannin or tartrate crystals. Some people like to swirl the wine to generate legs or tears on the side of the glass. These tears are a marker of the density or viscosity of the wine, and, by extension, of its level of sugar, alcohol, and/or extract. However, these parameters are best assessed on the palate.

White wines range in colour from watery-white through to green, lemon, straw, golden, and even coppery-orange in the case of certain dessert wines. Wines at the ‘greener’ end of the spectrum are usually paler and vice versa. Red wines range in colour from orange-red through to brick-red, ruby, violet, and indigo—or even ‘black’ for the inkiest wines. However pale or opaque, red wines almost invariably start off as ‘red’ or ‘purple’; with age, the colour softens, leading to more orange hues. Rosés are typically described as orange, salmon, or pink.

Assessing the wine: on the nose

The next step is to smell the aromas or bouquet of the wine by bringing the glass very close to the nose. Now swirl the wine to bring out the heavier volatile compounds and take another sniff. The terms ‘aromas’ and ‘bouquet’ are more or less synonymous, although, properly speaking, ‘bouquet’ refers more specifically to the tertiary aromas on a mature wine. The first thing to note is the intensity of the aromas: in other words, how easy is it to smell the wine? Certain wine styles such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Alsatian Gewurztraminer are intensely aromatic, others, such as Chablis or Muscadet, much less so. Consider also the complexity of the wine. If you cannot immediately come to grips with the wine, this may be a sign of complexity.

It can be difficult to find adequate descriptors with which to express and convey your subjective experience of a wine. The descriptors that you choose are but metaphors that aim to evoke your impressions of the wine. Although original descriptors, particularly if accurate, are to be welcomed, there is already an established lexicon of ‘wine words’ that are used repeatedly and that have come to be associated with, and therefore to connote, certain ideas. For example, ‘apples’ or ‘lemons’ suggests a cooler climate, ‘vanilla’ or ‘butterscotch’ suggests French oak, ‘coconut’ suggests American oak, ‘cedar wood’ suggests Cabernet Sauvignon, and ‘undergrowth’ and ‘old books’ suggest a mature wine. These ‘wine words’ are deeply rooted in European culture and experiences, which can make them especially challenging for people from other cultures.

Returning to the wine, begin by identifying the fruit aromas. Most fruit aromas originate in the grape itself; for beginners, such ‘primary aromas’ are generally easiest to identify. For white wines, there is an aroma spectrum that ranges from cool climate fruits such as apple, pears, lemons, and grapefruit, to tropical fruits such as passion fruit, pineapple, mango, and papaya. This reflects the ripeness of the grapes at harvest and, to a lesser extent, the grape variety. For red wines, the aromas can, broadly speaking, be grouped into red fruits (such as strawberries, raspberries, and redcurrants) and black fruits (such as blackberries, plums, and blackcurrants). The ripeness of the grapes is reflected in the quality of the fruit, for example, fresh, jammy, stewed, or dried.

Fruit aromas are one thing, but there are also many other, non-fruit aromas that originate in the grape itself. However, most other aromas are an expression of the winemaking processes (‘secondary aromas’) or bottle maturation (‘tertiary aromas’). Non-fruit aromas can fall into one of several categories: floral (for example, lily, elderflower, rose, violet); vegetal (asparagus, grass, green pepper, tobacco leaf); mineral (slate, earth, petrichor); animal (meat, wool, leather, manure); spice (pepper, cinnamon, clove, vanilla); nutty (almond, hazelnut, walnut, coconut); autolytic (yeast, bread, brioche, toast); lactic (milk, yoghurt, cream); and ‘other’ (coffee, chocolate, honey, resin, rubber). Some particularly colourful non-fruit descriptors include ‘wet dog’ (suggesting aged Loire Chenin Blanc) and ‘cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush’ (suggesting Loire Sauvignon Blanc).

Assessing the wine: on the palate

Take a sip of wine large enough to coat your mouth, but small enough that you can swish it around with your tongue. Don’t drink the wine as you would water or milk. Instead, hold it in the mouth so that it can express itself. Assess the intensity of flavour together with its character. The flavours are not so much tasted by the tongue as sensed by the nose through retronasal olfaction, and ought to be very similar to the aromas that you identified by smelling the wine. Some aromas and flavours might be more forthcoming on the palate than on the nose, which can be helpful in confirming, developing, or rejecting some of your initial impressions.

Having ascertained the flavour of the wine, consider its structural elements, of which there are seven: acidity, alcohol, residual sugar, body, tannin, oak, and finish. Human beings are not calibrated scientific machines and cannot accurately assess structural elements such as acidity and alcohol content. A wine may be high in acidity or alcohol, but not seem so, for example, if acidity and alcohol are masked by high residual sugar, or if all structural elements are in near perfect harmony. Describing structural elements such as acidity or alcohol in such simple terms as ‘high’, ‘medium’, or ‘low’ may seem rather crude, but suffices for the purposes of blind tasting.

Acidity is primarily experienced as a tingling on the sides of the tongue. High acidity is also accompanied by a sharp taste. High residual sugar and/or a full body can mask acidity, such that luscious dessert wines are much more acidic than they appear. Acid stimulates the secretion of saliva from the parotid glands and other salivary glands. For a more objective assessment of acidity, try to gauge the saliva response. After spitting or swallowing the wine, tilt your head forward and note the flow of saliva into the front of the mouth.

Assess the level of alcohol by holding a small amount of wine in the mouth and gently breathing in through the lips. The degree of heat or ‘burn’ at the back of the throat is more or less proportional to the alcohol level. If alcohol level is markedly high, a similar burning sensation is produced in the nose upon sniffing the wine. Overly alcoholic wines tend to lack flavour intensity. Even when bone dry, they can produce a sensation of sweetness on the tongue. On the other hand, wines that are lacking in alcohol may come across as thin or insipid, unless, as with Mosel Riesling, the low alcohol is balanced by high residual sugar and intensity of flavour.

Wines with detectable residual sugar range from off-dry to medium-dry, medium-sweet, and sweet. Some wine styles, most notably Champagne, have prescribed terms for defined levels of residual sweetness (see Chapter 11). Assessing sugar levels can be quite challenging, especially with sweeter wines, which saturate sweetness receptors in the taste buds. Wines with high sugar levels call for high acidity to flush the sweetness receptors and balance the cloying sweetness with a sensation of freshness. However, this freshness can create the impression that the wine is less sweet than it actually is. In such cases, the wine’s body provides a clue as to its actual sugar content. An accurate assessment of residual sugar in grams per litre is quite unnecessary; focus instead on whether the sugar is in balance with the other components of the wine and, in particular, with acidity. Assessing sugar and alcohol in tandem can hint at the ripeness of the grapes at the time of harvest and at the winemaking methods employed. Fortunately for us, most wines are dry!

Body refers to the overall feel of the liquid in the mouth. It is in large part a measure of density and viscosity, and related to levels of sugar, alcohol, and extract in the wine. A light-bodied wine may feel like water in the mouth, whereas a full-bodied wine feels more like milk. Full-bodied wines require higher levels of acidity to complement their weight. Conversely, light-bodied wines with excessive acidity come across as sharp. A certain creaminess to the body, especially if accompanied by a bread-like or floral aroma, suggests that the wine has spent time ageing on its lees (dead yeast cells). Lees ageing is much more noticeable on white wines than on red wines.

Oak enables the wine to ‘breathe’ through micro-oxygenation, facilitating a more harmonious integration of fruit flavours with the body of the wine. Much more than old oak, new oak leeches flavour compounds into the wine. Depending on such factors as the provenance of the oak, the age and toast level of the barrel, and the time spent in barrel and in bottle, oak ageing can contribute notes of vanilla, butter, toast, chocolate, coffee, roasted nuts, nutmeg, cedar, tobacco, and smoke. American oak is ‘sweeter’ than French oak, and less subtle, with dominant notes of coconut and white chocolate. Oak ageing promotes polymerization of tannins, which is experienced as a ‘softening’ of the wine. At the same time, heavily toasted barrels can introduce tannins that are harsher and more astringent than those already present. Finally, by promoting the malolactic conversion (see Chapter 3), contact with oak can alter the character of the acids in the wine. Oak staves, chips, or powder aim to replicate at least some of the influence of oak ageing.

Discussion of tannins is usually restricted to red wines. However, there are some white wines that are fermented or matured in oak, or that undergo significant skin contact, that contain discernible tannins. Tannins are usually experienced as astringency and/or a certain textural mouthfeel, together with a drying or puckering sensation on the gums and inner surfaces of the cheeks and lips. In assessing a red wine, you ought to consider both the quality and quantity of the tannins. Quality of tannins can be described in terms of size, texture (smooth, coarse, jagged), and flavour (ripe, bitter, green). Determining the quantity of tannins can be tricky, since coarse-grained tannins initially overwhelm the palate, leading to a false impression of high tannins; conversely, fine-grained tannins are only fully revealed in the delayed tannic ‘grip’ of the wine.

The finish of a wine describes the sensations that remain in the mouth after the wine has been spat or swallowed. Fine wines with a certain degree of flavour intensity will continue to resonate for seconds, sometimes minutes. Flavour compounds titillate the taste receptors in the throat and volatile compounds continue to rise to the olfactory bulb. Finish however is not just a question of duration, but also of character or quality and, perhaps most importantly, of harmony with what went before.

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About Neel Burton

Neel Burton is a psychiatrist, philosopher, writer, and wine-lover who lives and teaches in Oxford, England. He is the author of several books, including The Meaning of Madness and The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide. You can find Neel on Twitter and Facebook, and at www.neelburton.com
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