All wine lovers should taste blind every once in a while...why?
Blind Wine Tastings are important for any wine lover to truly discover what their palate desires. Tasting blind is a great way to take away preconceived notations about a wine. For instance, if you are told you are drinking a very expensive bottle of wine you may naturally think that it is a high quality. Some wine drinkers will only drink a certain varietal like Pinot Grigio or from a certain region like New Zealand, but can they really explain why they gravitate toward it? When you take away price, region, vintage, varietal, label and really focus on the characteristics of the wine like aroma and taste you can get a better idea of what wine you really like and why.
How do we do a blind wine tasting?
When participating in a blind tasting it's suggested to use a deductive tasting grid, like the one linked in my Blind Wine Tasting Guide below. This method is about using characteristics found in the wine to determine what grape it is, the region it was produced, and it's vintage (how old it is.) The deductive tasting method is best described with an example:
Through observation, you notice the wine is:
Deep purple and you can't see Through it. You can scratch Pinot Noir and Gamay off the list of possible grapes.
High alcohol and is full-bodied. You can scratch cooler climate regions off of the list like Willamette Valley, Oregon.
Orange tinted in secondary color/rim and raisiny flavors. This wine is not youthful and has some age.
You are narrowing down your choices and that much closer to discovering your wine is a 5-year-old Cabernet from Napa Valley, California.
LETS GET STARTED!
To start your blind wine tasting, open the wine (that is hopefully package discreetly by someone else). Try not to look at the cork as some may give your clues!
There are 3 main parts to a tasting: Visual (how the wine looks), Nose (how the wine smells) and Palate (how the wine taste.)
Clarity: Clarity can be a good clue into how the wine was processed. A wine that is dull or hazy can indicate a wine that has been "minimally handled" prior to bottling (a more natural wine). Most wines are treated to remove haze or sediment.
Color: This can often be an indication of a particular variety, age, or region. Wines can be described as having a variety of colors including, straw, gold, amber, salmon, ruby, purple, and garnet. A wine that is more golden in color may be a Chardonnay while a Sauvignon Blanc may be more of a yellow color.
Intensity: Generally, over time reds will lose their intensity in color, and whites will become richer in color. Intensity is a good clue on the age of the wine! Keep in mind that different grapes produce different intensities, as well. For example, deep ruby color is likely cabernet sauvignon and pale ruby is like a pinot noir.
Gas Evidence: Think bubbles... or sparkling! Do you see any bubbles in the wine? Bubbles are normally added during a secondary fermentation process. However, sometimes this can unintentionally happen in unfiltered wines with high sugar content and low sulfates.
For these next few, hold your wine sideways, just enough that it does not spill.
Secondary Color: Is a subtle hue observed under light. This can result from the varietal. However, soil also affects the secondary hue of the wine. For instance, a wine that comes from acidic soils could be more magenta or even blue in its coloring.
Rim Variation: View the difference in color at the rim of the wine vs. the body of the wine. Is there a variation? If there is, it could mean that you have an older wine.
Now turn your wine glass back upright and swirl the wine.
Tearing: You've heard the saying..."This wine has great legs." Many people think this is an indication of quality. In fact, it is actually an indication of the amount of alcohol. The more alcohol the more "legs" you see. Additionally, sweeter wines are more thick and sticky, so the tears will flow slower down the sides of a glass. To determine tearing, after swirling your wine, set it down and notice right above the wine on the glass you will see clear "tears." If you do not see any, it means that your wine has a lower alcohol level. Alcohol content can be a good indication of where the wine is from as well. American's tend to produce higher alcohol wines than French
Smell Intensity: The intensity of smells and taste can also give us some clues! Higher alcohol wines can produce stronger smells. Higher alcohol wines can be from warmer climates. So now you can eliminate grapes that grow in cooler regions like Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris. Boom! You're one step closer to figuring out what your wine is.
Fruit: Here are some familiar fruits and the wines commonly associated with them:
Citrus: Lime, Lemon, Grapefruit, Tangerine, Orange, Zest, Citrus Peel
Apple / Pear: Green Apple, Yellow Apple, Pear, Asian Pear
Stone Fruit: Honeydew Melon, Cantaloupe, Peach, Apricot
Eastern European whites
Tropical: Lychee, Pineapple, Mango, Guava, Papaya, Jackfruit, Banana, Passion Fruit
Red Fruits: Strawberry, Cherry, Raspberry, Red Currant, Cranberry, Red Plum
Black Fruits: Black Plum, Blackberry, Boysenberry, Blueberry, Black Cherry
Fruit Type: Fruit types can play a big role in determining what wine you are drinking. Here are a few examples:
Tart: Cooler or moderate climate
Ripe: Moderate or warm climate
Overripe, Jammy, Cooked: Hot climate
Dried or Baked: indications of an aging wine
Earth: The smell of earth can be pleasant, but if in excess, it can be off-putting. Earthiness is generally associated with mature, full-bodied red wines.
Mineral: Have you ever smelled the sidewalk after it rains? This is actually a common smell and taste in wine. Certain minerals can be associated with higher acidity in wine. Additionally, it could also be the product of the soil. A wine that is grown in an area with limestone heavy soil will smell of wet stone. Wines from flinty-clay soils can sometimes have gun powder aromas.
Graphite: Yes, like pencil shavings! Some believe this is due to wine coming in contact with wood while it is maturing in oak. Others, think it could be from Slate that is found in the soil, like in the vineyards of Spain. Lastly, sometimes it is a smell found associated with certain fine red wines.
Flint: This smell is normally picked up in dry white wines like Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre.
Chalky & Wet Stone: These characteristic has been noted in wines from cooler climates that have higher acidity like Chablis.
Cigar box: Red Bordeaux
Oak: This is a very common term! Any oaked wine can produce this characteristic. However, if you pick this up in a white wine you are more than likely, but not always, drinking Chardonnay. Winemakers can use different types of oak. European oak can impart flavors of vanilla and baking spices, while American oak influence the wine with aromas of fresh dill and coconut.
Animal: Believe it or not animal smells can be picked up as an aroma. It's not always a bad thing.
Barnyard: This smell is derived from a type of yeast on the skin of the grape or on barrels that somehow make their way into the winemaking process! "Barnyard" smells may become more prominent as the wine ages. While this may sound disgusting, some enjoy this characteristic and feel that it compliments a "leathery" component to the wine.
Cat Pee: No joke! If you smell cat pee, chances are you are drinking a high-quality Sauvignon Blanc!
Gamey: The gamey smell is often noted in mature red Burgundy.
Leather: This is an aroma often found in red wines that have been aged in oak. Some examples of wines include Tempranillo, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon. On a side note, when talking about wine some people refer to a wine as "leathery." This is separate from the leather smell but refers to the "mouth feel."
Black Pepper: You've heard it... "This wine is peppery." Peppery characteristics can be found in wines throughout the world but are mostly noted in wines that are dry and earthy like Grenache or Syrah. Particularly, distinctive pepper notes can be found in Syrah from the Rhône Valley in France.
Vanilla: A very common characteristic in wine that is normally found as an aroma instead of a taste. Vanilla aromas come from the aging process of the wine in oak barrels. Think California Chardonnay!
Mint: New World Cabernet Sauvignon grown in cooler climates sometimes will have a slight mint note aroma.
Tobacco: No, not cigarette smoke! Fresh cut tobacco leaves can give the wine a pleasant smell. Wines that have this characteristic normally have a maple sweetness and are found in full-bodied reds like Cabernet Sauvignon.
Chocolate: Yes, please! Sometimes, chocolate is also seen in wines that have more sweet tannins! These wines include wines like Barossa Valley Shiraz.
Other common spices:
Clove: Oak-aged reds from Bordeaux
Cinnamon: Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Barbera, Nebbiolo
Cumin: Pinot Noir
Apple Blossom: Riesling & Champagne
Roses: Nebbiolo, Barolo, Barbaresco
Elderflower: Young, cool-climate whites
Lavender: Australian Riesling, Grenache, Syrah and Tempranillo
Lily (some say white flower): Pinot Grigio, Torrontés, Sémillion
Orange Blossom: Muscat
Violet: Mature Pinot Noir and soft red wines like Malbec
Green Pepper: This smell comes from a group of aroma compounds called "Pyrazines." You are most likely to find this aroma and taste in the Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. This characteristic can become provident if the leaves of the grapevine are not pruned. Additionally, this smell is easier to pick up in cooler climate wines.
Tomatoes (and other nightshades): These also come from the group of aroma compounds called "Pyrazines" and can be found in wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, especially from cooler regions.
Asparagus: This can smell can be found in Sauvignon Blanc, particularly from New Zealand.
Eucalyptus: Ripe Cabernet Sauvignon, especially those from Australia.
Grass: Freshly mowed lawn...it is refreshing! This is often found in dry white wines like Sauvignon Blanc.
Mushroom: This smell normally comes from the aging process of wine. These notes can also be found in wines that also have "earthy" aromas like Pinot Noir.
Sweetness: Sweetness can enhance other characteristics of wine like body and texture. There are a lot of mass-produced wines out there that have a considerable amount of residual sugar. This can actually help hide many flaws in the wine.
Body: How does the wine feel inside your mouth? In order to fully understand the body of the wine, we need to think back to High School when we learned about the viscosity of a liquid or a liquid's resistance to moving freely. We love to use the milk analogy. Fuller-bodied wines are heavier "mouth feel" like whole milk compared to skim milk. How does it coat your mouth?
White: Riesling, Prosecco, Vinho Verde
White: Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc
Red: Cabernet Franc, Chianti, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir
White: Chardonnay Viognier
Red: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec
Tannin: Tannins are often described as being a "cotton in the cheeks" or a puckering mouth feeling. Technically speaking, they are plant-derived polyphenols found in the stems, seeds, and leaves of plants. The purpose of tannins in nature is to deter animals from eating the plants. It is Mother Nature working her hardest to allow a plant's fruit to become ripe. Tannins can be described in both quantity and quality. Tannins can increase when a Winemaker decides to use whole cluster fermentation vs. sorting the grapes from the stems.
Sometimes tannins can be described as being "green." This will give you a bitter taste and are very astringent! On the other hand, "polished" tannins will be pleasant and "fine-grained" in texture.
Describing tannins can be tricky but think about these questions:
1. Do the tannins dominate the wine?
2. Can you enjoy the fruit and other notes of the wine?
3. Do they appear slowly and disappear quickly? Or do they come in full force and linger for a while?
When drinking a wine that has high in tannins your mouth will feel dry after!
Varieties that have high tannins: Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Merlot, Sangiovese, Malbec
Varieties that have low tannins: Pinot Noir, Gamay, Grenache, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Valpolicella
Other factors that also affect tannins: climate, vintage, and winemaking process
Acidity: Do you have a PH strip laying around? Bummer! We don't either. We can determine acidity with taste. Sip the wine, then tilt your head forward with your mouth open. Are you about to drool all over yourself? If saliva starts to pull in your mouth, you have a more acidic wine.
Acidity simply makes the wine more bitter, sour, or even crisper. Lower acid wines will be smoother and more round on the palate.
Acidity is a very important component of a wine. It can affect the color, taste, and additionally the longevity of the wine. Wines that are more acidic are said to age better. However, acid can also make the wine appear more "hazy" and more prone to contamination, as well as taste too bitter. It's all about balance!
It is also important to recognize the role that climate has on acidity. Acidity can be a huge clue on where your wine is from. Higher acidic wines are more noted in cooler regions, for instance, Chardonnay from Burgundy will be more acidic than Chardonnay from California. The same could be said for high-altitude regions.
Balance: How balanced is the wine? Is there anyone component of wine that is too overpowering that makes the wine unenjoyable?
DRAWING YOUR CONCLUSION
Now it is time to draw your conclusions! Think about a couple of characteristics that stand out in your mind and base your conclusion on that! Remember the deductive tasting method... if it is intense, high alcohol, deep-colored wine with notes of pyrazines and leather it is probably not a Pinot Noir.
OLD WORLD VS. NEW WORLD: Once you start digging deeper into wine tasting, you will start to hear this term a lot. These terms simply talk about the wine's geography. "Old World" refers to the traditional regions of Europe, while "New World" refers to everything else.
Old World: France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Austria, Hungary, and Germany
Characteristics of Old World Wines: