Decoding Blind Tastig

 

Blind tasting is a very difficult exercise that requires a lot of knowledge and plenty of skill. Sommeliers tend to love it and hate it at the same time. Blind tasting is fun to do but it is no fun getting it wrong. It is always a bit of a gamble and you never know how it is going to play out. Saying that there are ways of making it slightly less difficult. Here are some useful tips on how to approach blind tasting and how to make it less of a gamble.

 

IMG_3859 (2)

Sommeliers get together. Photo by Adam Pawlowski MS

 

SO HOW TO BECOME BETTER AT BLIND TASTING?

FIND A MENTOR AND A TASTING GROUP

 Taste with someone who can give you a constructive feedback.

STICK TO CLASSICS

By classic I mean a wine that has been made in a certain place for a wile and have developed a certain recognizable style. When it comes to blind tasting try t avoid funky, esoteric wines (the list of some classics along with grape markers are listed below).

DO COMPARATIVE TASTINGS

There is number of wines/grape varieties that appear to taste similar. Taste them side by side and focus on differences between them (suggestions of some comparative tastings are listed at the bottom).

THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS 

The only way of getting good at it is to taste loads. Try to taste as often as you can.

DON’T START WITH A CONCLUSION

A lot of tasters tend to jump into a conclusion before they taste wine properly. Sometimes you may be right but most of the times you will be wrong.   Instead of guessing what the wine is use your first sniff to decide only on one thing:

WHITE WINE – check if the wine is rather NEUTRAL, OAKY or AROMATIC.

RED WINE – check if the wine is rather FRUIT-DRIVEN, EARTH-DRIVEN or OAKY.

By doing this you do not decide on what the wine is you just pre-classify the type of wine which will help you as you go along.

HAVE A GOOD STRUCTURE

There are a few different tasting grids out there but the one I use and recommend is The Court of Master Sommeliers grid (below).

MOST IMPORTANTLY ENJOY IT  !!!

Do not lose the fun of it.

2012 MS Deductive Tasting Grid-page-001

CLASSIC WHITE GRAPES VARIETIES MARKERS

 

I have put this together with help of many top sommeliers and wine professionals. The idea was to focus on characteristics that define certain grapes or wines. The goal was also to distinguish main differences between similar wines. It helped me a lot and I hope you will find it useful too!

 

Chardonnay

Very viscous!

Cold climate – citrus, Moderate climate – peach, stone fruit,  Warm climate – tropical

  • Burgundy
  • Pure stone fruit
  • Lifted acidity
  • Usually oaked, well integrated oak
  • Butter, diacetytl from malo
  • Savoury character
  • Corton – Charlemagne, very different style, drinks almost like a red wine, big, rich, steely, nutty, oaky
  • Chablis
  • Pure fruit, always green fruit, apples, sometimes unripe stone fruit: white peach
  • High acidity
  • Very mineral
  • Not much oak
  • Usually unoaked, old oak only (Grand Crus)
  • Australia
  • Riper fruit, usually Tropical fruit eg. pineapple, mango
  • Lower acidity than Burgundy and  Cali
  • Viscous and ripe on the palate sometimes clumsy
  • Much more oak than Burgundy and Cali
  • Very malolactic
  • California
  • Similar to Burgundy style if from colder area like Russian River or Carneros, even alcohol tend to be similar
  • Not as tropical as Australia
  • More lees less wood than Australia
  • Acidity higher then Australia bit lower than Côte de Beaune
  • Chile
  • Herbaceous, slightly vegetal
  • Cheep ones are very flat, dull and tropical
  • Can be much better balanced and fresher If comes from cooler area like San Antonio or Casablanca
  • Overall the oak is better integrated in Burgundy than in the new world Chardonnays

Sauvignon Blanc

  • Sancerre or Pouilly Fume
  • Mostly green fruit + citrus, limey, bitter citrus, apple
  • High acidity, high malic acid
  • Chalky minerality, crushed stone like
  • Not too alcoholic – usually less than Chardonnay
  • New Zealand
  • More tropical fruit, gooseberries, fresh cut grass, bell pepper, asparagus
  • Herbaceous
  • Classic style is unoaked
  • More stony than chalky minerality
  • Slightly higher alcohol than Loire
  • Slightly lower acidity than Loire
  • Chile
  • Tinned vegetables like aromas
  • Lower acidity than Loire and New Zealand
  • Can be bit oily on the palate
  • Less minerals to Loire and New Zealand
  • Flat and vegetal if from central valley

Viognier

High viscosity, lifted glycerol, rich texture, lower acidity

  • Condrieu
  • Stone fruit, dried apricot
  • Relatively aromatic
  • Historically unoaked
  • Viscous
  • Soft acidity
  • Texture similar to Pinot Gris
  • California
  • More tropical fruit, pineapple, popcorn, butterscotch
  • Less aromatic
  • High alcohol

Chenin Blanc

High level of malic acid

  • Loire Valley
  • Predominant Apple, green apple, honeyed apple when ages
  • High acidity
  • Minerally – tuffa soil = limestone
  • Medium alcohol
  • Bad quality – wet wool, powdery nose
  • South Africa
  • More tropical fruit than apple
  • Lower acidity
  • Bad quality – diluted hot alcohol

Pinot Grigio & Pinot Gris

  • Alsace
  • Cooked quinces, some apple, more quince than apple though
  • Darker colour, almost amber
  • Quite full bodied, more glycerol
  • Spicy
  • Higher alcohol
  • Italy
  • Apple and pear fruit
  • Mild spices, white pepper
  • Less alcohol to Alsace
  • Less viscous
  • Quite neutral

Pinot Blanc

  • Alsace
  • Usually round 12.5% – 13% abv
  • Lemon, quite neutral grape
  • Grapey
  • Hard to describe
  • Italy
  • Even more neutral
  • Medium acidity, looses acidity as ages

Gewürztraminer

  • Alsace
  • Lychee
  • Spicy, clove, nutmeg, ginger, honey, Turkish delight
  • Very aromatic
  • Touch of sweetness
  • Viscous – lots of glycerol
  • Low to medium acidity

Semillon

  • Bordeaux
  • Historicaly more Semillon than Sauv. Bl. now its other way around
  • Citrus, lemon develops honey, marmalade  when ages
  • waxy
  • Weighty
  • Hunter Valley
  • Only 9-10%abv
  • Very citric
  • Mineraly
  • No oak
  • Very long aging capacity

Riesling

Grape with highest level of tartaric acid almost as high as Cab. Sauv.

  • Germany
  • Round 8% abv, if dry almost like Alsace 12,5% – 13% abv
  • Citric & stone fruit
  • Floral
  • Soft spice, some ginger
  • Steely character
  • Very long aging capacity
  • Alsace
  • Steely
  • Usually drier then Germany
  • Richer
  • A lot of Petrol
  • More viscous
  • Higher alcohol
  • Clare Valley
  • Almost like a lime cordial
  • Very citric
  • Medium body on the palate
  • Less petrol
  • Up to 13%abv
  • Austria
  • More spicy and no petrol
  • Higher alcohol
  • Usually drier than Germany but sometimes some residual sugar
  • Firm acidity

Muscat

  • Alsace
  • Dry, medium acidity
  • More rose petal than lychee
  • Less spice

Grüner Veltliner

  • Austria
  • Citric, lime, lemon, apple and peach when riper
  • White pepper
  • Phenolic
  • Relatively aromatic
  • Lifted acidity
  • Medium viscosity

Albariño

  • Rias Baixas
  • 12.5% – 13% abv
  • Apricots not as much as Viognier though
  • Not as ripe as Viognier
  • Slightly aromatic
  • High acidity
  • Low glycerol
  • Baby brother of a Viognier
  • Mineraly

Garganega (Soave)

  • Grapey
  • Almonds, hint of marzipan
  • Not aromatic, rather neutral
  • Slightly oily
  • Medium viscosity
  • Often lacks acidity

Torrontes (Argentina)

  • Should be dry!
  • Aromatic
  • Some tropical fruit
  • Citric
  • Less fruity than Gewurz
  • Phenolic=grape skins
  • Bitter edge
  • Can be oily, high glycerol
  • Perfumed

Muscadet/Melon de Bourgogne

  • Apple and citrus fruit
  • Lifted malic acid
  • Up to 12%abv
  • Very neutral in taste
  • Almost steely
  • Leesy, bready
  • Not aromatic

CLASSIC RED GRAPES VARIETIES MARKERS

 

Cabernet Sauvignon

Highest level of tartaric acid, one of the highest tannin levels and darkest colour, Full bodied, high extract, works well with oak, especially French oak. Good minerality. Herbaceous (especially marginal climates) but less than Cabernet Franc. As it ripens gets richer more cassis than black currant, jammy with notes of tar, especially South African. When aged gets leathery notes, pronounced minerality but still black fruit orientated, more dried fruit though.

  • Bordeaux
  • High acidity, high tannin.
  • Moderate alcohol (in general)
  • Graphite, pencil shavings
  • Herbaceous (crushed leaves)
  • Cedar wood
  • Not much spice
  • Black fruit compote when age
  • Herbaceous.
  • California
  • Vanilla, coconut from American oak,
  • Cassis, jammy,
  • Softer tannins
  • Bit lower acidity
  • Most alcoholic due to late picking
  • Australia (Coonawarra)
  • Nearest to Bordeaux,
  • Getting riper and more alcoholic nowadays,
  • Touch more alcohol to Bordeaux,
  • Minty notes.
  • More cassis than blackcurrant
  • Chile
  • Minty, herbal and vegetal notes
  • Alcohol not as high as California but still around 14%abv
  • South Africa
  • Can be herbaceous and smoky with notes of tar
  • Smoke is coming from the barrels in this case. Touch of spices but no pepper

Merlot

Medium acidity, medium tannin, softer than Cabernet, slightly higher alcohol than Cabernet, 0.5 more usually, lighter in body.

  • Bordeaux
  • Mirror of Cabernet Sauvignon but one notch lower except alcohol (around 0.5 more)Levels of extracts is the same but a different profile.
  • More plum fruit (ripe Victoria plum),
  • Tends to have less oak, when ages,
  • Develops toffee, caramelised sugar aromas (top Pomerol),
  • Old Merlot tastes fatter on the palate than old Cabernet, is softer and more full. Noticed pronounced minerality.
  • Chile
  • Rounded,
  • Jammy,
  • Tinned vegetables, herbaceous
  • Alcohol about 0.5 more than Bordeaux.
  • Much more black fruit than Bordeaux, blackberry, blackcurrant,
  • No plum fruit, never mineral
  • California
  • Unbelievably alcoholic
  • Big extract
  • Black fruit, due to long maceration
  • Lots of new American oak
  • Pastel fruit comparing to Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Franc

Medium everything but high acidity, more malic than tartaric, bramble fruits – apples, blackberries, pencil shavings, cedar. It can be a little bit vegetal.

  • Loire Valley
  • Medium alcohol
  • Aggressive malic acid when unripe
  • Vegetal
  • Quite herbaceous
  • Rustic, earthy, green
  • More vegetal than Cabernet Sauvignon
  • More forest fruit than red and blackcurrant
  • No oak influence, no minerals. Alcohol always around 12.5%

Syrah/Shiraz

  • Rhône Valley
  • High tannin
  • Medium alcohol
  • Deep colour, high extract
  • Medium to high acidity, more malic than tartaric acid
  • Not as big tannin as Cabernet, medium alcohol (around 13%)
  • Less natural partner with oak
  • Less obvious oak
  • Hermitage – blackberry, blueberry, black olive, bacon, black pepper, smoke, gamey, lavender oil
  • Côte Rôtie – roasted herbs, meaty
  • In general – blackberry, garrique, black olive, black pepper, bacon fat, smoke, meaty, gamey, roasted meat when gets older
  • Australia
  • Higher alcohol
  • High tannins but softer
  • Lower acidity
  • Eucalyptus notes
  • Blackberry jam
  • Iodine, leather, medicinal, much more vanilla than in Rhône, creamy
  • In cool climate touch of black pepper, nutmeg, roasted meat, in warmer more glycerol, riper tannins, lower acidity
  • Hunter Valley – leather, iodine
  • Barossa – halfway
  • Margaret River – similar to Rhône, black olives but Rhône is more floral

Pinot Noir

Very short ripening grape.

  • Burgundy
  • Very mineral
  • As ages dump earth, animal, meaty, earthy notes, savoury Nebbiolo like
  • Côte de Beaune more red fruit
  • Côte de Nuits more black fruit
  • Top notch wines have red and dark berry fruit
  • Raspberry, forest fruit, cherry fruit when young
  • Medium body and extract
  • Medium tannin, even in grand cru (but here more wood tannin)
  • High level of malic acid
  • New Zealand
  • Decline in acidity
  • More alcoholic
  • Becomes more darker and riper in warm areas and loses minerality
  • Red and dark cherry notes
  • California
  • More new French oak
  • Russian River and Carneros similar to New Zealand
  • Ripe black fruit cooked fruit and figs
  • A lot of mouthfeel, but no minerals
  • Australia
  • Burgundy style
  • Lower acidity, higher alcohol than Burgundy. riper fruit
  • Slightly jammy, cinnamon from the wood
  • Chile (Casablanca)
  • Not as ripe as California
  • Smoky, minty
  • Fruit driven

Grenache

  • Chateauneuf du Pape
  • Medium acidity and tannin
  • Full body
  • High alcohol
  • Colour pinot noir like
  • Red berry fruit when young, baked bread/pastry
  • Top examples black fruit, pastry, baked bread, liquorice, dried fruit notes, white pepper, lot of spices
  • When gets really ripe develops dried fruit, liquorice, treacle
  • Not a lot of minerality
  • Historically ages in Foudres instead of new wood
  • Indian spice, ginger, nutmeg etc.
  • When aged gets meaty notes. It doesn’t work really well with wood

Tempranillo

  • Rioja/Ribera del Duero 
  • Medium everything
  • Higher tannins when aged in new wood
  • A lot of vanilla from American wood
  • In young examples a lot of strawberry and cherry
  • Reserva, Gran Reserva – leather, gamey, vanilla
  • Modern style black fruit with some Cabernet Sauvignon ie. Marques de Riscal
  • Exaggerates jammy nature when Grenache is added.
  • No minerality
  • The more aged the more oxidative it becomes

Gamay

  •  Beaujolais
  • Medium body
  • uite high malic acid
  • Quite high alcohol
  • Low tannins
  • Notes of rubber if carbonic maceration
  • Confected sweets, black fruit, bubble gum, banana, no minerality

Carbonic maceration – deep colour, rubber aromas, quite high alcohol, low tannins, fruity.

Nebbiolo

  • Piedmont
  • Very high malic and tartaric acid
  • High tannins
  • Dry and austere
  • Medium colour at the most
  • Full bodied
  • High alcohol (13.5+)
  • When young red berry fruit, sometimes dark forest fruit, rose petal, menthol notes, extremely mineral, very pure red and dark cherry fruit, lavender, tar – comes with age
  • Seems to hold fruit with age
  • Usually gets just a touch of oak

Sangiovese

  • Chianti
  • Medium to high acidity
  • Medium to high tannin
  • Colour is darker and deeper than Nebbiolo
  • Overall black fruit, assam tea, red and black cherry
  • More French oak
  • Not great deal of minerality
  • A lot of leathery notes
  • Brunello di Montalcino
  • More black fruit
  • More alcohol
  • Everything a notch up to Chianti
  • It’s more oxidative (Slovenian oak)
  • Bigger structure, hint of jam fruit and raisins
  • Toasty from the barrels

Carménère

  • Chile
  • Medium acidity
  • Medium body
  • High alcohol
  • Medium colour
  • Black fruit, blackcurrant, jammy
  • White pepper notes
  • Incomparable to other varieties

Pinotage

  • South Africa
  • High tannin
  • High alcohol
  • Medium acidity
  • Dark fruit, stewed prune
  • Overlay of tar and treacle, earthy, rustic, quite bitter
  • Bitter finish
  • Burned Christmas pudding
  • Unpleasant leathery and smoky notes

Zinfandel

  • Sonoma
  • Medium colour, deep if a lot of wood
  • Medium tannin
  • Very full bodied
  • Very ripe
  • Christmas pudding fruit. Peach yoghurt. Red and dark berries, plum fruit, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla, creamy, savoury
  • Thin fruit and high alcohol in bad examples

Malbec

  • Argentina
  • High tannin
  • High acidity
  • Medium plus body
  • Dark colour, a lot of extraction
  • Very dark fruit, black plum, black cherry, blackcurrant, cassis
  • Soft spices, herbal notes, peppery notes, slightly minty

Barbera

  • Piedmont
  • High acidity
  • Low to medium tannin
  • Medium body
  • Medium alcohol
  • Classic bramble fruit, apples, blackberry, raspberries, bitter-sweet cherries. Fruity, a little sour but easy drinking
  • Historically with no oak

Corvina blends

  • Amarone
  • Cooked red and black fruit
  • Very full bodied
  • Very high alcohol
  • Essentially dry but has a sweet edge
  • Historically with no oak

SUGGESTED COMPARATIVE TASTINGS

Sancerre vs Sauvignon New Zealand

Grüner vs Albariño

Pinot Grigio vs Albariño

Chablis vs Sancerre

Chenin Loire vs Riesling

Riesling Australia vs Hunter Semillion

Zinfandel vs Malbec

Sangiovese vs Nebbiolo

Bordeaux vs Brunello

Pinot vs Nebbiolo

Gamay vs Cabernet Franc

Rioja vs Chianti

Rioja vs St-Emilion

 

 

Adam Pawłowski MS

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