Blind tasting can be a super fun way to experience wine. But it’s also a great way to learn about what you actually like and dislike. Just so we’re clear, ‘blind’ doesn’t actually mean that you’ve got your eyes closed or you’re blindfolded, but go ahead and do whatever you’re into. You’ll hear no admonishment from me. Tasting blind means that you don’t see the bottle that the wine comes from. This allows you to objectively evaluate wine without the potential false prejudices that can come with seeing the bottle, or more importantly, the label. The best part of this practice is that the only way to get better at it is to taste more wine! Another bonus is that you might find you like certain aspects of wine that you may have not even noticed before. This can open a great many doors further into the infinite realm that is flavour experience.
Blind tasting is the great equalizer of both taster and the tasted wine. It ensures impartiality in the evaluation of a wine when there’s nowhere for the quality of wine to hide when it resides naked and exposed in a glass. It can mean that an unknown wine can beat out a well-known super premium wine that may fetch an inordinate price tag based on its reputation alone.
When I was first getting started in the wine industry I found myself overwhelmed and confused more often than not as to what I was “supposed” to be tasting. Over time, and many glasses, I became familiar with more and more styles that I wouldn’t have dreamed of being able to identify when I’d first started. It’s not magic, but sometimes it can seem this way. It’s really more of a harnessing of chemistry, sensation and knowledge based on experience. And most of all, its about exposure.
We all taste things differently and our memories are indivisibly tied to our olfactory sense more than any other. Evolutionarily speaking this is important because for the time before we had forced ourselves upright on our legs, we identified friend, foe and food by sense of smell. For example, we are incredibly sensitive to smoke because, before we learned to harness the energy of fire, and even after, it could mean imminent threat. Today we are more comfortable with this sensation and it doesn’t necessarily send us into red alert mode. It can even be quite alluring when we find the pervasive aroma of warming campfire in a well peated whisky. In the same way, we are sensitive to bitterness because it is largely associated with toxins that we had to learn to avoid whilst living in the wild. Millions of years of evolutionary development have gone into what we perceive. The flavours that can be eked out of a humble bunch of grapes by vinification and other techniques associated with winemaking is quite remarkable.
I got the chance to listen to Steven Spurrier speak about his experience in the wine world the other week and it reminded me of the importance of this practice. His game-changing challenge to the French to taste their wine against Californian counterparts resulted, much to the dismay of the French judges, in many of the Cali-wines coming out on top. This became known as the 1976 Judgement of Paris (artistic interpretation pictured below) where some of the expert tasters asked to have their scores removed from the sheet after they found they had scored American wine above the wine from France. It was the first time that blind tasting had been used in a professional and very public capacity and it turned out surprising results. Mr. Spurrier himself thought that the French wines would win out.
The basic bones of a grape are ever present in the glass, in most expressions of a wine anyway. That’s what makes it possible to “blind taste” and people who are good at it have worked hard to be that way. Much like the signatures that are provided by the soundwaves in music, one can identify a style, artist or instrument by critically listening. Generally, we are not used to using the senses of taste or smell to identify specific elements in our everyday lives, which can be a challenge to learn. I used to have a terrible palate, but with practice I’ve been able to become relatively successful on my quest to engage the finesse that I believe is universally present in our gustatory and olfactory perception.
As an illustration of my point I’ll use the one true sense that doesn’t actually exist in a glass of wine. Sound! Music has in it certain elements that all stem from particular sounds and, when recorded, keep with them those unique identifiers.
Nina Simone’s voice carries with it all the pain and loss that she had suffered in her life and couldn’t come from anywhere else. Santana’s guitar tone is unmistakably compressed and overdriven. Ginger Baker’s rhythms that hail from a mixture of rock and roll, African tribal culture and a lifetime of being a notorious asshole are 100% his. Immediately, you can recognize these signatures if you’ve heard them before and knew what you were listening to. Tasting can be a bit more nebulous. Mostly because it’s harder to know exactly what you’re tasting and often one may find oneself thinking, “I KNOW I recognize that smell, but I can’t quite place it.”
In the same way that you can pick out an instrument in an orchestra if you listen carefully enough, you can find the bits at play in a wine and, if you want to, can enjoy it for more than it just being wine. You can, quite literally, taste where it comes from with some practice and knowledge. What you’ve got when drinking wine is a mouthful of nature, history and art. Why not know more just by experiencing what it actually is as opposed to making up your mind by looking at a label.
When blind tasting wine you can get the same thing, but humans living outside of caves are far removed from using their palate and olfactory senses to find identifying factors outside of good/bad or like/dislike. When you teach yourself to pay attention to what’s actually going on in the glass, it’s a delight to start recognizing the evidence at play in a certain grape’s array of expression. When you start to be able to identify a black olive tapenade salinity and cured meat character in a syrah, or the unique “wet wool” character that seems to live in Chenin Blanc underneath what may seem like a mountain of fruit is really satisfying the first time you achieve it. Even more so when you become a seasoned taster.
Over the vastness of human existence, we’ve developed things to keep us entertained like art, music and wine. We have developed ways of pleasing ourselves to better our quality of lives and mostly just to make us happy. A little bit of training can offer insight into what we each find appealing about certain experiences. Wine is subjective and I fully believe that there are two kinds of wine in the world. There’s the kind you like and the kind you don’t. Blind tasting will help identify the factors that contribute to your enjoyment in wines and once you start getting your head around those bits, you can have a better overall wine experience because you know more about what to ask for. It will allow you to start communicating what it is about your favourite flavours that you’d like to find in any given moment in a glass of wine. And if you’re asking the right people who are passionate and knowledgeable about the vinous arts, you’ll have a better chance of ultimately having a great time as opposed to beating your palate against a proverbial wall. Start tasting and start developing your vocabulary as it comes to you. And don’t get frustrated! Being a proficient taster isn’t easy. But it’s a total blast when you get the hang of it!
Find out what you truly love by going blind.
Drink well and better.
Your Friendly Neighbourhood Sommelier,