There are about 160 Master Sommeliers in the world and only three reasons why I’m not one of them. There are three parts to the exam, including the famed blind tasting portion, which gets both praise and ridicule depending on one’s view or ability to pass that particular part. I fall on the praise side because the exercise does have value.
The idea of blind tasting, for the general wine consumer, is usually the classic Hollywood portrayal. Everyone has seen a version, maybe even in real life. Some blowhard is asked to pontificate on a random glass of wine. He (most frequently a guy with a big ego) sniffs (loudly), swirls, sniffs again, sips, slurps (again, loudly) and then spits or swallows the wine. After a minute or so, the taster begins spouting big ideas about the wine, often stabbing at a couple of impressions before declaring (quite pompously) his final verdict. “An excellent Pinot Noir from the La Tache vineyard in Vosne-Romanee, umm, vintage…1995. From rows of vines near the top of the hill, closest to La Grand Rue vineyard. Oh, and the grapes were picked in the morning. It was about 12 degrees Celsius—that would be 53.6 degrees Fahrenheit.” Obvious nonsense.
This type of blind tasting is a waste of time and brain cells, but that should not discount its real value. Blind tasting forces us to depend on our senses for tasting a beverage, the important senses of smell and taste. Even the finish is mostly about the aromas. Taste only represents about 30 percent of the quality and pleasure of a wine. Wine regions and brands all depend on image, and tasting a wine blind takes image out of the equation so all you’re left with is taste. When a wine critic reviews a wine they have tasted blind it is much more valuable and credible. We’re human—we can’t help but have certain expectations when sampling a bottle of famous or expensive wine. But these expectations cloud our judgment. Very few wine reviews are done through the blind tasting method and that is a shame. We pay a premium for wine from certain regions or famed producers, and that premium is only based on image. Sometimes we are lucky when image and taste coincide—sometimes we’re not. It’s a disappointing and costly experience.
Blind tasting is something all professional wine buyers should do on a regular basis, but it can also be done by all wine drinkers. Not to show off or prove anything, but to experience wine without any preconceived notions. It also gives wine drinkers the opportunity to really experience wine in a far more nuanced manner. Remember, blind tasting is not an exact science, and even the greatest tasters are frequently wrong. It’s all about the experience. Harry Waugh, one of Britain’s most famed wine writers and critics, was asked once if he had ever confused a Bordeaux for a Burgundy. His response was, “Not since lunch.” Buying wine by the glass is an excellent way to try blind tasting.
Wines made from certain grapes have their own particular aromas.
Here are a few as a guide.
Lighter red grapes
(Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc) have notes of red cherry, red raspberry and/or cranberry.
Heavier red grapes
(Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah) have notes of black cherry, blackberries, plums and/or blueberries.
Lighter un-oaked white grapes
(Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc) have notes of green apple, lemon and lime.
Aromatic white grapes
(Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Viognier) have aromas of pear, peach and tropical fruits.