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August 18, 2017

The Mystery of Blind Tasting

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As a student deeply immersed in the world of wines, I frequently find myself on the receiving end of the following query: how does one master the art of blind tasting? Although I relish discussing this intriguing aspect of wine appreciation, practicing it is a different story. Why? To be candid, blind tasting is a truly challenging endeavor.

To the average person, blind tasting wines might seem like a mere party trick, or an esoteric skill held by wine connoisseurs. I can’t help but grimace when someone thrusts a wine glass under my nose and challenges me to identify the wine simply because I’m knowledgeable about the subject. I wish to clarify that it’s not that straightforward. We might be in a dimly lit bar, using a wine glass as thick as a magnifying lens, which hardly makes for ideal tasting conditions.

To those not versed in oenology, blind tasting could seem like the most arduous part of wine education. However, this belief couldn’t be farther from the truth. In my view, blind tasting is significantly simpler than the task of recalling myriad wine-related facts and figures. An examination of the pass rates for the Diploma program by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) supports this assertion. In Unit 3 (Still Wines of the World), the tasting and theory exams are conducted separately, and the results are assessed independently. Over the period 2010-2016, the average tasting pass rate of 71.5% significantly outweighed the theory pass rate of 40.8%. Blind tasting, particularly in an academic context, adheres to a formulaic structure.

Another misconception regarding blind tasting is the idea that its sole purpose is identifying the wine’s attributes – such as its grape, country of origin, or regional specifics. Contrary to this belief, it’s possible to misidentify all the wines in a WSET Diploma tasting exam and still pass. This is because the majority of the points are allocated for the assessment process. This process commences with the evaluation of the wine’s appearance, followed by its aroma, and finally its palate. The remainder of the points are obtained from the conclusions, which might involve ascertaining the quality level, identifying the grape variety or region/country, and assessing the wine’s readiness for consumption. Generally, fewer points are allocated for drawing conclusions than for the initial assessment.

The breakdown of assessment points is as follows:

Appearance: color (1 point) and intensity (1 point)

Nose: intensity (1 point) and aroma descriptors (5 points)

Palate: level of dryness/sweetness (1 point), acidity (1 point), alcohol content (1 point), tannin level and characteristics (2 points; applicable only for red wines), flavor intensity (1 point), body (1 point), flavor descriptors (4 points), and finish (1 point).

To better illustrate the assessment process, here are two tasting notes from my Unit 3 studies:

Tasting Note #1

This wine is a $20 Chablis, a white wine hailing from Burgundy and made from the Chardonnay grape:

Appearance (2 points):

The color and intensity of a wine can give you crucial information about its variety, age, and possible region.

For the Chablis (Tasting Note #1), the “pale lemon hue with subtle golden tints” indicates a young white wine, possibly made from a variety such as Chardonnay which is known for these colors. This appearance aligns with what one would expect from a Chablis.

For the Valpolicella Superiore (Tasting Note #2), the “deep ruby color” suggests a red wine with some depth, likely from a variety or blend of varieties that produces deeper-colored wines, such as the Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes known to be used in Valpolicella wines.

Nose (6 points):

The intensity of a wine’s aroma and the specific descriptors used to characterize it can provide valuable insight into the grape variety, the wine’s age, and even its place of origin.

In the Chablis, the medium intensity nose with aroma characteristics of citrus (lemon/lime), green apple, pear, wet stone, and dairy/cream is typical of Chardonnay from a cool climate region like Chablis.

For the Valpolicella Superiore, the medium intensity nose with red fruit (cherry, raspberry, plum), vanilla, sweet spice (nutmeg and cinnamon), earthy/meaty notes, and dried flowers (violets) paints a picture of a medium-bodied red wine with some complexity, which is in line with what one would expect from a Valpolicella Superiore.

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Palate (12 points):

Assessing the palate of a wine involves evaluating its sweetness, acidity, alcohol content, tannin level (for red wines), flavor intensity, body, flavor descriptors, and finish. These factors can help identify the grape variety, region, and quality of the wine.

The Chablis is described as dry, with medium acidity, medium flavor intensity, medium alcohol content, and medium body. The flavors include citrus (lemon/lime), white flower, green apple, pear, and a noticeable wet stone/minerality, all typical flavors for a Chardonnay from Chablis. The medium finish suggests a wine of good quality.

The Valpolicella Superiore is also described as dry, but with medium+ acidity, medium round tannins, medium body, medium alcohol, and medium flavor intensity. The flavor characteristics echo the nose, featuring red fruit (sour cherry and raspberry), vanilla, and sweet spice (nutmeg and cinnamon), which are characteristic of the Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara blend. The medium finish further confirms its quality.

All these factors combined make it possible to draw a conclusion about the identity and quality of the wine. However, the key to successful blind tasting lies not just in assessing each element in isolation but understanding how they interrelate to create the wine’s overall profile. It’s this synthesis of information that makes blind tasting both a challenge and a delight.

So, how did I master blind tasting in preparation for my exams?

As I prepared for the rigorous tasting exam, I had to be strategic about using my time effectively. After six months of blind tasting in preparation for the Unit 3 exam, I honed my focus on the following grape varietals that were most likely to appear on the tasting portion of the exam:

White: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Muscat, Viognier, Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Albariño, and Semillon

Red: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Malbec, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Corvina, Mourvedre, Cabernet Franc

While the list is not exhaustive, I found it to be a good foundation. As I composed a tasting note, I would eliminate grapes that the wine clearly couldn’t be, helping to clear my mind and focus on the remaining possibilities.

I typically begin a flight by smelling the wines side by side, attempting to determine whether the wine originates from the Old World (with its characteristic dusty notes, minerality, and restraint) or the New World (which often manifests in vibrant fruitiness and assertiveness). Then I go through my assessment of the wine’s appearance, nose, and palate. Sometimes, my initial impressions lead me towards a certain conclusion, but I try not to get too invested in these initial assumptions to prevent my tasting notes from being biased.

After completing my assessments, I review my list and see what grapes remain uncrossed. This is the point at which I start making deductions. If the flight comprises wines from the same region, I try to identify the ‘marker’ wine that is the most representative of that region. I aim to commit these markers to memory, not just intellectually but also sensorially – through my sense of smell and taste. For instance, during my exam, I correctly identified a flight of three Merlot wines from various regions based on the distinguishing markers I had learned from my tasting group sessions.

It’s important to remember that blind tasting is not about perfection, but practice and persistence. Except if you’re preparing for the MS or MW exam – then be prepared for a tough ride! Just do your best with the information you have, and practice, practice, practice.

Here’s to enhancing your wine tasting skills. Cheers!

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you’re looking to Up Your Wine Game and Drink Better, consider booking a private in-person or virtual wine tasting experience.
Brianne Cohen Wine Educator
Brianne Cohen is a Los Angeles-based certified sommelier, wine educator, consultant, and writer.

Brianne has educated and entertained over 10,000 people through her in-person and virtual wine tasting experiences.

Brianne holds the WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) Diploma certificate, one of the most coveted wine certifications in the world. When she’s not helping people Up Their Wine Game, she can be found judging at international wine competitions

Brianne aims to make wine approachable and conversational, to surprise and delight with unexpected wine finds, and to give people knowledge (and confidence) about wine in their everyday lives.

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As a wine writer, I frequently accept samples for review on my  website and on my social media channels. Please contact me at brianne@briannecohen.com to discuss sending samples for review. I promise to always be honorable with the samples. I will evaluate all wines in good tasting settings and with no distractions.

All reviews are my opinions, and mine only. Because of the volume of samples I receive, I cannot promise that all samples received will be reviewed, but I will do my best.

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