August 18, 2017

The Mystery of Blind Tasting

As a wine student, the most frequent question I am asked is: how do you blind taste?

While I enjoy talking about blind tasting, I don't really enjoy doing it! Why? Because it's fucking hard.

It's interesting, people are fascinated by blind tasting wines.  A typical conversation goes like this:

Me: I'm a student of wine

Other person: oh, so does that mean you can guess what any wine is?

Me: <cue eye roll> no

To the layperson, blind tasting wines is a bit of a parlor trick.  My least favorite thing is when people shove a glass of wine in my face and say: if you know a lot about wine, what's this?  Sorry dude, that's not how it works.  We're at a bar, the lighting is shit, and this wine glass is as thick as my grandma’s bifocals.

To non-wine aficionados, this sounds like the most difficult part of wine school.  That, my friends, is a myth.  In my opinion, blind tasting is much easier than factual recall of wine topics.  And WSET statistics on pass rates for the Diploma program validate this. Unit 3 (Still Wines of the World) is the only unit of the Diploma in which the tasting exam and the theory exam are separate. The results are graded independently of each other. The tasting pass rate is much higher than the theory pass rate. For the time period of 2010-2016, on average, the theory pass rate was 40.8% and the tasting pass rate was 71.5%.  Blind tasting (especially when in an academic setting) is actually quite formulaic.

Another myth about blind tasting is that it's all about calling the wine. Whether it's the grape, country, or region. Believe it or not, you could call all the wines incorrectly on a WSET Diploma tasting exam, and yet still pass the exam. The reason is that the bulk of points are granted for the assessments. The assessment of a wine starts with the appearance, then the nose, then the palate. The second part of the points come from the conclusions, which can include determining quality level, determining the grape, determining the region/country, and readiness for drinking. As a general rule, there are less conclusion points available than assessment points.  A breakdown of assessment points is below.  Note that I did not break down conclusion points, as those are not standardized and vary per flight.

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

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

Palate: level of dryness/sweetness (1 point), acid (1 point), alcohol (1 point), tannin level and nature (2 points; this category is for reds only), flavor intensity (1 point), body (1 point), flavor descriptors (4 points), and finish (1 point).

Here are examples of 2 tasting notes (assessment portion only) from my Unit 3 studies:

Tasting Note #1

This wine is a $20 Chablis, which is a white wine from Burgundy made from the Chardonnay grape

Appearance: This wine is pale lemon with golden hues.

Nose: This wine is clean with a medium intensity. Aroma characteristics include: citrus (lemon/lime), green apple, pear, wet stone, and dairy/cream.

Palate: This wine is dry with medium acid, medium flavor intensity, medium alcohol, and medium body. Flavor characteristics include: citrus (lemon/lime), white flower, green apple, pear, and a wet stone/minerality. The finish is medium.

Tasting note #2

This wine is a $13 Valpolicella Superiore, which is a red wine from the Veneto region in Italy. Predominant grapes are: Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara.

Appearance: The wine is deep ruby.

Nose: The wine is clean with a medium intensity. Aroma characteristics include: red fruit (cherry, raspberry, plum), vanilla, sweet spice (nutmeg and cinnamon), earthy/meaty notes, and dried flowers (violets).

Palate: On the palate the wine is dry with medium + acid, medium round tannins, medium body, medium alcohol, and medium flavor intensity. Flavor characteristics include: red fruit (sour cherry + raspberry), vanilla, sweet spice (nutmeg and cinnamon). The finish is medium.

How did I blind taste in preparation for my exam?

As I prepped for the rigorous tasting exam, I had to be smart about how I used the time I had.   After blind tasting for 6 months in preparation for the Unit 3 exam I narrowed it down to the following grapes 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

This list is not all-inclusive. Could I have gotten a Verdejo on the exam? Yes. But I found this list to be a good start.

As I write a tasting note, I cross grapes off the above list that the wine CAN'T be. This helps clear my mind and focus on the remaining grapes.

I like to start a flight by sniffing the wines side by side. Are we in the Old World (dusty notes, minerality, and restraint) or are we in the New World (fruit, assertiveness, and more fruit)?  The answer is not always so clear.  Then I go through my assessment of the appearance, nose, and palate. Sometimes I get ideas of what I am drinking as I progress, but I try not to get too committed. The danger is that you make an assumption early on and you start to write your notes to match what you think it is, versus what is actually in your glass.

Once I get through my assessments, I look at my list and see what grapes are remaining that I have not crossed off.  This is where I start to make my deductions.  If the flight is all wines of the same region, I try and pick out the one wine that is the "marker" (i.e. clear notes of tar and roses from a Barolo).   From the dozens of tasting groups we had, the goal is to commit some of these markers to memory.  The challenge is that it's not just memory in your head but also memory in your nose and on the palate.  On my exam we had a flight of 3 Merlot wines from various regions.  The marker for me was the one with insane pyrazines along with black (and some red) fruit.  This was the wine that grounded me in that flight.  A couple of weeks prior I had a wine from Chile that was super green (i.e. pyrazines) and it stuck.  From there I determined that the other wine was a Bordeaux (Merlot/Cab blend) and the third wine was from Napa.  I incorrectly called the wines Cabernet Sauvignon, but I feel pretty confident that I "passed" this flight as my tasting notes could (for the most part) still apply for Merlot.  Cabernet and Merlot have many similar aromas/flavors, so I'm sure I did pretty good on the assessments of nose/palate.  Also, I called all 3 regions correctly.  All in all, I felt the best about that flight.

If you've gotten this far on a tasting note for a flight, you've come a long way! This is when you have to bring it home with the conclusions, which could be a quality assessment or readiness for drinking, among others.

The thing with blind tasting is to not beat yourself up about it. Sure, if you are prepping for the MS or MW exam, beat yourself up. That shit is hard. Otherwise, do your best with the information you have, and practice, practice, practice.

Happy tasting!

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you are looking to Drink Better and Up Your Wine Game, check out my latest virtual wine tasting offerings, including both public and private wine tasting events. For virtual events, my tastings feature a small-format wine tasting set sent to each attendee for a shared tasting experience. What can you expect from a Virtual Vino event? Fun, approachable, interactive, and unpretentious wine education as we share smiles and wine!
Brianne Cohen is a certified sommelier based out of Los Angeles, California.
She has been producing events and weddings for over 10 years in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and also offers her services as a wine educator, writer, and consultant to inspire people of all ages.

Brianne completed the entire curriculum with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust and traveled to London in order to receive her Diploma certificate, which is one of the most coveted and difficult wine certifications. Most recently Brianne judged at the International Wine & Spirits Competition and the International Wine Challenge in London.
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