Blindtasting

THE IMPORTANCE OF TASTING 'OPEN LABEL'

blind tasting vs open tasting

I talk a lot about blind tasting here, but wanted to cover something that's important to do when your goal is building up tasting memory, and that is tasting 'open label'.

AKA tasting while knowing what you are tasting.

 

Here's why this is so important:

You can assess a wine blindly, for acidity, tannins, body, etc, but until you've tasted a broad range of wines, you have no context.

When I was just getting started learning about wine, I found it helpful to taste the flights open label first (i.e.: knowing what they were). Then, our tasting group would repeat the tasting of the same wines, but this time the wines would be bagged so we could taste blind. This helps to develop palate memory. Moreover, even when you're a relatively advanced taster, this technique is helpful to revisit.

When tasting a particular type of wine (i.e. McLaren Vale Grenache, GC Chablis, etc), note to yourself as you taste: what are the key markers or characteristics of this wine? On your tasting notes, {circle} items that jump out at you.

After tasting several Chablis for example, do you have any flavours or characteristics that you particularly notice about these wines (here are some of mine: green apple peel on Chablis, burnt toast and lime curd on Hunter Valley Sem, grapefruit pith on Pinot Gris).

 

Once you ‘get’ a particular flavour or aroma, it’s like learning a new verb in another language, and as you add more and more to your lexicon, you will become fluent in your new language.

These are the tells which will later help you when you are narrowing down your list of likely wines in a blind tasting or exam. 

 

Should I watch the grid?

I’d also recommend open tasting while looking at your WSET grid and descriptors, and asking yourself if you sense each category while you taste.

It takes a little practice, but you will naturally memorize the different flavour camps, and eventually, will be able to run through them in your head by rote as you taste: ‘do I taste citrus, stone fruit, oak? etc.

 

PS: When you write your notes, be methodical about writing out the categories in the order of the tasting grid. It will help organize your thoughts as you taste (and will be helpful for the exam, because you won't miss any point categories).

LEARNING FROM MW STUDENTS

tasting with MW students.jpg

Lessons from a weekend of mock MW exams:

1) Set up mock exams using past exams

Scan old exams for questions and wine flights. Look for what the examiners are trying to test on, and find comparable wines, or wine styles. Really figuring out what the test is about helps you as a student: often, it's about winemaking techniques and quality.

We did a flight of 12 white wines on day one and a flight of 12 reds on day two, all under real exam conditions: totally blind, timed to 2 hrs 15 mins, no talking. A good exercise, as I felt tasting all one colour at a time made it more challenging on the palate (there are pictures on my Instagram if you want to see what we tasted).

Where you learn the most won't be during the exam, it will be after when everyone shares their thought processes, which wines or regions they considered and/or rejected. Did several students think something was something else, and why?

2) When blind tasting, if you don't consider an option, you can't choose that option

After the first mock exam, I recognized where I had gotten some wines wrong because I had not considered the correct answer as an option. This can happen when you feel stressed or rushed. After assessing and writing my notes on acidity/alc/body etc, I'd note a list of potential grapes. It was a real face palm moment when the wine was revealed and it wasn't on that list! How was I supposed to get it right if I hadn't thought of it? The second day, I made sure to be more considered in listing out potential candidates as I 'funnelled', which resulted in better logical thinking.

3) Assume the default position of learning from others

Blind tastings in a group setting can sometimes feel competitive or intimidating. Taking the position of being determined to learn from every person present takes the pressure off being correct, or feeling embarrassed at getting something wrong, and puts the focus on improving. How did the person who nailed a wine perfectly get to that answer? How did they funnel? What other grapes did they consider? 

4) It always comes back to knowing theory

As talented as any taster can be, accuracy is underpinned by knowing the theory solidly. In an exam, there's no time to be second guessing the components of regional blends, or winemaking techniques in a certain type of wine. These facts need to become intuitive, so they can be accessed with ease while tasting.

5) Blind tasting talent = hard work + experience + opportunity

Getting better at blind tasting is all about practice. Take every opportunity you can to taste, especially with students at a level above you. The MW students I tasted with were not always as good as they are now, they were once WSET Level 3, then 4 students. There is no substitute for experience, whether that is trying wines, meeting with producers, attending seminars, or travelling to wine regions.

Sometimes, I have to remind myself to be patient with my current level of understanding. The Diploma is all about breadth of knowledge, and those in the MW program are working with that plus depth.

I'd love to hear about your experiences as you worked to improve on blind tasting, please leave a note in the comments below.

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

BLINDTASTING Q&A: FINDING FLORAL IN WINE

Finding floral notes in wine

Q: Dear Rachel,

My weakness in tasting is uncovering the florals...do you believe in those smelling kits they sell online?

 

A: When I blind taste a wine and sense a floral component, I'm always happy to get such an important clue AS to what the wine could bE.

For tasting kits, I have used the wine faults version, which I found very useful. It's challenging to find example wines demonstrating the different types of faults.

I haven’t purchased the kits with a wider selection of notes, as I believe they are very expensive and the flavours/scents can be found at a variety of sources. Of course, if your budget allows, and you want to try out the kit, have fun and let me know what you think of it!

As you meet to blind taste wines each week, consider bringing along some of the following supplies to nose after you taste.

Floral ideas: my first stop would be the florist or market, but I’m including some other ideas here for you too. The flower notes to try and smell are: jasmine, rose, elderflower, citrus blossom, lavender, chamomile, & violets. Yes, I'm the strange woman closing my eyes and smelling each of the flowers at the store :O

Beyond the grocery or market, I’d pop in to an essential oil store, plant store, or perfumier (such as Jo Malone, or a perfumer that specializes in individual notes) to smell or taste the following: Elderflower cordial/syrup or St Germain liqueur, chamomile tea, dried lavender sachets, orange/lemon plants in bloom, rosewater, & candied violets. For the scent of garrigue, try dried herbes de Provence (the kind with lavender flowers in it!).

Liqueurs, essential oils, and distillations do a nice job of capturing these floral scents in isolation, so if you can't find the fresh version these are a great source (for example, it's much easier to find fresh citrus blossoms in winter than summer).

When I smell a wine, I find that the floral note will often be the ‘top note’ or first item I note on a wine showing white floral character, and on reds showing violets/lavender that I catch it at the beginning of the nose or at the end of the palate. 

Here are some example floral notes - feel free to add your suggestions in the comments and I'll include them here:

~Nebbiolo: Rose

~Syrah: Violet

~Prosecco (Glera): Elderflower / Wisteria

~Moscato Bianco: Citrus Blossom

~Rhône reds: Herbes de Provence

~Brunello (Sangiovese): Violet / Lavender

~Gewurztraminer: Rosewater / Rose

~Riesling: Jasmine / Chamomile / Elderflower

~Torrontes: Floral Soap

BLINDTASTING Q&A: ID'ING ACIDITY IN FINO SHERRY

Blind tasting Fino Sherry

Q: Dear Rachel,

I am struggling to assess acid, especially where there is residual sugar and high alcohol. For instance when tasting a Fino, the low body and dry style for me always makes the acid stand out. I know Palomino is a low acid grape variety so will write low/medium-, but that is not what I'm tasting. 

In a wine like these, do you have any tips/tricks for identifying the acidity level?

 

A: Thanks for your message. That’s a really good question. 

When we're blind tasting in exam conditions, it's important to remember that our assessment of a wine's acidity, sweetness, or other category is not just about how we perceive the wine, it's a question of recognizing and articulating its underlying qualities. So, as you mention, a wine can taste high in acidity when we know it's technically low in acidity!

When tasting a fortified wine which has very high residual sugar, it definitely becomes more challenging to determine the acidity level. For some, like a great Madeira, the acidity will sing in your mouth despite the sugar. Another clue of higher acidity is that despite the sweetness and alcohol you’re registering, the wine tastes fresh, bright, or balanced.

A sweet wine with a flabby flavour profile or lower acidity can sit heavy on the palate and taste flat, or have overwhelming sweetness or alcohol without balance.

Palomino like you mentioned, is a grape that produces lower acidity wine, and its juice is often adjusted with some tartaric acid before it undergoes fermentation - but Fino can have a bright, refreshing flavour profile, and sometimes a crisp salinity too (as in Manzanilla).

For me, the freshness that could taste like acidity comes from the biological aging/resulting acetaldehyde (AKA it smells distinctly of flor). Grapes for Fino often come from the best sections of albariza soil, plus the flor consumes glycerine, resulting in a lighter body.

With Fino, the flavour from flor will be immediately recognizable on the nose and palate, and you should ask yourself whether it’s there for each pale fortified you taste blind, so you can check in with your palate about whether the acidity is as high as it’s being perceived.

I found the analytical info for Fino and Oloroso from the Consejo website, it was curious to see Oloroso is listed as potentially having higher ranges of TA as it doesn't always taste that way on the palate!

From the Sherry.Wine website

From the Sherry.Wine website

From the Sherry.Wine website (check out the TA and Glycerine levels)

From the Sherry.Wine website (check out the TA and Glycerine levels)

Also of interest is this tasting article from Decanter China, in which Fongyee Walker MW suggests tasting a Fino (low acidity, high alcohol) against a Hunter Valley Semillon (high acidity, low alcohol).

WHAT YOU CAN LEARN BY FAILING A BLIND TASTING

What #blindtastingfailure feels like...

What #blindtastingfailure feels like...

What's the #1 mistake you can make when blind tasting?

In my opinion, the biggest mistake is: deciding what you are tasting before you are finished assessing the wine!

I was recently at a blind tasting where we were doing 12 wines (all red) in a mock Master of Wine exam setting. We had just over two hours to taste the wines and write up our essays. The problem, I went into the practice exam having got into town very late the night before. Definitely not enough sleep to stay sharp while doing a substantial flight of red wines. Plus, I'd skipped breakfast.

Tasting humble pie: I got to the last two reds, the end was in sight! After so many tannic wines, I was ready to be done. We were told they were from the same country and were made from the same grape. They had a medium ruby colour.

I smelled the nose and got some bright red fruit, and a hint of what struck me as aromas of semi-carbonic maceration. I somehow decided right then and there that they must be Beaujolais

Big mistake. Huge. {Pretty Woman reference}

WRONG.

They were Syrah.

Re-tasting them after the bottles were revealed, right away, there was the gamey, savoury note. Plus the distinctive peppery flavour. The assertive tannins. 

While tasting, a voice in my head had said: these have too much tannin to be Gamay. But instead of listening, I tried to make Gamay fit by postulating they were Morgon.

How did I ever convince myself these were Beaujolais? It was a really bad ID.

I know how: not enough sleep. Not having a proper breakfast and glass of water before tasting. By rushing through to identify the wines before doing a proper assessment.

Everyone makes mistakes. I'm sharing this in the hopes the next time you have an exam that you avoid some of these pitfalls. The #1 being, always assess the wine objectively, then use deductive reasoning to try and identify what it could be. The mind is a powerful thing, and put on the wrong track, will tell you that you're smelling and tasting things that aren't there.

Next time I do a mock exam, I'll be sure to remind myself of the Parable of the Syrah Beaujolais.

Thanks for reading! Commiserate in the comments, and if you're brave, share the worst ID you've made in a blind tasting.

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

BLINDTASTING Q&A: PRIMARY, SECONDARY, TERTIARY FLAVOURS

blindtasting for wset diploma

Q: Hi Rachel, I'm having some trouble with blind tastings in picking out primary, secondary and tertiary flavour characters.

For example, characters such as nutty I find difficult to pick out, and dried fruit could be be either primary, secondary, or tertiary. How do you differentiate?

A: The way I learn to pick up flavours and aromas I personally find challenging, is to taste examples that show very high intensities of that item.

For example, I was having trouble picking up on VA (volatile acidity), until I tasted a Chateau Musar red. Now I associate VA with that wine, and the scent of a freshly opened bag of dried fruit! Once you develop a flavour memory, it becomes much easier to identify that note in the future.

My rules of thumb when tasting, and deciding on primary/secondary/tertiary: if I’m getting mostly ripe fresh fruit, neutral, or citrus/floral character, it’s youthful/primary. If I’m smelling and tasting mostly winemaking notes (especially oak/oak spice/toast/vanilla/nutty, MLF/lees stirring/cream/butter) along with fruit I slot it into secondary/developing, and if it’s dominated by earth, spice, leather, nuts, tobacco, or faded/dried fruit, but no fresh fruit, it’s tertiary/developed.

For your questions on nuttiness and dried fruit, I’d start with an example that showed each.

Nutty notes: I often get this where oak or extended lees aging is showing up in the glass (secondary), an aged/oxidative style of white like white Rioja (tertiary), and often on fortifieds that have seen extended aging in barrel like tawny port, darker sherries, Rutherglen muscat etc. I sometimes taste a fresh almond quality in wines made from Marsanne (primary).

WINES: I’d try an Oloroso or Amontillado sherry, as I often get roast nuts on these wines (even though it’s a fortified, I think sherry is a good place to start for ID’ing nutty in non-fortified wines), and a white Rioja from a traditional producer.

Dried fruit notes: I pick up dried fruit in three main ways - where it’s dried out on the vine in a hot windswept climate (such as in Lodi) and some of the berries have raisinated, which can be primary in a youthful wine. Or, where the grapes have been dried for appassimento style wines which have a sweet raisin-y note (secondary), and in older or oxidized wines where what was once fresh fruit has faded to a softer earthier dried fruit note (tertiary).

WINES: There’s 'youthful' Amarone for picking up secondary aromas (winemaking) of dried fruit. A good quality Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel or McLaren Vale Grenache, which can have great intensity of primary wind dried/ripe fruit on the nose and palate. For tertiary dried fruit, I'd taste an older Chianti, or if you can get an older Amarone, that would make a great comparison with a younger vintage (secondary vs tertiary).

Cheers,

Rachel

PS: Have a blindtasting tip for differentiating between primary-secondary-tertiary, or a new question for me? Comment below!

BLINDTASTING Q&A: LENGTH & FINISH

blindtasting q&a.jpg

Q: Hi Rachel, I have a question about tasting.

What are the elements of “Long length”?  When do you say it has long length? Is it the acidity? Or tannins? Or Alcohol?

A: Great question.

When I think about a wine’s length, it’s all about how long after it's spit out/swallowed that pleasant flavours of the wine linger on the palate.

When I spit out a wine, and right away the taste fades or turns sour/bitter/sickly sweet etc, that’s a short finish. 

If the flavours echo through my palate for a long time, and I can still sense the wine after it's gone, that’s a long finish - and if it’s in between those two, then it’s a medium finish.

Some wines linger for what seems an age, and those are the best!

I believe balance has a lot to do with length. If a wine is too hot with alcohol, or has thick rustic tannins, or unbalanced acidity, it can’t have a long pleasant finish. A wine that has those elements in harmony, along with complex flavours, can achieve long length... and long length is a hallmark of a high quality wine.

Cheers,

Rachel

PS: leave your blindtasting comments and questions below! I'll answer them in this ongoing Q&A series.