Blindtasting Q&A

TIPS FOR BLIND TASTING SPARKLING WINE: WSET DIPLOMA D4 (UNIT 5)

sparkling wine blindtasting tips unit 5 wset

Q: Dear Rachel, my study focus is on Champagne and sparkling wines right now, so I'd be interested in more observations and tips for how to do well in a blind tasting for sparkling wines.

A: Thanks for your question, here are some tips on blind tasting sparkling wines, along with exam strategy and suggested tasting flights to practice with! Feel free to comments below with your own sparkling wine blind tasting tips.

Cheers, Rachel


Blind Tasting Strategy

When tasting sparkling wines, it can be confusing for the palate. So many sparkling whites, so little time (or, you could luck out and getting a sparkling Shiraz).

When tasting, don't try to slot the wine into a category right away, take your notes as per usual and after you've assessed them, go back to them to look for clues. 

I find major clues on the nose of the wine. Yes, of course the mousse/bubbles are the defining character in a sparkling wine, but the nose helps me with ID, and I don't typically find the bubbles very helpful for this (exception: when a wine is poured and it's really, really frothy). Look for these items in particular as you nose the wines: floral notes (Prosecco, Sekt, Asti), autolytic/leesy notes (Trad Method, time on lees), rubber (some Cavas), diesel (Riesling), minerality (Champagne), tropical fruit (California, Australia), wet wool/lanolin (Chenin). These are not hard and fast rules, but general prompts to ask yourself about as you smell and then taste. 

On the palate, determining acidity is so important. Knowing which wines are likely to display lower acidity is a major helper for you. Personally, I find quality Champagne in particular has a high ringing acidity that lingers at the back of the throat, and BdeB Champagne can have a particularly piercing minerality on the palate. I often find Cava has less acidity and a more rounded body.

Other clues:

Strength of mousse can be helpful. Take note if you feel the bubbles/atmospheres are lower in a particular wine, as several styles are made with lower pressure.

Alcohol level can be a challenge to assess, with the bubbles and sometimes high acidity in sparkling wines interfering in our perceptions. The ABV can be a clue to be aware of, so when you do practice tastings, I recommend that you note not only the category of alcohol level (ie Med+, Med-) but take an actual guess at the specific ABV (ie 13%, 11.5%). Then make a point of noting after the reveal what the actual ABV was and compare to your assessment. You'll start to see a common range for the different styles/regions of bubbly.


Exam Tips

Clean Glasses: make sure you have properly washed your glasses of any residue so the bubbles don't adhere to any debris in your glasses.

Watch While Pouring: The exam starts when the examiner says it does, but you can carefully observe the wine while you pour it. Look at the bubbles, how frothy it is when poured, and the colour. This will help you move quickly through the appearance section of your exam with ease.

Sniff, Then Decide Order: Nose the wines, then decide the order you will taste them in. You don't have to taste wine sample #1 first. Leave any with strong aromas till last.

Not Getting Anything on Nose: If you are trying in vain to ID any aroma characteristics, take a slurp of the wine and write your palate note. Then go back to the nose. Often, this will help you ID some aromas you couldn't before.

Re-Nose the Wines: After you've tasted all the wines and written your notes, go back to the wines again. The warmer temperature of the wines may help release extra clues that weren't apparent at the beginning (for example, I caught a rubber-y note on a wine that helped to confirm it was Cava during my exam).

Making an ID: Not every tasting exam question will ask you to ID the wine. For those that do, think like the examiners - they want you to identify classic examples, not to trick you. So, here's a list of questions I use to suss out the potential candidates:

1) is the wine aromatic > Yes (think tank method Asti, Prosecco, Sekt)

2) is there autolytic character & how much > Yes (think Trad Method = Champagne, Crémant, Cava, new world sparkling) 

3) is there high or low acidity and corresponding body -plus what kind of fruit character? (Low acidity, fuller body with tropical/stone fruit> think warmer region / High acidity, light to medium body with citrus/green/apple/pear fruit> cooler region).

4) is there evidence of oak and is it balanced? (Think: reserve wine, barrel ferment, old world vs new world)

5) what's the quality level: how long is the finish and is the wine balanced? (Long finish with balanced acidity> premium / Short finish with neutral flavour, unbalanced sugar/acidity, flabby> less premium)

6) does the colour give you any extra hints to confirm your assessment? (Pale - young/cool climate. Deeper colour - oak use/bottle age/warmer climate)


Comparison Flights

Here are some suggested flights for blind tasting practice:

Traditional Method - Champagne Comparison

Non-Vintage Champagne - Vintage Champagne - Another new world traditional method (such as Cali/NZ/AUS/SA)

Traditional Method - Non-Champagne Comparison

Crémant d’Alsace - NV Cava (traditional grapes) - Cap Classique SA - (Bonus points: Franciacorta)

Aromatics

Asti - Sekt - Prosecco

The Rosés

Rosé Cava - Rosé Crémant - Rosé Champagne

Sparkling Reds

Brachetto d’Acqui - Lambrusco - Sparkling Shiraz

Crémant Flight

Crémant de Loire - Crémant d'Alsace - Crémant de Bourgogne - (Bonus points: Crémant de Limoux/Blanquette de Limoux)

Chenin vs Chardonnay vs Riesling

Vouvray/Saumur - Chardonnay-based Cava - 100% Riesling Deutscher Sekt or new world

'Other' 

Deutscher Sekt - New Zealand Sparkling - Australia Sparkling 

Mass Production Bubblies - choose low-mid priced, widely available producers

New world tank method - Cava - Crémant

New World Premium Flight

Choose three premium sparkling wines from: NZ, Australia, South Africa, USA (WA/OR/CALI), Chile, or Argentina

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).