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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
Asti - Sekt - Prosecco
Rosé Cava - Rosé Crémant - Rosé Champagne
Brachetto d’Acqui - Lambrusco - Sparkling Shiraz
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
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