When it comes to blind tasting, there can be no substitute for experience and practice. Do not merely fall back on your strengths, however impressive they may be. The best way to improve is to work at your weaknesses. Attending as many tastings as possible can really help to bring things together, as can visiting wineries and wine regions, talking to wine people, and reading the wine press and literature. More important still is to find or form a dedicated study group. Aside from the purely social aspects, the benefits of a study group include: imposing structure and discipline, sharing knowledge and experiences, shaping and strengthening indistinct impressions, uncovering blind spots, and, last but not least, dividing expenses.
Also key is familiarity with timing, as time pressure in exams and competitions is often intense. Put yourself through timed practices that mirror the format of the real McCoy. When you blind taste, say, a Pomerol, you taste it with everything that you know about Merlot and right Bank Bordeaux, indeed, everything that you know about wine. Last minute cramming is not going to turn you into an overnight supertaster, and might even serve to confuse you. Better to spend the run-up to the exam or competition relaxing and sharpening your mind and senses.
In the hours leading up to the event, it can be helpful to taste a familiar benchmark such as a Rheingau Riesling to calibrate your palate. If your palate is poorly calibrated for a particular variable such as acidity, alcohol, or quality (more likely if you are ill, stressed, hungry, or dehydrated), you will be losing marks right across the board.
For competitions, if tasting in a communicating team (in which members can confer with one another), the top taster should take the lead. If there is no clear top taster, one of the stronger tasters should be designated as captain to streamline decision-making. If it becomes apparent that the captain is having an off day, he or she should immediately yield the captaincy to another strong taster. If tasting in a non-communicating team as in the Oxford and Cambridge varsity match, the team is only as strong as the sum of its parts, and gains most from the stronger tasters training up the novices.
For exams, be sure to read the questions carefully and to answer them directly and comprehensively (although not necessarily exhaustively). If short of time, choose breadth over depth, as marks are likely to be distributed across a number of domains, for instance, across several aroma groups. Elaborate only if it seems appropriate, or if you are specifically asked. If you get stuck on a particular wine, come back to it later if you can.
For many exams, it is very important to use the prescribed tasting method, including the tasting format, lexicon, and grading scales. Committing the prescribed method to memory also increases your speed while decreasing your chances of missing out key elements such as tannins or oak.
If, say, six marks are allocated to ‘nose’, be sure to write down at least six items about the nose, across all the principal domains. In particular, do not omit to comment on a defining element such as notes of honey and honeysuckle in a botrytized wine, or notes of vanilla and toast in a wine with reams of new French oak. Conversely, be careful not to imply something that is not there. For instance, ‘coconut’ is so closely associated with American oak as to imply its presence, even if you meant it in a completely other context.
When writing descriptions, use only very specific terms: instead of ‘citrus fruits’, prefer ‘lemon’, ‘lime’, ‘grapefruit’, ‘clementine’, or ‘orange’. Other cluster headings that can be elaborated upon include ‘red fruits’, ‘black fruits’, ‘green fruits’, ‘stone fruits’, ‘nuts’, and ‘spice’. Do not hedge: instead of ‘youthful’, plump for either ‘young’ or ‘developing’. Similarly, avoid broad, imprecise, subjective, or fanciful terms such as ‘mineral’, ‘fairly high’, ‘feminine’, and ‘broad shouldered’. In short, be as precise and concrete as you can. At the same time, do not fall into the opposite trap of being needlessly technical by, say, providing an estimate of the residual sugar level in grams per litre. Describe each wine in the absolute, without referencing the other wines in the flight. For instance, avoid writing that a wine is ‘more aromatic than the previous wine’ – unless specifically asked to compare the wines.
Try in as far as possible to be consistent and coherent within your tasting note. It is surprisingly easy to inadvertently contradict yourself, sometimes even within the same sentence, for example, by describing the hue as ‘deep lemon’ but the colour intensity as only ‘medium’. More broadly, if you think that a wine is obviously young, do not write down notes such as petrol or marzipan that suggest a fair bit of development.
Take care not to confuse a descriptor with a conclusion. ‘Likely fermented in stainless steel’ is a conclusion not a descriptor, and used as a descriptor is unlikely to attract a mark. Also unlikely to attract marks are negative descriptors such as ‘no sediment’, ‘no tannins’, and ‘no evidence of new oak’.
In general, when concluding, it is not nearly enough to ‘get it right’. To score full marks, you also need to back up your conclusions with evidence, explanations, and context, in proportion to the allocated number of marks. Should your conclusions prove incorrect, your reasoning could ensure that you score at least partial marks. You are unlikely to be given rare, unusual, or atypical wines, so do not stray too far off the beaten track with an Alto Adige Sylvaner, a Bío-Bío Gewurztraminer, or a Mornington Nebbiolo.
If you are also asked for a quality assessment, do not hold back from being critical. However, be sure to back up your conclusions with evidence and explanations. For instance, do not merely state that a wine ‘will not improve with age’, but argue that it is ‘lacking the concentration and structure for further ageing’. Similarly, do not merely state that a wine is ‘balanced’, but make the case that ‘the full body and high alcohol are offset by the high acidity’. Verify that your quality assessment is externally and internally coherent. If you noted further up that a probable Bordeaux has green tannins, do not conclude that it is at the level of a classed growth; and if you claim that a wine is of poor quality, do not argue that it will improve with age.
Ahead of the exam, it can be useful to draw up differential lists for recurring problem areas such as ‘mineral whites’ (Chablis, Muscadet, Savennières, Sancerre, Riesling…), ‘aromatic whites’ (Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Muscat, Torrontes…), ‘light reds’ (Pinot Noir, Gamay, Grenache, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo…), ‘soft reds’ (Gamay, Pinot Noir, Dolcetto, Barbera, Valpolicella…), and ‘spicy reds’ (Southern Rhône blends, Northern Rhône Syrah, Rioja, Chianti, Nebbiolo…). For each variety or style, write down the most important distinguishing features. Everyone is different, with different trouble areas, triggers, and tricks, so it is important that you draw up your own lists.
For example, this is a list for spicy reds.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Grenache dominated blend)
- N Rhône Syrah: darker fruit, black pepper, higher acidity, lower alcohol, chewier tannins
- Rioja: brick red, less herbal, lower alcohol, more oaked and often with American oak
- Chianti: brighter with higher acidity, higher and firmer tannins, drier finish
- Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, more floral, higher acidity, much higher tannins
You can then rejig the list to put it in terms of another variety or style.
- Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, more floral, higher acidity, much higher tannins
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape: garrigue, less cherry fruit, lower acidity, lower and softer tannins
- Rioja: brick red, less bright, lower acidity, softer tannins, more oaked and often with American oak
Here are some more differential lists to get you started. Try, with the help of your peers, to formulate such lists in your blind tasting practices. Start with just a couple of varieties or styles, and then, over several tastings, gradually extend and refine the list.
- Muscadet: paler, slight effervescence, lees character, lighter body, lower acidity and alcohol, less mineral
- Savennières: more aromatic, fuller body, higher alcohol, bitter afternote
- Sancerre: more aromatic, notes of gooseberry and grass
- Riesling: much more aromatic, petrol, possible residual sugar
- Viognier: no pink tinge, more stone fruit, less exotic, often less oily, dry, lacks bitter finish
- Pinot Gris: pear or stone fruit, no lychee, often less oily, higher acidity, greater structure
- Muscat: grapey, orange blossom, lighter body, lower alcohol, often drier
- Torrontes: lacks lychee note, less oily, more mineral
- Pinot Noir: no blue tinge or estery notes, higher acidity, alcohol, and tannins, often oaked
- Dolcetto: darker colour, more ‘Italian’ cherries and bitter almonds, lower acidity, higher alcohol and tannins, drier finish
- Barbera: more cherry than strawberry, higher acidity, more often oaked, drier finish
- Valpolicella: sour cherry note, higher acidity
- Gamay: blue tinge, estery notes, lower acidity, alcohol, and tannins, rarely oaked
- Grenache: spicier, higher alcohol, lower acidity
- Tempranillo: brick red, less finely etched fruit, lower acidity, often oaked with American oak
- Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, fuller body, much higher tannins
Cabernet Sauvignon (e.g. Left Bank Bordeaux)
- Merlot: plums, no cassis or green pepper, more earth and less gravel, lower acidity, higher alcohol, softer tannins
- Syrah: black pepper, no cassis or green pepper, lower acidity, less structured
- Cabernet Franc: more aromatic, lighter fruit, lesser structure and tannins
- Cahors: inkier, earthy mineral notes, higher tannins
- Argentine Malbec: fuller body, higher alcohol, lower acidity, softer tannins
Adapted from the new edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.