Blind Tasting: An Excerpt from "Vignette"

Hi GuildSomm fam!

I wanted to share with you a chapter from my book, which hits shelves in the US on Tuesday. The book—Vignette: Stories of Life & Wine in 100 Bottles—is part personal narrative, part wine book. Its educational material is presented through a visual lens, with lots of illustrations, charts, graphs, maps, surveys, and games offering entry points into each style I highlight.

This chapter is on blind tasting: where I started, a lucky flight, why I find it important, and what my process looks like. The chapter finishes with two flow charts (one for white wine and one for red) on my split-second decision-making while in the midst of blind tasting a wine. These are admittedly simplified, but I've always thought it was important in blind tasting to reduce wines to the handful of things that make them impossible to be anything else in the world.

I'd love to have the community chime in: What are your "tells" for blind tasting certain wines? What do you register as the important things about wines that distinguish them from anything else in the world? What would your version of this flow chart look like?

Blind tasting requires built skills as well as the ability to refrain from “playing the game.”

Sommeliers like to think about what the wine might be, should be, and could be, when we need to be thinking about what the wine actually is.

I had regularly been attending the blind tasting group at Eleven Madison Park. One of our favorite formats was for each person to bring two wines, a red and a white. Everyone would partner up, then the first person in each partnership would pour their wines to create a flight of six. The partner who didn’t pour would taste, and then pour their wines in the second flight. This allowed for flights of six to be created without any one person having to bring all six wines. The downside was that sometimes the flights weren’t very well balanced. For instance, a number of times all three red wines, say, were from the same country. A few times, the exact same wine was replicated. And once, to my knowledge, all three white wines were the same grape.

This happened one of the first times I tasted with the EMP group. I was the first to taste, my partner having poured his wines in the flight. I started in with the first white wine. I was less methodical and more instinctual at this point in my tasting career. I got ruby-red grapefruit, passionfruit, charred green pepper, and gooseberry. It was ripe but fresh, exuberant in its fruit and green characteristics. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, done. I moved on to the next wine. Still that green and tropical character, but creamier, nuttier, oakier. The green was more celery salt than green pepper, and the fruit was more lemon curd and plantain chip than ruby-red grapefruit and gooseberry. Bordeaux Blanc, next. The third wine was a paired down version of the first two. Subtle white grapefruit, clean grassy notes, and burnt-match flintiness. It was like the first two taken off steroids. Sancerre.

I don’t remember the reds in that flight, and I probably didn’t get them all right. But the white wines I had nailed, and I was the only one to do it. I was in the infancy of my blind tasting career, and something about my naïveté allowed me to not question three Sauvignon Blancs in a row. Everyone else had figured they were making things up or allowing the wines to influence one another. But I didn’t think twice about it.

Though this was a great blind tasting performance, it would be years before I became a great blind-taster. It is a skill that takes a long time to develop. But developing blind tasting skills is one of the most important things we do as sommeliers. A lot of people assume it is essentially a party trick, but it is quite the opposite. It is the foundation of our trade.

As sommeliers and wine buyers, we need to be able to assess quality in order to put something on our list. Is this a sound, clean wine? Is it well made? Does it represent value for its price point? We also need to understand how a wine falls in the spectrum of its style in order to describe it to a guest. Is this wine abnormally oaky for its style? Ultra concentrated? Lighter and leaner than usual? The only way to know these things is to know what classic wines taste like, why, and then to be able to taste those qualities blind.

If I have two Sancerres on my list, and one is razor-sharp and very clean, and the other has a bit of botrytis and oak texture—this is important information for the guest to know. And it’s information that may not be available in professional reviews or on winery websites. It will only be available to those who can taste it. And the only people who will be able to taste it are the ones who practice blind tasting.

Suggested Wines

Domaine de Chevalier Pessac-Léognan, Graves, Bordeaux, France
Dog Point Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough, New Zealand
François Cotat Les Monts Damnés Sancerre, Loire Valley, France

Blind Tasting Flow Charts

Tasting wine can be quite complex: is that apricot I’m smelling or nectarine? Is the lees quality more like Parmesan cheese rind or stale beer? Is that rutabaga or white radish? Is this Barolo or Barberesco? Is this Chambolle-Musigny or Vosne-Romanée? The nuances are endless and can be difficult to parse.

Blind tasting for an exam, though, is simple. This doesn’t mean it is easy, but it is uncomplicated. It is about taking a wine and distilling it to the three to five most important qualities: the features that make it like nothing else in the world.

The following charts for red and white wine track my split-second thinking when I’m in the thick of an exam or flight. Each colored splash represents a starting place: if I can recognize this particular aroma (and I usually can), I can trust my logic-tree to get me to the right conclusion. If I can’t put my finger on one of those starting points, I know I can start with something else—residual sugar (RS), volatile acidity (VA), alcohol, tannin, color—and I can muscle my way back to the start.

It is imperative for students of blind tasting to develop their own vocabulary, understand their own logic, and grow to trust their process. Each palate is different, and what might lead me to the right conclusion may not work the same for someone else. Use my charts as examples to build your own, rather than models to dogmatically follow.

This is an edited excerpt from Vignette: Stories of Life & Wine in 100 Bottles by Jane Lopes, published by Hardie Grant Books. RRP $29.99. Illustration copyright Robin Cowcher 2019.

Read more about the book on here. Or, if you're in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boulder, Chicago, or New York, attend one of my book events this month!