Improving blind tasting (part 1): the best tip ever!

Frustrated with being a poor blind taster of wines I started Googling blind tasting and how to become better at it. Being impatient I was particularly keen on any tips to improve quickly! There wasn’t a great deal out there—which was the impetus for starting this blog. However, there was one little nugget of gold.

Without a doubt, the best tip I found to rapidly improve blind tasting was on The Oxford Wine Blog. Here, James Flewellen wrote a piece titled making blind tasting easy. Perfect! He recommends memorising the various general features of key wines. Sounds so obvious – why didn’t I think of it myself!

Previously, I had just been relying on the memory of wines I had actually tasted. I just hoped I would recognise a wine when presented blind. This method was often quite slow and unreliable. Especially when wines came up that I don’t taste that often or wines I haven’t tasted for some time. Often, I also found it hard to justify why I thought a wine was what it was. I think is Chardonnay because it tastes like a Chardonnay, just doesn’t cut it!

Having the key attributes of wines memorised in a logical filing system is definitely the way to go. I broke it down into three steps. Firstly, I identified the key wines that should/need to be memorised. Secondly, I develop a database of the general and distinguishing features of these wines. Thirdly, and most importantly, I committed the thing to memory so the information can be easily and quickly retrieved.

The key wines to know inside out

grapes-and-wineOr, put another way, what wines should you really be able to identify in a blind tasting. This may depend a little on where and why you are blind tasting. Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand’s book Grapes and Wines gives a good framework for wines to focus on. They break varieties into three groups: Classic Grapes, Major Grapes, and everything else (see table below for first two groups). All the classic grapes should be considered vital and most of the major grapes are also essential.

Depending on why and where you are blind tasting, and on current local and global trends, there are probably ‘other’ varieties that are more important than some of the major grapes. For example, Gruner Veltliner (one of the ‘other’ grapes in the book) is obviously important in grapesAustria but has also become increasingly important in markets like the US and UK (particularly in the on-trade). Silvaner, on the other hand, and one of the major grapes in the book, has become less important. Similarly, with the reds, growing interest in Sicily might mean it’s more important for some people to recognise an example of Nero d’Avola or Nerello Mascalese rather than Touriga Nacional or Mourvedre.

Within most varieties there are a number classic and important regions and appellations that make a distinctive interpretation of the variety. These regional differences need to be considered too when putting together a cheat sheer. Consider Chablis v Cote d’Or v Macon v Carneros v Santa Barbara etc for chardonnay. Or, Cote Rotie v Saint Joseph v Cornas v Barossa Valley v Gimblet Gravels etc for Syrah/Shiraz.

In addition to varieties, there’s also some classic or popular styles that are important to be aware of. These include: botrytised wines, Port and its various styles, Sherry and its various styles, traditional method sparkling wine, tank method sparkling wine, and wines made from passerillage, such as Amarone.

If you ever read Master of Wine Anthony Moss’s treatise, 10,000 words on how to pass the MW, he suggests knowing intimately wines to the WSET Level 3 specification. And, having at least a theoretical knowledge of some of the other varieties or regions. Personally, I went a bit further than this. I looked back at the past 12 years of MW practical exams—and found a few wines that came up fairly frequently that weren’t on the WSET Level 3. Saying that, Anthony Moss MW stresses not to overestimate the number of wines you need to taste in order to be fully prepared for the MW exam. Those classic grapes in the table above are the ones that come up time and time again and are the key ones to know.

Creating a cheat sheet 

the-concise-guide-to-wine-and-blind-tastingCreating a comprehensive wine cheat sheet can be a complex and time consuming task. There are a couple of options though. The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting includes a crib sheet for both red and white wines. The crib sheets are, basically, a distillation of the salient points made the distinctive features of the key grapes and wines discussed in the book.

To create my own cheat sheet, I used descriptors from a wide range of wine experts and authorities, such as: Oz Clarke, Jancis Robinson MW, and Benjamin Lewin MW and the websites of Wine-Searcher, GuildSomm, and Berry Brothers and Rudd.  I combined this with material gathered from my own tasting experience.  By using this broad range of sources I was able to develop a blue print of what a typical example of a particular wine looks, smells and tastes like. For each wine I tried to find at least 3 characteristics that make that wine distinctive from other wines.

Memorising the cheatsheet

moonwalking-with-einsteinCommitting the thing to memory wasn’t as painful or as time consuming as I thought. I did a lot of Googling to find ways to memorise things or how to improve memory. The loci method was the one that came up most often, and what I used. I listened to a couple of Tim Ferris podcasts featuring Memory Master Ed Cooke — both entertaining and insightful. I also read the book Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. It was an interesting and good read in its own right, useful for memory tips, and also kind of motivating…anyone can do it! Using the loci method talked about on the podcast and in the book, I found I could go through wines while I was driving to work, driving to the surf, waiting for a wave, or just cleaning my wine-stained teeth.

periodic-table-of-wineAlthough I haven’t tried it, yet. The Periodic Table of Wine could present a logical straightforward structure for memorising wines and their attributes.  White wines are on the left. Reds are on the right. And, roses are down the middle. Sparkling, sweet, and fortified have their own rows below the table. Wines are divided into either grape variety or region. And then Broadly oragnised by palate weight and fruit profile. Wines are ranked from fruity and spicy at the top to floral in the middle to green and mineral at the bottom. The fuller bodied whites are on the far left and then working right towards lighter whites, roses, lighter reds, and finishing with full-bodied reds on the far right. If you tasted a light bodied red, for example, you would visualise that column and see Beaujolais, Dolcetto, Valpolicella, and Blaufrankisch as options. If it was fruity and floral you may consider between Beaujolais and Dolcetto if it was more in the green and mineral spectrum you’d choose between Valpolicella and Blaufrankisch.

The results…

James Flewellen was right—and thank you, sir! Once I’d done this my blind tasting improved dramatically. Particularly my ability to justify my reasons for choosing a certain variety, region, or quality level. When you’re getting wines right you don’t want to sound like you’re just fluking it!

I also found I was getting stuck less often on wines. If I came across a wine I didn’t recognise or have a good idea about after tasting it I was able to systematically go through the database and find a wine that was at least similar to what I had in the glass in front of me.

The other benefit of having this chea tsheet to refer to is when I went to semi-blind or open tastings I was able to assess the wines much more comprehensively. Was it an excellent/typical/poor example of this variety/region/style/quality level.

Other tips for blind tasting…

While there’s not masses of stuff there is some really good things out there. The GuildSomm website has several free podcasts dedicated to the subject. Michael Schuster has some very good tips and advice on his website (his book is also very good, even if a bit dated now).Tim Gaiser MS has a lot of free tips and info on his website. Most of it didn’t really work for me but might for others. There’s also a couple of books in particular I’d recommend: James Flewellen and Neel Burton’s Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting and Gerard Basset’s The Wine Experience: A New Method which will Revolutionise the Practice and Art of Wine Tasting Three other really goods tips I picked up along the way are learning to argue (well), knowing your laterals, and being able to deconstruct to understand why it tastes the way it does. All of these things will be discussed in future posts.

9 thoughts on “Improving blind tasting (part 1): the best tip ever!

  1. Thanks great ideas. First, some reviewers read the guide to blind tasting as an ebook but amazon only has the paperback.

    Second, would you be able to post an example of the cheat cheat you made of one of the wines here? I have been struggling to find the best format … I tried notecards, word documents, evernote, and now using scrivener writing software! Thanks

    • Hi Marisa.

      Thanks for your comments.

      I purchased The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting as a Kindle book through Amazon some time ago. But, I see now it’s no longer available in this format. I’m not sure what’s going on there. Maybe you could contact James Flewellen or Neel Burton to see if there’s any options for getting an ebook version.

      I’ll post an example of one of my cheat sheets shortly


      the Wine Nut

  2. Thanks! These books are indeed helpful. Yet here is a question. On a mock MW exam a few years back we had the very expensive IGT Cabernet Franc based wine Arcanum. Though I forgot the context of the question and the other wines it was being compared to, from a blind tasting standpoint what would be the MO of deducing this wine?

    Of course, one could put a “price point” on the wine from the taste alone, elegance, balance, obvious discreet French oak maturation. I think I took it for a high end Bordeaux on the blind exam, but what do you think are the factors that would make it a supertuscan and especially, Cabernet Franc?

    • Hi Marisa

      Depending on the context of the question it’s unlikely you’d be expected to nail a wine like this. So I think examiners would show some leniency as long as you tasted accurately and made logical decisions. Saying that, if the wine was in a flight of other Italians, say with a Brunello and a Barolo, you’d probably be expected to get it as a Super Tuscan.

      Typically, I find myself considering a Tuscan Bordeaux blend because of the ripe, sweet fruit and high alcohol combined with prominent bright acid and a structural focus. Sometimes there might be particular flavours such as cherry and olive that would support this (along with other characteristics of a Bordeaux blend). Tuscany has average temperatures several degrees higher than Bordeaux so you’d typically expect the wines to be bigger, richer, softer and riper. But, they are typically more structured with more pronounced acid than New World examples.

      I think you would get good marks for putting the wine into Bordeaux but you’d have to say you thought it was from a particularly ripe vintage (eg 2009 or 2010) and from an exceptional site otherwise you’d be suggesting to the examiner you thought all Bordeaux achieved this level of ripeness.

      Getting to a Cabernet Franc dominated blend could be trickier. Hopefully the wine would have a distinct leafy methoxypyrazine tilt to it that would take you to the Cabernet family. The wine might have less tannin, firmness, and cassis than you’d expect in a Cabernet Sauvignon dominant blend. It could be the pronounced perfume, red fruits, and smoother texture that might take you to a Cabernet Franc dominant blend.

      Hope that helps. Sorry, I don’t recall having tasted the Arcanum so can’t be more specific

      • Thanks, and I must say that was a brilliant answer! I’ve actually had it this week and you are alarmingly right in all the elements you pointed out.

        And reading your reply, I remember the question and other wine – a cabernet franc from the Loire. The question was something about the two wines being the same grape (a blend with the Arcanum) and the other wine a single varietal and that they were from two countries,

        Now it is all coming back to me that the examiner at the end of the mock said the idea was to get the Cab Franc from Loire and then deduce the other.

        I’ve been going through all the old exams, yet need to speed up my game so I can answer these complex questions in the time allotted!

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