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
Or, 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 Austria 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
Creating 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
Committing 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.
Although 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.
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.