There’s nothing more impressive to the wine buff than the taster who can sniff, swirl and sip a wine for a few moments, then nail it. Without, of course, seeing the label on the bottle. There’s a gasp of admiration when someone correctly announces the grape, country of origin, vintage, or occasionally even the producer of the wine.
But is this party trick all there is to blind tasting? Far from it. Tasting wines blind is an excellent way to evaluate them: you taste without being swayed by reputations or price tags. But it’s not the necessarily the best way: a good objective taster, who can resist the power of the label, will make an even better quality judgement on a bunch of wines if he or she knows their age, grape composition and so on.
Blind tasting is undoubtedly a terrific educational exercise, that forces the taster to think deeply about the wine in the glass – assessing its colour, aromas and flavours. This is essential practise for wine tasters, that improves their understanding of wine styles and sharpens their thought processes. Yet so often blind tasting is seen as a rather machismo jousting session, where the taster is in the spotlight, earning kudos if they can identify certain characteristics of the wine, and derision if they cannot. As a wine ‘professional’ I an often put on the spot. Friends just cannot resist wheeling out a bottled wrapped in tinfoil when I’m invited round for dinner, and as soon as someone at a party hear’s what I do for a living, they shuffle off to appear moments later with a full glass and challenge to tell them exactly what’s in it.
Can I do so? Well, not often is the answer. Being able to identify a specific wine blind is as much down to luck as judgement: it might be a wine that you have tasted very recently, or one that is so distinctive that you immediately pick up clues to its identity. Generally I can have a pretty good stab at grape, age and quality level, doing better than the average person, but by no means acheiving 100% accuracy. The toughest challenge of the lot is identifying where the wine comes from. In these days of international grapes and winemaking techniques, telling £8 Chardonnays apart is almost impossible. Right: I guess the concentration is pretty obvious as I am snapped blind-tasting at a wine competition.
And so to a blind tasting evening I attended recently in the company of friends. This tasting was ‘double blind’, meaning that not only was the identity of each bottle concealed, but we had no information about what styles or quality level of wines were to be included. As it happens, this is one of my better blind tasting “performances”. It was just one of those nights when luck was on my side, as well as a bit of experience and concentration on the task. To give yourself the best chance of identifying a wine blind, concentrate very hard on your first sniff and sip, and try to make an early guess based on gut instinct (which is so often right). Then, eliminate things the wine could not be (“the colour is far too light to be a Shiraz”, “it’s not aromatic enough to be a Muscat”) and see if these eliminations reinforce your first impressions.
Before we sat down we were poured a glass of fizz. Having tasted it I was instantly reminded of some Nyetimber 1994 that I’d bought a case of several years ago, and had drunk regularly. That’s what I plumped for and Bingo, the wine was Nyetimber 1994. Gasps of shock and awe around the room. The tasting followed in flights, with the identities of the wines being revealed at the end of each flight.
Karthauserhof (Mosel-Saar-Ruuwer) Eitelsbacher Karthauserhofberg Riesling Spätlese 1995
Lovely waxy and mineral, apply nose, with hints of rich lemon and lime. Palate is off dry, with a lovely purity of gently peachy, lime blossom fruit. Shimmering, sherbetty acidity and those lovely floral notes play against a more pithy lime zest acidity. Quite long and beautifully balanced. My guess: a Mosel Riesling Spätlese from 1997
St Hallet (Australia) Semillon Select 1998
Quite a dark yellow colour, with. Vegetal, slightly mushroomy quality, with a slightly nutty Cox’s Pippin quality, slightly drying and does seem to have lost some fruit. The gentle oak builds nicely, and is of lovely quality. Some nice orangy fruit coming through. Dry palate too, with plenty of that nutty, honeyed richness. Perhaps just past its best, but lovely. My guess: South African Chenin Blanc, 1997.
Collin, Marc Chassagne Montrachet 1998
The has just a note of oxidation, with some orange and bruised apple fruit, but a slightly dull character Palate with plenty of acidity, and a dry, slightly out of condition flatness. My guess: oxidised white Burgundy from 2000.
Pesquera (Spain) Tinto 1998
Quite a fading brown edge to still a rich colour. There is briar and a slightly gamy quality, with but very nice peppery quality and earthy red fruit. The palate has a nice, restrained fruit quality. Not too packed with fruit, but elegant acidity and Good balance. My guess: Ribera del Duero, possibly Pesquera. N.B. I had been way off beam, following a southern Rhône track, but our host gave a couple of clues as everyone was struggling and we homed in on Spain, and thereafter mine was an educated guess.
Pesquera (Spain) Tinto 1994
Slightly green, peppercorn and leafy eucalypt quality. The palate has a good berry fruit firmness that comes through, with a good acid structure, and slightly underpowered but very fine. This seems to have a developing creaminess, with firm , juicy black fruit. The oak has a lovely polish and coffeeish quality. My guess: Ribera del Duero again, possibly another vintage of the same wine.
Cornerstone (Australia) Grenache Shiraz 1998
Lovely Rhone-like pepper and bold, ripe, black cherry and fragrant fruit. Grenache. Lovely sense of sweet fruit too. On the palate this has lovely fruit – really sweet and ripe, with plenty of juicy, rounded cherry and redcurrant. Lovely balance with a sense of purity and length, and a creaminess to the oak. My guess: Grenache, possibly an upmarket Côtes du Rhône Villages from 1998.
Domaine Gourt de Mautens (France) Rasteau 1998
Deep, dark, glossy black fruit, but still a pepper and spice character, with real intensity and a kirsch-like cherry and almost raisined quality. The palate has a liquoricy, tannic heft, but there is precision here, and a lovely concentration. My guess: Grenache again, and possibly a Châteauneuf du Pape from 1998?
John’s Blend (Australia) No 21 Cabernet Sauvignon 1994
There’s a meaty, raspberry and vividly red fruited character here, with a dry, cranberry character. On the palate massive fruity, sweet, blooming character. Lovely silky mouthfeel, with a pastille quality to the fruit with blackcurrant and very delicious. Lovely silky background of sweet vanillin oak. Long and delicious. My guess: Australian or Californian Bordeaux Blend from 1993.
Domaine A (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
Huge, green, underripe quality, before some black fruit begins to push through, Some really sweet fruit here, with plenty of deep, chocolaty oak coming through; a really fine, polished quality of oak. This has a really deep character, with plenty of plush fruit on the palate. My guess: Cabernet Sauvignon, but has that slightly green quality. A bit younger, and maybe from South Africa or New Zealand? A bit stumped.
Stonewell (Australia) Shiraz 1998
Lovely rich, full, massively ripe and rich nose with blackberry fruit loaded with cinnamon and clove like spice. Superb concentration and silky richness. The palate has lovely sweetness and lushness of fruit, with a terrific black plum, cherry and juicy blackcurrant fruit. Delightful supple tannin, Plenty of alcohol but delightful stuff with focus, weight and glorious conviction. My guess: big Australian Shiraz. Guess at Jim Barry’s Armagh 1996.
Sean Thackery (California) Orion 1994
Quite a bright, leafy, herbal quality with a high note, but some minerality and a leafy quality comes through. I know this. The lovely raspberry fruit, with masses of white pepper and some floral notes. On the palate there is lovely racy fruit, with cherry and raspberry. Very fine tannic quality, with a superb liquorice and tight, supple tannins. The acidity is lovely too, and the warming oak pushes through adding another layer of complexity. My guess: Sean Thackery’s Orion 1994. (one of the most distinctive wines I have tasted quite regularly, and one I have had in my own cellar)