Tasting wines, blind
Wine industry professionals (i.e., winemakers, writers, sommeliers, researchers, educators, buyers, sellers, importers, sales managers) have many ways to spend their days: Harvesting grapes, meeting with customers, researching trends, wine tastings, and, one of my favorites, joining a group for a blind wine event. A few days ago, I spent a grey New York afternoon, exploring red, whites, roses and sparkling wines from France at a hotel in Manhattans Upper Westside.
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Blind tastings (without knowing the wine’s producer, origin, or other details available from a wine label or winemaker) has become a significant determinant of wine quality and value. Wine executives claim that blind tastings are the best, most neutral, least-biased and most honest evaluative procedure and should be used (to the exclusion of non-blind/sighted tastings) to determine wine excellence. According to Marvin R. Shanken and Thomas Matthews (2012), “The only way for a scrupulous critic to guarantee unbiased judgements is to review wines in blind tastings.”
The AVPSA Event
Organized by the Association for the Promotion of Wines and Spirits in North America (APVSA), a non-profit organization with the mission of exporting wines in/to North America, the Executive Director, Pascal Fernand, scheduled a small group of wine pros to assist him in selecting the next collection of wines he would introduce to the New York/USA market in May.
Based in Canada, APVSA works with 300+ producers (representing approximately 3000 wines/spirits) that are “waiting in the wings” and have the potential for success in USA and Canadian marketplaces. Fernand is constantly assessing wine trends in the USA/Canadian markets, determining the wines that are most likely to meet the ever-changing/dynamic palates of wine/spirit consumers, considers their demographics and psychographics.
Advantages of Blind Wine Tasting
The principle advantage of a blind tasting is the opportunity to assess the wines/spirits free of any external bias. Without knowing the producer, price or even the appearance of the bottle, it is up to the eye, nose and palate of the taster to formulate an opinion on what is in the glass. In theory, this puts all the wines/spirits on the same playing field without anyone able to make excuses.
While we like to believe that we are without prejudice, it is amazing how differently a taster can describe the same wine. Some wine pros will describe a wine as lean, thin and without flavor/complexity and, the same wine, poured 20 minutes later, will be described as austere, powerful, elegant and sexy. Occasionally there is a change in perception because the taster sees the label, learns the price, has eaten food between the first and second tasting, or just heard a pleasant song that changed his/her mood. Tasting blind, in an atmosphere-controlled environment, is one way to control the playing field, but almost impossible to achieve.
Some experienced wine pros do not like to taste blind declaring that knowledge of the wine’s origins, terroir, weather, winemaker, price, etc. are critical to accurately evaluate the wine. Another short-coming in blind tastings is the concept of “perceptual contrast” which impacts on gustatory and olfactory systems and explains why, for example, sweet wines appear as less sweet when consumed with dessert foods (which are likely to be sweeter than the wines), than on their own.
Tasters traditionally move from lighter and less rich samples when tasting a group of different wines in an attempt to lessen the known effects of perceptual contrast. Another example is between Chablis – which, with modest oak and accessible fruit, typically seems thin and over-acidic when tasted in context of other chardonnay-based wines.
Wines may have a bad day. Some wines will show well on the day of tasting while others may be going through a “closed” or “dumb” period. Other factors that cannot be controlled include the mood of the critic, tasting on a root day, poor handling/temperature of the wine, poor room temperature and/or inappropriate glasses. It is common to reach the wrong destination when traveling blind, with no landmarks or directions to lead the way.
Getting ready for a blind tasting takes study and concentration. Participants are expected to describe the characteristics of the wines – from the appearance, nose and palate, and explain how they reached their conclusion. Tasters may also be asked to talk about the wine’s ageing ability, correct serving temperature and suggest food/wine pairings.
In a deductive tasting, the taster must know everything – from color to intensity of, for example vanilla notes (from oak aging) to the fruit flavors. By looking at the wine, smelling and savoring the experience, it is necessary to consider clarity, earthy, minerality, sweetness, Old or New World.
Before the tasting it is advisable not eat anything that will linger on the palate (i.e., garlic or spices) that will impact on taste. Tasters should not wear fragrances as they may interfere with smell.
Memory hints may help produce an informative response, for example: Noticing more color in wine as well as secondary flavors typically means its older and more complex. Old World (from Europe and the Caucasus) wines tend to be lighter, more delicate, higher in acidity and lower in alcohol while New World wines will be bolder, more luscious and bursting with fruit flavors.
Determining vintages? It takes time, money and focus to get older vintages correct. Clues to getting it right means a serious evaluation of color: whites gain color, turning darker and becoming more golden while reds lose color, edging away from red, purple and black tones to copper and brown.
Fruit character: If the wine is showing fresh fruit flavors, it is likely to be a younger wine, as “tertiary” (aged) flavors will suggest fallen leaves, mushrooms and earth.
For better or worse, at this moment, wine recommendations will vary based on many factors that cannot be controlled and scores are being left to the eyes, nose, tongue and palate of the taster…be prepared to accept for human error.
Behind the APVSA Scenes in NYC – Blind Tasting
To learn more about the APVSA wines scheduled for New York in May, visit apvsa.ca.
© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.