With the Wine & Dine Festival upon us — and a fully stocked wine cellar that delivers direct to your door — there’s never been a better time to host your friends and family for a ‘blind tasting’ at home. Multi award-winning British wine expert, TV personality, author and columnist Olly Smith is known for making wine culture more accessible, so who better to ask where to begin? Read on for tips directly from Olly himself, including insights from his personal experiences.
Tasting a wine without knowing what it is may seem initially to be an act of lunacy. You’re unlikely to pick a meal to eat or movie to watch without any prior knowledge. So why is wine any different? The glory of ‘blind tasting’ as it’s known is in the comparisons between wines, which deepen insight as well as enrich entertainment. Put simply, it teaches you why the wine tastes the way it does and, with a bit of practise, makes you a better taster.
Inevitably, there will be a certain competitive element as the focus shifts onto what’s in the glass rather than any distractions from label, price or prestige. And while more often than not there’s someone who is lucky with pure guesswork tasting blind, a few inside tips on how to host your own blind tasting will ensure a level playing field.
First of all, pick your theme and stick to it. You might decide to choose a particular grape variety, a particular wine producer, a region, or a vintage (the year in which the wine is made). But beware of running before you can walk. My recommendation for beginners is to start with one element: learning to identify iconic wine styles such as Rioja from Spain, Malbec from Argentina, Barossa Shiraz from Australia, or Chablis from France. My Dad once presented me with a blind bottle of Turkish red made by Kavaklidere — I correctly identified the wine in seconds, but only because I happened to have been hosting a wine tasting earlier that day at which that exact same wine was poured.
Bear in mind the more you blind taste wine, the better you become — and it’s like the gym, unless you keep it up, performance inevitably slips. So, some guidelines — and remember, if you go too leftfield with blind tasting, nobody stands a chance and interest will quickly wane as your guests start to feel foolish.
For a rule of thumb stick to twelve people or less so you only need one sample of each wine, avoiding the risk of any bottle variation. Make sure there is plenty of water on hand and if you’re serving nibbles, stick to safe flavours such as crackers rather than anything too heavily flavoured — avoid spicy food which risks overpowering the wine.
If you’re pouring a range of wine styles, arrange the covered bottles left to right beginning with the lightest white and ending with the richest most powerful wine — could be a red, a Port or even a sweet wine. If you’re worried that guests might glean too much from the shape of the bottle — Pinot Noir tends to be in sloping shouldered bottles for instance — then decant all the wines beforehand and carefully number them so that you can always identify the wine.
At professional wine tastings, we always use the same glass to taste and evaluate; a good-sized white wine glass is a decent bet for an all-rounder. Have a spittoon or ice bucket on hand so that guests can rinse their glasses with water if they wish. Prepare tasting sheets in advance for everyone to make notes. If you search for ‘wine tasting grid’ you’ll find good examples, but the main points to include are: the wine’s appearance, aromas, taste, how the wine feels texturally and, finally, conclusions.
Be meticulous! A wine leaves a trail of clues. If you’re examining colour, hold the wine over a white background — a sheet of A4 is perfect. If it’s a red wine with an orangey-rust colour to the edge of the wine as you hold the glass at a 45 degree angle then it’s likely to be an older wine. If it’s a white that’s a deep gold and smells savoury (think toasted nuts or melting butter) then it’s likely to have been aged in oak barrels. Wines with lots of acidity will come from cooler climates, more alcohol generally signifies hotter places since the grapes ripen more fully and sugar turns to alcohol. Cabernet Sauvignon, especially when young, is robust and usually has a powerful blackcurrant characteristic. And so forth.
Always remember to use logic in your deductions. A friend who is a Master of Wine famously passed his exams despite identifying an Australian Wolf Blass Chardonnay as a Meursault from Burgundy in France — because he used correct logic. Both those wines are rich and oaky and full of flavour, so never fear being wrong for the right reason. And most of all, remember, blind tasting is about having fun — and should always lead to sharing a glass or two of your favourite wine of the night. Cheers!
Ready to start planning your blind tasting party? Remember to “pick your theme and stick to it” — use our drink finder to help find the perfect selection.
Olly Smith is a multi award-winning wine expert, TV personality, author and columnist.