Can a single blind tasting be of value to wine drinkers seeking to learn more techniques for identifying the similarities and differences in wines, while honing their individual palates and sensitivities?
The answer is yes, according to Eric Entrikin, Master Sommelier, who conducted a session on single blind tasting during the recent annual SommCon® conference and exposition for sommelier-level education and training of wine professionals and serious enthusiasts. The three-day conference in San Diego last November featured some 50 sessions, workshops and educational programs led by recognized experts in their fields, with some 500 wines available for tasting.
Eric teaches the introductory, certified and advanced levels for the Court of Master Sommeliers. He has more than 30 years of experience in the wine industry and is one of only 219 sommeliers in the world to reach this top level of certification through the Court since 1969. His experience has included working in wholesale, retail, restaurant, production and importing, which involved the sale of wines from every major wine producing country in the world.
Single blind tasting involves knowing what the wines are, but not in which order. The approach helps any wine drinker, from casual to experienced, to better understand the similarities and differences in like wines.
The challenge is in the details and nuances, Eric said. Wines often look and smell the same and have similar structural character. He said wines can be chameleons (changing character with climate, site and exposure to the sun).
“Even if you fall on your face (in failing to identify the varietal), you are still moving forward,” said Eric. The phenomenon repeated several times during the session.
Climate and winemaking can have a big effect when the basic flavor precursors in grapes are identical (e.g. pyrazines, thiols and mercaptans), which can undergo changes during and after fermentation.
Winemaking manipulations can alter a wine‘s character (for the biggest producers, wine is a manufactured product, so the various batches are regularly adjusted with different techniques, processes, additions and reductions to arrive at the desired style).
For a frame of reference, Eric discussed the subtleties that distinguish a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc from an Alsace Pinot Gris.
For Chenin Blanc, Eric said the characteristics included: a semi-aromatic variety, off-dry, affected by Botrytis in some cases, high acid, medium alcohol, chalky mineral notes and no bitterness. The aromas and flavors offered a mix of red apple and bruised apple, tropical mango and pineapple, chamomile, flowers, honey and hay.
For Pinot Gris, he said there were different intensities in the nose and flavor. The Pinot Gris can be dry with some residual sugar, botrytis affected and with sand stone and mineral notes. It has medium acids, medium-plus to high alcohol, exhibits bitterness and has a range of aromas and flavors, including red and yellow apple, pineapple, apricot, waxy and oily undertones, honey and the smell of bread dough from being aged on the lees.
Next, Eric led us through a blind tasting of white wines: Albarino, Sauvignon Blanc and a Gruner Veltliner. He outlined the similarities to look for: potential origins based on influence of climate on acidity and fruit, fruit clusters, ripe to tart flavors, non-fruit aromas and flavor, no oak or stainless aging, moderate alcohol, medium plus to high acid and mineral driven. Differences include vegetative character, body, impact on the palate, specific fruit descriptors, type of mineral, and the level of ripeness or greenness in the fruit.
The Albarino had a citrus, green apple, tangerine and peach nose, with tight acids and a long semi-bitter finish.
The Sauvignon Blanc had a herbaceous nose, with hints of new mown hay, chalk and minerals. It was round, ripe and had a steely finish. Eric talked about the different styles, from the grapefruit and citrus-forward wines of New Zealand to round, tight and steely wines from Graves, in Bordeaux.
The Gruner Veltliner: straw gold in color; lime, green apple, botrytis and vegetative nose; similar structure to Sauvignon Blanc but a bigger attack on the palate.
For the red wines, he said start by categorizing each as being from the Old World or the New World. Old World wines are often more complex, with earthy notes and more restrained fruit. New World wines from warmer climates tend to be what some call fruit-forward: fat, grapey, a bit one-dimensional and with higher alcohol.
Hotter climates and longer growing seasons contribute to riper grapes with higher natural sugars that convert during fermentation to higher-alcohol wines (14.5 percent and higher).
The three red wines Eric selected for our tasting had similar structures and alcohol levels. A 2016 Argentine Malbec showed very ripe grapes, big black and blue fruit, mid-big body, semi-tight tannins and a tart, thick finish. A 2014 California Zinfandel had a softer structure, but was still solid, with good fruit. The nose was a mix of brambles, blackberry jam and wood. A 2016 Shiraz had a peppery, herbaceous and wet wood nose; mid-big body; semi-tight tannins; and a long one-dimensional finish (something I find in less expensive Shiraz and Syrah wines).
To get a sense of the approach Eric and other certified and aspiring Master Sommeliers take in tasting wine, check out these tasting grids for white and red wines created by the Court of Master Sommeliers. You can also use our simpler 20-point score sheet, adapted from UC Davis.
Happy single blind tasting (or any other kind)!
(Note: SommCon® is produced by Fast Forward, a San Diego-based event management agency specializing in productions for the wine, beer, spirits and hospitality industries. Contact them for more information on future events.)