Sommelier’s Secrets to Blind Tasting …

We all wonder how sommeliers are able to blindly assess the qualities of a wine and arrive at the correct judgement. In all seriousness, the answers are right there in front of them, in the glass.

During last weekend’s Fourth Annual Pebble Beach Food and Wine event, three Master Sommeliers discussed the techniques involved in deductive tasting. There was one catch; they knew the variety – Cabernet Sauvignon. Save that, identifying the production methods and zeroing in on a single wine region and vintage should be easy … right?


The Master Sommeliers involved in the seminar included Damon Ornowski, Emily Wines and Dustin Wilson. Confronted with seven wines – all made from CabSauv – each MS was asked to describe how the visual, aromatic and palatial elements of each wine would lead them to the variety and the region where it was made.

Though the conclusions weren’t always correct, and the methods of deduction varied from MS to MS, it’s the process of discovery that was for me the most important element of the panel discussion.

So how is it done?

Tasting (not drinking) is a process. We use our eyes, noses and mouths. Beyond that, wine trade professionals use myriad personal qualifications to assess the overall balance and complexity of a wine to arrive at a conclusion that delivers a multitude of other possibilities. It’s not easy, but then neither was riding a bike the first time.

The key to tasting like a professional is having a system. The more systematic and repetitive the process, the more comfortable the technique becomes.

The Masters, the ones who ‘taste’ on a daily basis, are able to arrange their thoughts about a wine and come to conclusions in just a few moments.

So, here we are, at the moment of judgment. Everyone in the room knows it’s Cabernet Sauvignon in the glass. The color of the wine appears ruby at the edge and opaque at the core, with pigmented tears/legs. Everything we are seeing confirms what we’ve been told is in the glass. Cabernet is a thick skinned grape with a lot of color. 

When we smell the wine, the aromas are of red fruit, vanilla, eucalyptus and licorice. There are no obvious flaws (i.e. volatile acidity or brettanomycees). Each wine is therefore “clean” rather than “flawed.”

We taste the wines. (You can swirl it or bubble it, but it is advised to spit it out. Spitting allows the brain to focus on the safety of the wine, much the same way all mammals taste berries to see if they’re safe to eat.)

Taste is a sense that has several parts. We are able to experience sugar, savory, tannin, acid and more. The primary flavor elements of any wine fall into these categories.

Each wine has its own particular architecture comprised of body, acid, fruit and tertiary flavors. Each wine also arrives at some level of complexity and therefore has some level of quality – whether “good” or “bad”.

Identifying a region and a vintage based on the previous assessments requires a vast understanding of regional vitivinification methods, vintage variations and varietal tendencies through aging. This is where the pros get the Master designation.

Out of the seven wines – and in no short order – there appeared differing opinions on vintage and origin, while the quality of each wine appeared high. In the end, there were wines that most everyone on the panel agreed on. Others were surprising when finally revealed. 

The sad thing perhaps in all of it was that wines from Bulgaria (for example), Bordeaux and Napa Valley are all getting so good that they often taste very similar.

* As stated, the wines we tasted were all Cabernet Sauvignon, with some variance in blending components and winery treatments – such as French/American oak.

The list is as follows: Beringer (Napa, California), Greg Norman (Limestone Coast, Asutralia), Louis Martini (Sonoma, California), Sequoia Grove (St. Helena, California), Alter Ego (a Ch. Palmer second label from the Medoc, France), Viña Cobos (Mendoza, Argentina), Silver Oak (Oakville, California).

You can follow tweets I posted about this tasting on Twitter.





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