The Art of Blind Tasting

I get it. I really do. I understand why it may seem impressive or look like a magic trick to people who get to see someone who can pinpoint a wine’s provenance just by looking, sniffing, tasting and spitting out a wine. Out of the thousands of different grapes in the world, a gifted wine taster can tell you what grape a wine is made of, where it’s from, which vintage it came from, and if it is worth its salt to have that price attached to it in a wine list.

I remember my jaw dropping when I first witnessed our Wine Director Maximilian Kast blind taste a wine when he was preparing for his Master Sommelier (Level 4) exam. One by one, he assessed and broke down every single characteristic of the wine -– was the fruit ripe (warm climate) or under ripe (cooler climate), was it earthy (old world) or fruity (new world), does it have high alcohol, acid, or tannins (are they fruit or wood tannins) –- all of which allowed him to zero in on a California Merlot from the 2010 vintage. From someone who just passed their Introductory Level (Level 1), it definitely looked like a magic trick! I remember saying, “One day, I will crush wines as good as him.”

Yes, there are gifted tasters, who can sniff a wine and tell you what it is but can’t tell you why a wine is expressing itself that way, and there are deductive tasters who combine experience with theoretical knowledge of wines -– their inherent character, the winemaking style, the climate and terroir of the region.

For example, a red wine has the following characteristics:

(Ripe black currants and plums + graphite, tobacco, spice box, clove + green bell peppers + voluptuously rich texture + elevated tannins and alcohol + moderate earthiness)

Means, more often than not, that points out to a young Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.

One Master Sommelier once said during my Advanced Exams (Level 3) that every tasting note is a clue to a wine’s provenance and we just need to piece them out and combine all the aspects to arrive to the right wine. Maximilian is one of the most talented blind tasters I’ve ever encountered because he is a deductive taster -– it is 10% instinct, and 90% robotic knowledge of wines that is born out of having a tasting grid imprinted in a sommelier’s mind to be able to arrive to the correct conclusion.

So yes, blind tasting is an art, but it is also a science. From the thousands and thousands of wines that we are fortunate enough to try, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will sooner manifest itself completely differently to an Italian Pinot Grigio. An Australian Shiraz will differentiate itself to an Oregon Pinot Noir after encountering them every so often – their characteristics will start to become apparent.

How is it a science then? Max and I follow a grid that we have learned by being part of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

It isn’t enough to memorize the grid -– it has to be as familiar to a sommelier as the back of their hand. Assessing a wine out loud, which is how it is done during our exams, is akin to thinking out loud but with a road map. Read the road map right, and you get to the right destination.

Here is an article about a few of our colleagues in Atlanta about blind tasting. There is also a documentary about us winos, I mean sommeliers, that was recently released –- a particularly informative film that sheds light on what we do. Most of our guests view what we do as a very fun job, and yes, it definitely is (it is an alcohol-fueled profession, after all), but like every other profession, there is also a very serious side.

To learn more about blind tasting wines, come join Maximilian at The Fearrington Granary on November 7 for his class focused on blind tastings!

– Paula, The Fearrington Wine Team