Tasting wine blind is an eternal source of fascination for those not in the industry and an eternal source of pain for those in the industry taking exams.
There’s a great episode of the 90s sitcom Frasier in which Frasier and his brother Niles compete in a blind tasting to become the “Corkmaster” of their local wine club. It’s very funny because it sends up the pomposity of blind tasting, but it’s not necessarily that realistic (which of course isn’t the point)—so how do blind tastings work in reality?
In educational terms, that depends on the approach of different organizations. The Court of Master Sommeliers—which I’ve never studied with and for various reasons have no desire to—has an oral approach in which students describe the wine verbally. That of course is difficult because students are on the spot and have to think out loud. The courses also place a strong emphasis on service, as a sommelier should be working in a restaurant.
The WSET, which is the school I took all my wine exams through and whose courses I now teach, has a very different methodology. The Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT) provides vocabulary and structural terms to analyse the wine, and any wine tasted blind has a written answer. This written approach is followed by the Institute of Masters of Wine, although candidates have to come up with their own individual tasting vocabulary and language.
what are we looking for?
Whatever the approach, a blind tasting serves many purposes. However, it's not a particularly good way to learn about wine, because then you are tasting without any prior knowledge. Instead, blind tasting tests, whether in a formal exam setting or at home with friends, knowledge you have already accumulated.
A lot of people get obsessed about the identity of the wine, which is of course an important reason for blind tasting. But the most significant aspect is being able to reach a conclusion on the quality of a wine without the preconceptions that come from already knowing what the wine is. After all, wherever a wine is from, the thing that really matters is whether it's any good or not.
how to go about this
There are three sense elements to a wine: sight, smell, and taste. Sight is perhaps the least important, although it excites our anticipation of the wine and it also helps us discern older wine which has a faded appearance or in distinguishing different types of sweet and fortified wines.
The significance of smell is in describing the aromas. The nose transfers aromas straight to the brain without any interference, making us very sensitive to different smells. Perception changes from person to person, which is why wine tasting can never be a fully objective exercise. Our sense of smell is most acute as a child, and our reactions to aromas in a wine are informed by what we smelt growing up. Therefore, people from different countries and backgrounds may react to a wine's aromas differently, which is part of the reason tasting and appreciating a wine is so personal. There's nothing wrong with that, but we should try to form a common vocabulary to help us describe a wine in an informative manner.
Taste is more complicated, as millions of taste buds on the palate stop the information being transferred to the brain. We can still appreciate the fruit and other flavors on the palate, but what's more important is the structure: sweetness, acidity, tannin, body, alcohol, the length of the finish, and how they are balanced. Together with the aromas on the nose, these structural elements give an idea of the quality of the wine.
In assessing a wine in this structured way, we can form an impression of quality which isn't overly subjective. Which is to say: not simply do we like the wine, but how does it compare to other wines? It may not be our style that we like to regularly drink, but we need to appreciate it in the overall picture of other wines from that region or grape variety. In this, blind tasting removes prejudice and tests you to analyse a wine concisely, successfully, and qualitatively.
the headmaster ritual
The Headmaster Ritual, named after one of my favorite songs by the Smiths, is an element of blackpoolmatt’s wine club which focuses on blind tastings. Some of the club members do it for fun, others to prepare for exams. There are three wines wrapped in brown paper bags with the capsule removed so there are no clues. For each selection, there is a theme—for instance, same grape variety or same region/country. Depending on your approach, it’s either a fun or excruciating way of testing your tasting skills. Either way, members get to open—and learn about—classic wines from around the world while advancing their knowledge. And that's what blackpoolmatt's wine club is all about.