Successful blind tasting techniques are a combination of sound theory and years of practice. While some people have the talent to detect even the most subtle aromas in wine, they may not be the best blind tasters.

Each grape variety has a different structure and characteristics. Professionals identify the wine from its colour and structure (acidity, tannin, alcohol, sweetness) and then use its aromas to confirm the variety.

Take red grapes, for example. Pinot Noir has high acidity and low tannin, while Sangiovese is high in both acidity and tannin. They are both lighter in colour. Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have a deep red colour, but Cabernet Sauvignon is more acidic than Syrah. Both have high tannin, but Syrah’s tannin structure is rounder than Cabernet Sauvignon’s. So if you are given a glass of red wine with a pale colour, chances are it will be a Pinot Noir or a Sangiovese. If the wine has soft tannin but fairly high acidity, it will likely be a Pinot Noir. The red fruit aromas confirm if it is indeed a Pinot Noir. If the fruit is intense like summer pudding and the alcohol is about 14%, it is probably a Pinot Noir from a warmer New World region rather than Burgundy. Sangiovese has a sour cherry aroma and sometimes herbal notes.

Blind tastings

For white wine, grape varieties can be aromatic (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Gewürztraminer, Muscat), semi-aromatic (Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Torrontés) or neutral (Chardonnay, Semillon). Most white wine doesn’t have tannin, but we can still assess the acidity, alcohol and sweetness levels. Say the wine is very aromatic and has high acidity – it is likely to be a Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc because Gewürztraminer and Muscat have lower acidity. If the wine is light-bodied with about 11% alcohol, it will very likely be a Riesling rather than a Sauvignon Blanc. The residual sugar is also a pointer to Riesling. Finally, citrus and floral aromas confirm if it is indeed a Riesling (Sauvignon Blanc is more herbaceous).

If the wine is dry, not very aromatic and has medium acidity with no harsh edge, it could be a Chardonnay. Semillon from warmer regions has lower acidity and a heavier body, while those from cooler regions (Hunter Valley in Australia, for instance) have higher acidity but lower alcohol (around 11%). Chardonnay is dry, whereas Semillon can be dry or sweet. The nose of Chardonnay ranges from citrus and apple to peach and tropical fruits depending on the region and winemaking techniques, while Semillon has peach and apricot aromas but also grass and lanolin.

Blind tastings

Sound mind-boggling? It certainly is, especially for new drinkers. The above chart is only a simple illustration – there are over 300 grape varieties in Italy alone, and some have similar characteristics. At the end of the day, wine is for pleasure, so you should enjoy it even if you can’t guess the grape variety. There is absolutely no need to put pressure on yourself to guess correctly. So what if you’re drinking a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay? As long as the wine is of good quality and you are enjoying it with good company, it is a good wine.

For those who want to excel at blind tastings, practise and, more importantly, learn about each grape’s characteristics, the climate where it is grown and the wine regions it is found. Blind tastings are definitely fun, but be warned: they can also be discouraging. The more you know, the more options and possibilities there are, and you are likely to pick the wrong choice because of this. Wine is a world without limits!

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A marketer turned winemaker, I make, promote, judge, write about and drink wine.

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