Updated: Jul 6
Whenever we talk about the sommelier life and the subject of blind tasting comes up, people often balk. “I could never do that!” they say. “I don’t have a good palate!”
It’s natural to think that talented tasters simply have heightened senses. Remember when wine critic Robert Parker insured his nose for $1M? Yet very few of us are born with a “good” palate. Even master sommeliers! Differentiating various grapes, the soil they grow in, and the techniques winemakers use to vinify them are skills that we have to train, not unlike serving a tennis ball, or using a new computer program.
A lot of it has to do with familiarity. Taste a lot of chardonnays, and you’ll start to see some common characteristics, no matter where the grapes are grown.
A lot of it has to do with reading visual cues (blind tasting involves a lot more than just the sense of taste!). Is your red wine leaving a stain when you swirl it around in your glass? That could suggest a thicker skinned grape, or that the wine is high in alcohol.
And a lot of it has to do with making educated guesses. Riesling will never be low in acid. Pinot noir will never be high in tannin. Viognier tends to be high in alcohol. Once you start to use some deductive reasoning to figure out what a wine is not, identifying the correct grape gets a lot easier.
So it was super fun to share some tricks of the trade with the good people of Clark Hill, LLC, a full-service commercial law firm with offices around the country. From their enthusiasm to their eagerness to learn to their creative answers to our quiz questions, we couldn’t have asked for a more talented group!
We kicked things off with a 2021 Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc, which hails from Marlborough, New Zealand. Sauvignon blancs are some of the most fun wines to ‘blind’ (yes, “blinding” is a verb in the sommelier world!) because they’re so distinctive. Something about that South Pacific climate, we suppose––the long hours of sunshine, the cool breezy nights. Nowhere else on the planet do you get sauvignon blancs that explode with such intense flavors of pineapple, passionfruit, guava, and other tropical fruits. And, if you can get a whiff of that fresh cut grass aroma––indicating the presence of aromatic compounds called pyrazines––you’ll have a good idea of what you’ve got on your hands.
We applied similar strategies to identifying the 2019 Torbreck ‘Woodcutter’s' Shiraz, from the storied Barossa Valley in South Australia. While sauvignon blanc is known for its pyrazines, shiraz (same thing as syrah) is rich in a chemical compound called rotundone, which you find in oregano, thyme, basil, and pepper. What does it taste like? One word: Pepper! If you can notice it, you've got a valuable clue to knocking this identification right out of the park.
It was especially fun to break down some of the differences between ‘old world’ and ‘new world’ wines. The shiraz and the sauvignon blanc had both feet planted in the new world: fuller-bodied, higher in alcohol, and busting with ripe fruit flavors. Contrast this to the 2019 Vietti Langhe Nebbiolo from Piedmont, Italy, which was lighter in color, and seduced its drinkers with aromas of tar and roses (very textbook for this grape) and a grippy tannic bite. A little like pinot noir on steroids!
Or the 2020 Domaine Pascal & Mireille Renaud Mâcon-Villages, a chardonnay we tried from Southern Burgundy in France. Identifying this wine threw some of our guests for a loop, as it wasn’t an oaky butter bomb that we often find in Napa. Instead, it was lean and mineral driven, teasing us with scents of white flowers and tart orchard fruits. Chardonnay, we explained, is often a blank canvas for wine-makers. You can get a completely different experience every day of the week.
By the end of the two-hour session, even guests who claimed to know nothing about wine could pick out the differences between old and new world wines. Others had developed a serious crush on the nebbiolo grape. And everyone picked up some new party tricks to deconstruct a wine’s structure, proving that you, too, can learn how to blind taste!
Want to learn more? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org – and we’ll happily get you started.