Blind Tasting: an insider's guide

  • Tuesday 1 January 2002

Supermarket wine taster supremo and Superplonk author MALCOLM GLUCK reveals his personal secrets of blind tasting, in six easy lessons

Supermarket wine taster supremo and Superplonk author MALCOLM GLUCK reveals his personal secrets of blind tasting, in six easy lessons

PROLOGUE

Q: 'How many wine tasters does it take to change a light bulb?'

A: 'None. They work in the dark.'

Working in the dark gives the wine taster mystique, which in turn bequeaths us enormous powers. The wine buyer is obviously in the dark too, but believes that the taster knows his or her way around. This belief is based solely upon perception, not reality. The important point is never to admit you are in the dark. To be seen as a beacon of light amid the murk, simply swallow the following six lessons.

LESSON 1: LEARNING THE SCRIPT

There are certain key metaphors. All Cabernets are 'peppery', all Merlots 'leathery', all Chardonnays 'melony', and all Chenins 'wet-woolish'. Sauvignon Blanc reeks of gooseberries, Viognier (and Pinot Gris) of apricots, Sémillon of citrus, Riesling has the tang of plasticine. Zinfandel is always spicy, Shiraz sweaty (though Syrah is earthy), and Gewürztraminer always offers lychees.

With sparkling wines, search for the smell of fresh-baked bread. This is, technically, yeast autolysis, but offering up 'croissant' or 'Monsieur Poilaine's sourdough' will earn you more plaudits. The list is not infinite since there are 4,000 or so grape varieties, but fewer than 40 require metaphorical identification.Blends create a hurdle but this can be leapt with practice. Remember that you can say anything about a wine and it will make sense to someone.

Other flavours such as chocolate, pepper and toffee are also commonly found in wines. But better than such metaphors for taste are the ones for texture. Fabrics are key here. Mundanities such as silky and velvety are okay but predictable; Cabernet as corduroy, Sauvignon Blanc likened to drip-dry cotton, or Côtes du Rhône described as suede shows you know your shmutter. The human body – fat, fleshy, thin, big-bodied – can also provide you with inspiration.

You may begin this lesson at home. Note down the essential flavour of all wines you sample and also what the texture suggests to you. Once you have mastered this, you are ready for the next lesson.

LESSON 2: ACTING THE ROLE

Develop the knack of spotting corked wines and also faulty ones. A corked wine is any wine that smells of cardboard, mushrooms or old library books.

The other three main faults are volatility, hydrogen sulphide and over-sulphuring. The first gives the wine a vinegary or sherry-like taste, not difficult to spot. The second the smell of rotten eggs. The third a burned rubber aroma. This last is not to be confused with the same phenomenon in Pinotage, in which the rubberiness is more enmeshed with the sweet fruit, whereas with sulphur there is a 'fireworky' and detached quality to the phenomenon.

LESSON 3: SMELLING AND GARGLING THE PART

You can easily master tasting technique. Pour out the wine sufficient to meet the depth of a thumbnail. Regard its colour. Sniff around it like a wise hound. Agitate the glass to release the esters of the perfume so better to appreciate the nuances of the bouquet. Inhale these odiferous pleasantries, or unpleasantries, through the chimney of the taste, the nostrils (the only access to the brain open to the air) and then proceed to taste.

Swill the liquid around the mouth and breathe in, so that it is aerated and experienced by up to 10,000 taste buds. The taste buds are arranged in sectors of differently orientated cohesion (one sensitive to salinity, another alkalinity, another sweetness and so on). They connect with the brain, which provides the sensory data, memory based, to form the taster's view of what s(he) is drinking. Some of the wine is permitted to contact the back of the throat, but only a tiny amount should proceed down the gullet, so that the finish of the wine can be studied.

Then the wine is ejected and several seconds are left to elapse while all these sensations are considered, as the impression the wine has left is mulled over.

LESSON 4: SPITTING THE PART

A toffee nose and a plum in the mouth were once essential qualifications for a wine taster. These days, anything goes. But style is important. So affect an air of utter disdain when tasting and keep the chin up. Et voila! To acquire the plum, imitate Prince Charles.

Two observations must be made here. The first is that when the wine is ejected you must do this with passion and not incline the head, so losing the toffee nose you have so assiduously cultured. NEVER DRIBBLE OUT THE WINE WITH YOUR HEAD OVER THE SPITTOON. You must spit with your chin horizontal, aiming at the spittoon which is never nearer than 18 inches. Suck in the cheeks and fire out the wine in one steady stream.

Other tasters will note your technique and be overawed. You can practise it with water. Use the kitchen sink at home to get it dead right.

LESSON 5: SPEAKING THE PART (TECHNICAL)

The next trick to master is spoken command of the subject's technical arcana. Thus, a wine does not possess smell: it has a nose. A wine's flavour is its palate (further fragmented into mid- and back-palate). Any oaked wine you find unpalatable, announce 'the phenolics of the wood are smothering the fruit' and you will be considered sage-like.

At a blind tasting you need to be able to identify certain aromatic and taste factors that provide clues as to where the wine could have come from. Thus a minty Cabernet is from Coonawarra. Or rather it might be. You achieve kudos merely by mentioning the fact (even if the wine turns out to be Moroccan). Any Pinot Noir, brick-dust red and smelling of shit, or Chardonnay from the New World, for example, can be described as being Burgundian, and any leathery Merlot like Pomerol. Any red with a sweet aftertaste can safely be categorised as Aussie, but if there is some tannin in it you will notch up brownie points if you narrow it down to Western Australia.

There are few wines expressive of any terroir that is so distinct anyone can spot it. Two magnificent exceptions are Loire Cabernet Francs, which have the tang of lead pencils, and Mosel Rieslings, which reek of slatey minerals.

LESSON 6: SPEAKING THE PART (FANTASY)

The greatest book ever published on wine tasting (dwarfing even my own mould-breaking effort) was Brideshead Revisited written by Evelyn Waugh. In the book, Charles Ryder discovers, through his relationship with Sebastian Flyte, a 'serious acquaintance' with wine: 'We warmed the glass slightly at a candle, filled it a third high, swirled the wine round, nursed it in our hands, held it to the light, breathed it, sipped it, filled our mouths with it, and rolled it over the tongue, ringing it on the palate like a coin on a counter, tilted our heads back and let it trickle down the throat…' And the book holds other gems, such as: 'Like a flute by still water', or, 'And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.'

What brilliance! Your rewards will come as you jostle with the crowd at an important tasting: Oz at one elbow, Jilly at the other, and as they rabbit on about ugli fruit, sesame seeds and ginger root, you trill out 'it's like a necklace of pearls on a white neck' for a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. The throng will fall quiet. Jilly will kiss you on both cheeks; Oz will invite you down the pub.

What is the essential truth here? That you may make of a wine what you will. I once wrote that one particular Aussie Shiraz had the 'aroma of a sumo-wrestler's jock strap' and this so impressed Giles MacDonagh of The Financial Times that he's been writing me fan letters ever since.

EPILOGUE

Never forget this: who knows anything about taste except the person who experiences it? Taste is individual. Your reaction, ergo, is equally personal and where one taster finds oriental jock straps, another may discern Alaskan leprechauns. Go forth now and taste! Above all, enjoy yourself hugely. If you can't, you'll never make a wine taster.

Malcolm Gluck is the author of The Sensational Liquid, A Guide to Wine Tasting (£14.99), and Superplonk (£9.99), both published by Hodder & Stoughton.

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