Wine Talk with Alice Swift
Blind Wine Tasting: the Ideal vs. the Reality
Wine tasting is an activity that allows consumers to taste a flight of wines and hopefully learn more in the process. Your senses (sight, smell and touch/taste) are used to objectively evaluate and form your subjective opinions from the wine.
The key word here is objectivity. The ideal is to be neutral when wine tasting so that consumers can evaluate specific characteristics of the wine itself. Unfortunately, preferences are swayed by many aspects, like bottle labels, region, varietal and/or producer. Price and reviews are also major factors when judging quality, and amazingly, this all happens before the wine is even tasted!
Herein lies the benefits of blind tasting! Wine is evaluated using your senses and excluding possible biasing factors. However, there is an ideal vs. the reality when contrasting general consumers versus professionals. Although social consumers may not want the formality of a professional blind tasting, there are still best practices that can be applied. Here are some factors to consider:
The Reality: Blind tasting in social settings have many potential distractions. Poor lighting, loud music, party type atmosphere, all contribute to bias when evaluating wines.
o Neutral, natural lighting
o Minimal noise distractions
o White tablecloths (or provide white paper as a backdrop to visually inspect the wine)
The Reality: There are many ways to conceal a wine label (aluminum foil wrapping, brown bagging, newspaper wrapping, etc). However, there are still some remaining visual biases, like the shape of the bottle if tightly wrapped, the foil/capsule or bottle color or the cork.
o Re-pour the wines into neutral glass bottles like large format San Pellegrino or Perrier bottles.
o If re-pouring isn’t practical, remove as many visual cues as possible (cork, foil, etc.). Wrap a large paper bag loosely around the bottle to help distort the shape.
Consumption Order and Quantity of Wines
The Reality: If the entire group wants to participate, then chances are the wines will simply be grouped into white/red. Lack of ordering can lead to some wines overpowering others. Too many wines tasted in one sitting can also lead to palate fatigue. For purely social drinkers, it’s not a big deal. But, for those who do want a learning experience, palate fatigue is when your sense of smell and taste becomes overworked, and the wines consumed start to blur together, smelling and tasting the same, producing flawed evaluations.
o Provide drinking water for consumption/rinsing your mouth between wines.
o Provide neutral food to cleanse your palate and take pauses in between wines. Characteristics like acid and tannins often linger on your palate.
o Have one person (who will know the wines being poured) order the wines properly (light to full bodied, low to high tannin, white to red, etc.).
Other Consumed Items
The Reality: Wine tastings are often paired with food, which affects the wine evaluation itself. I’ve experienced guests who favor a wine during their meal. When they later purchase/consume the wine by itself or with other foods, it is disliked. All items consumed during wine tasting affect neutral evaluation and should be taken into consideration when forming your subjective opinions.
o When blind tasting, the only items that should be consumed with the wines are water and a couple neutral items (unsalted/unflavored crackers or neutral white bread).
o If food will be served, then perhaps wait to serve food towards the end of the tasting when the fuller bodied red wines are being poured. By this time, your palate may be increasing in palate fatigue anyway, and food may be beneficial at this point.
Wine Evaluation Method
The Reality: Often during social events, blind tasting is very casual, with questions like “What kind of wine do you think it is?”, or “Do you like this wine?” This results in lack of identification of specific traits that the participants likes or dislikes, and are forced to draw conclusions without evaluating the wine properly. Participants may also have a wide range of wine education/tasting experience.
o Introduce the concept of wine tasting evaluation (sight, smell, taste, major evaluation factors, etc.).
o Provide some sort of evaluation or tasting grid for people to fill out for each wine to maintain consistency and neutrality when evaluating. My favorite is the Wine and Spirit Education Trust’s (WSET) Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine, which provides a tasting grid as well as categorized descriptors. A sample intermediate level grid is provided here: www.wsetglobal.com/media/2491/level-2-wines-sat-english-2014.pdf
In conclusion, there are many methods to reduce internal/external biases when blind wine tasting. At the end of the day, the goal is to enjoy yourself and learn more about what is it you like or dislike about the wines you taste.
Until next time, Cheers~!