While I was having dinner with a friend last week in Aspen, Colo., I was presented with an interesting challenge. I had to identify three wines (from Burgundy) that were served blind. Within a few minutes, I identified the vintage as 1962. My dining companion seemed surprised and asked me, "How did you come to your conclusion?"
To me, the vintage seemed easy. The wines were very rich and flamboyant. Even though they seemed old and mature, the wines had lots of fruit. They had the profound notes of a great vintage with balanced acidity. Well, I thought, "It could be 1964 or 1969," but my gut feeling steered me toward 1962.
The wines were Romanée St.-Vivant from Domaine Marey-Monge, Grands Echézeaux from Mongeard-Mugneret and Latricières-Chambertin from Louis Remy.
Personally, I like to taste blind whenever possible. Even when tasting with vendors to buy wine for the restaurant, I ask to taste without knowing what the wines are. Divorced from any associations I might have with a wine, I can come to an unbiased conclusion about that wine's quality and value. If a Sauvignon Blanc tastes like a Chardonnay, I will not buy it. Examples have to be classic.
Almost always when I am at a restaurant or a friend's house I get thrown a few wines blind, in the spirit of fun competition or learning. This is a good exercise, but it can be difficult and sometimes even counterproductive when the wines are not classic, so we try not to throw Lake County Tempranillo or Brazilian Pinot into the mix.
I learned everything about blind tasting from my mentor, Larry Stone. He used to quiz me and throw wines at me while I was working with him at Rubicon. I do believe that blind tasting is an art and a talent. A lot of it can be learned, but some people naturally do it better than others. I was fortunate to learn from the very best. Once in 1997, a guest at Rubicon gave Larry a wine blind. Even though he was tired and had a cold, he correctly called it a Vintage Port from 1927.
How do you get so precise? Our mind acts as a Rolodex and the trick is, first, filling it with wine profiles and, second, being able to access them on command. Usually a good blind taster can identify a wine he's had before, but many factors can send him off course: the condition of the bottle, the temperature of the wine, the glassware and finally our mood. Great blind tasters will even be able to recognize those factors and still judge accurately.
So here is what I think is essential to know about tasting wines blind:
First, there are two kinds of blind tasting—single blind (you know the wines, but not the order in which they are presented) and double blind (you have no idea what the wines are or what order they are in).
Start by examining the color of the wine. This will tell you a lot, such as how concentrated the wine is, whether it comes from a thick-skinned or thin-skinned grape, how high the alcohol level is and how old the wine may be. Pinot Noir is almost always a lighter red than Cabernet or Merlot, which are both dark red, while Syrah usually has a purple hue.
The nose of the wine will tell you 75 percent of the time what the variety is. Pinot Noir smells more like cherries and strawberries, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon is more like cassis and plum. Then there are many nuances among regions; Pinot Noir from Burgundy will be more earthy while California Pinot will typically show riper fruit.
The palate should confirm all the aromas on the nose. Most of the time, this helps the most in identifying the region. For example, California Cabernet will be fuller and higher in alcohol than Bordeaux, which will generally have more acidity and tannins.
It is very important to gauge the acidity. Certain grapes are higher in acidity than others. For example Nebbiolo is always high in acid (2003 is a good example of this—very ripe wines, but the acids still showed through).
It's also very important to pay attention to tannins, which are perhaps most helpful in determining the vintage. If we were served a pair of 1989 and 1990 red wines from Burgundy, the 1990 would have more tannins. A vintage is a signature upon the wine—it remains consistent across wines from the same area and is a giveaway even as the wine ages.
Of course, this is just a cursory examination of a wine's qualities. In fact, there's a deeper way of tasting and feeling the wine that is impossible to put into words. That's something that you just learn by doing it over and over again.
That's what a few of us San Francisco sommeliers (Alan Murray of Masa's, Christie Dufault of Quince, Matt Turner and Chris Potter of Nectar wine bar and Paul Einbund of Coi, along with Larry Stone, now with Rubicon Estate) do on a regular basis. We typically get together late at night and try to stump each other with difficult wines, the one constant being that the wines are classic examples. We are doing a blind tasting this Saturday night. I will keep you posted on the results.
Larry Stone — Rutherford, CA — June 21, 2007 1:54pm ET
Hoyt Hill Jr — Nashville, TN — June 21, 2007 4:50pm ET
John Miller — Windsor, CA — June 21, 2007 6:52pm ET
Travis G Snyder — Salt Lake City — June 21, 2007 9:06pm ET
Anacleto Ludovic — paris france — June 21, 2007 10:00pm ET
Steve Barber — Clayton, CA. — June 22, 2007 12:46pm ET
Christy Dufault — San Francisco, CA — June 22, 2007 8:03pm ET
Daniel Johnnes — New York, NY — June 25, 2007 12:45am ET
Matthew Turner — City by the Bay — June 28, 2007 11:38pm ET
Joseph Spellman — Chicago and beyond — June 29, 2007 3:15pm ET
Lee Edwards — Little Rock, Arkansas — July 5, 2007 9:08pm ET
Rob Dobson — Regina, Sask. — September 10, 2007 7:20pm ET
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