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It turns out that sommeliers might be vindicated after all. A new study shows that some people can indeed identify wines in a blind tasting, but their success might depend on how much exposure they’ve had to certain wines in the past. In order to blind taste wine like a sommelier, you can recreate this study at home to find your blind spots and hone your palate.
Blind Taste Wine Like a Sommelier
The new Oxford-Cambridge study revolved around a small group of 14 university students participating in a wine tasting competition; each had varying degrees of past wine experience. The participants tried six different red varietals and six white varietals without being told the country of origin or the grape species. Researchers found that 47 percent of the participants could consistently identify the grape, and 37 percent could identify country of origin. Keep in mind that these are amateur tasters, not trained sommeliers.
The most interesting aspect of the study is that some participants performed better than others under certain categories. For instance, taster 11 got nearly every varietal and country correct for both red and white wines, while taster 3 had near-perfect scores for white wines only. It was clear which participants had past experience with different styles of wine. What this tells us is that in order to blind taste wine like a sommelier, and successfully identify varietals, you need to experience these wines firsthand, and identify your blind spots. A perfect example of this is with the Italian white grape, Friulano. Most of the students in the study had never heard of it before, and as a result, only two guessed it correctly. By recreating and expanding on this study at home, you can find your own “Friulanos,” and learn how to identify them more easily in the future.
Your List of Practice Wines
Here’s a list of practice bottles from the study to help you blind taste wine like a sommelier:
- -Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa (such as Nederburg)
- -Gamay from France (such as Philippe Pacalet)
- -Pinot Noir from New Zealand (such as Hunter’s)
- -Grenache from France (such as Santa Duc)
- -Tempranillo from Spain (such as Teso La Monja)
- -Merlot from France (such as Petrus)
- -Riesling from Germany (such as JJ Prum)
- -Semillon from Australia (such as Bimbadgen)
- -Chardonnay from New Zealand (such as Kumeu River)
- -Sauvignon Blanc from France (such as Didier Dagueneau)
- -Friulano from Italy (such as Livio Felluga)
- -Viognier from France (such as Guigal)
I recommend starting with this list of wines first, even if you think you already know how, for instance, French Gamay tastes. You might find that in a blind tasting, you’re unable to spot wines that you assume you know well.
Set Up Your Taste Test
The problem with setting up your own taste test like this is that you already know which wines you’ve bought, meaning they won’t be a surprise. That’s why it’s most useful to do this with another wine enthusiast, or group of enthusiasts. Commit to buying just two or three wines from the original study list, and ask the other participants to bring two or three of their own. To ensure that there aren’t any duplicates, and that most of the bottles remain a surprise, you can draw wines out of a hat at random, without revealing which ones you chose. On the day of the tasting party, wrap your wines in tin foil, and ask your peers to do the same, then number the wines. You’ll only know which wines you brought, and the rest will be a mystery. Taste through all of the wines according to this guideline, and give one point for every correct varietal and country guess (with a possible two points maximum per bottle).
Analyze Your Score
The most important part of this blind testing is score analysis. The next day, look at your score sheet and compare the reds and whites first. If there’s a big difference between the total scores for these two categories (more than four points), then it’s a sign that you need to brush up on either your red or white wines, whichever score is lower. Most of us tend to favor one over the other, so this is your chance to remedy that and truly blind taste wine like a sommelier.
Next, look at the grape varietal scores. Unless you’re a very experienced collector, you probably had some trouble with this. If so, you’ll want to focus on identifying specific varietals in the future. In addition, make a note of any varietals that you weren’t able to identify, and commit to tasting more of these wines. Finally, look at the country scores. As with the varietals, if you see specific countries that you failed to identify, you can focus on buying more wine from those countries to improve your palate. You might even consider attending a wine education course to learn about varietals, regions, and styles from an expert.
Your Education Never Stops
This taste test is just a measure of your current palate. If you really want to learn how to blind taste wine like a sommelier, you’ll need to follow this test up with varietal and country-specific tests in the future. Let’s say you failed to identify most of the white wines. For your next test, have your peers bring one or two bottles of different white wine varietals, and continue practicing until your white wine scores improve. Do the same for countries of origin; choose one wine varietal, and taste your way through the different countries that make that varietal. As long as you commit to consistent, thoughtful practice, you’ll keep improving.
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