Blind tastings: They're not just for sommeliers anymore.
It's true. A significant part of becoming an advanced level sommelier involves learning to identify wines the hard way -- by relying 100 percent on the wine's appearance in the glass, smell and taste. Given that you are probably not, nor are you striving to become a certified wine professional, chances are good that you've never actually participated in a blind tasting. And why in the world would you, what with the convenience of those handy little gems called "labels" stuck right on the front of the bottle, announcing plainly what's inside?
You'd do it because you really want to become a better -- or shall we say savvier -- wine drinker. To achieve that goal, it's imperative that you spend time actually tasting wine -- as opposed to sucking it down reflexively nanoseconds after its been poured into your glass.
"Drinking" wine for sheer pleasure and "tasting" it as a means of learning common varietal attributes (aka training your palate) are as different as pinot gris and pinot noir. And by all means, you can certainly choose to practice tasting with full awareness of what you're drinking -- but you won't get nearly the same eye-opening (in a manner of speaking) results as sipping sans label.
Even more important, blind tastings reveal all sorts of dirty secrets about your palate -- and preferences -- that will completely blow your mind. Read on for three surprising reasons to start flying blind, immediately.
You've Been Punk'd: If you've swooned over a bottle of Sea Smoke, compulsively ordered cases of Santa Barbara pinots that you've never heard of, or chosen wines based on score alone, we are talking to you. Your palate's been bamboozled, and you didn't even know it, did you? Instead of following the herd (likely populated by peeps with no more official wine judging cred than you), learn to embrace the unknown. You'll soon discover the joys of completely obscure, delightful wines that satisfy based solely on the quality of the skills of their winemaker, not some marketing rep.
To prove this theory, try inviting your friends to your place for a friendly blind tasting where half of them bring the highest rated bottles they can find; have the other half proffer wines they've never heard of ( the same varietal, of course). Set a maximum price point to keep things fair, then judge for yourself whether the hyped up brands outperform the underdogs.
The Higher The Price, The Better The Wine: If you read last week's run-down of four super delish wines costing less than $15, then you've already seen the proof that every bottle doesn't need to be spendy to be spectacular. But admit it: You'd rather receive a gift of (the rather average tasting, in our opinion) Santa Margherita pinot grigio than the incredibly drinkable (yet far less popular) Barone Fini pinot grigio, which delivers virtually the same goods for about $5 less per bottle. We're willing to bet you that a blind tasting of these two aesthetically similar whites would be almost indistinguishable to your palate. And just think what you can do with that extra $5!
But I Hate [Fill In The Blank]: We can't count the number of shocked countenances we've gazed upon after pouring -- but not announcing -- glasses of riesling, merlot, chardonnay, among other so-called losers of this decade's varietal popularity contests. Your mind has a funny way of tricking your palate into thinking that it absolutely abhors albariño, even when you probably couldn't pick one out of a blind lineup if your life depended on it. The practice of tasting blind will disabuse you of your longest and fiercest-held phobias about a particular grape once and for all, because it allows your palate to be unswayed by previously held perceptions and simply enjoy (or not) what it's savoring at the moment.
The good news is that all of the aforementioned wine baggage is a breeze to unload -- all you have to do is start blind tasting. And if the idea of hosting or attending a blind tasting fills you with dread, relax. There's no special trick to tasting blind; just remember these simple tips, and you'll be good to go.
1. Pick a theme: The options here are nearly limitless - you can go Old World vs. New World (same varietal), Producer vs. Producer (say, pinot noirs from a wide assortment of winemakers from Oregon), Expensive vs. Value Priced (see above)...you get the idea.
2. Advise your guests what to bring based on the theme above, and make sure they know to bring their wines in a plain brown paper bag so no one can see what's inside.
3. Number the outside of each bag, then arrange the wines in numeric order on a table with a dump bucket nearby (for spitting / dumping out wine) and water for rinsing out glassware. Plain, dry crackers are also great to have on hand for cleansing the palate between sips.
4. Provide paper and pens for everyone to jot down their thoughts on each wine (no need to get crazy with flowery descriptions - you can even keep it as basic as awarding a letter grade to each wine).
5. Once all of the wines have been tasted blind, remove the bottles from their bags and discuss how each performed -- and prepare to be surprised (and hell, maybe even delighted) with the results.