A Rational Approach to Tasting Wine

This post gives you an introduction to systematic blind tasting of wine that you can try at home with your friends for fun. The technique is an abbreviated version of how we train for international competitions at CBS Wine.

Peter and Christian from CBS Wine's Bordeaux 2013 team in a recent tasting session.
Peter and Christian from CBS Wine’s Bordeaux 2013 team in a recent training session.

Business or Pleasure? A Split Personality

Wine enters the life of everybody as a hedonistic pleasure on weekends and special occasions. That’s always the first step. It’s an added component to our social life, a new interest in our life to explore in the company of friends and family. This is the fun, care-free side of wine.

But for some – for people like me – wine becomes a sport. Through countless blind tastings over the last five years, I’ve developed a split personality. There are two sides to my relationship with wine: Wine as pleasure and wine as a game. Wine will forever remain a pleasure and a luxury, nothing will change that. But when I take on the role as coach of the CBS Wine team that’s going to London in May to compete against European business schools in the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup semi-finals, wine is a game.

And games are meant to be won.

The following describes our workout system for blind tastings. I’m not revealing anything our competitors aren’t doing (if they have any sense). However, the commitment and tenacity of our team preparations will make our use of the method more effective in a competitive setting.

How to Guess a Wine in Three Minutes

In a competition the team is presented with three different glasses of wine. The judges might ask us to identify the outlier of the three wines in terms of vintage (year of harvest) or the appellation (geographical sub-region of a wine). The team has two to three minutes to answer each question.

A rational, deductivist approach is the only way to long-term success in these competitions.

So what is this process for identifying a wine, you might ask. It’s a three-step process involving three of our biological senses.

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1) How does it look?

The appearance of wine in a glass indicates a lot about age, appellation and quality of the vintage. Red wine loses color over time while whites become darker. The color at the rim of red wine may be purple (very young), ruby (young), and over time turn more brown and transparent. Whites move from a greenish tint or straw yellow to brown. The CBS Wine team will determine the color within the first five seconds of being presented with a wine – this is a simple observation.

In the infographic below, notice how red and white wine color converge over time.

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2) How does it smell?

The aromas of a wine are perhaps the trickiest part of blind tasting. Healthy team dynamics and mutual respect is vital to get a quick yet full assessment of a wine’s bouquet.

  • We start by determining the primary aromas, the aromas specific to the grape itself (e.g. various fruits and berries).
  • Then we determine secondary aromas, the ones derived from fermentation and barrelling (e.g. vanilla and coconut from the oak barrels and the smell of dairy products from the malolactic fermentation).
  • Lastly, we identify the very important tertiary aromas that come from the aging of wine (e.g. leather, chocolate, licorice, prunes and figs)

The tasting wheel below is a good primer in the most common aromas of wine.

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3) How does it taste?

Agreeing on taste is difficult because it’s very comparative. People have different sensitivity towards acidity, tannins and alcohol, which are some of the elements we’ll try to identify in the taste. To make matters worse, the acidity and sweetness of the first wine that goes in your mouth will affect how you perceive subsequent wines.

  • Balance components: What are the characteristics of the sweetness, acidity, tannins (dryness), alcohol and fruit of the wine? How balanced are each of these relative to the other taste components?
  • Texture: Is the wine viscous (thick), grainy, or slender?
  • Other: How fresh, ripe and harmoneous does the wine appear in the mouth?

Conclusion

All right, your two minutes are up. Time to combine roughly twenty clues from the look, smell and taste of the wine in a single answer.

The three steps you’ve gone through will indicate different aspects about the wine. It’s the combination of the variables that leads the team to its conclusion. By being as stringent and efficient as possible, the team will expand its collective memory of hundreds of previously tasted wines within a minute. And just after, the team will crystallize its analysis into a single qualified answer.

“This is most likely a 1998 Medoc wine. It’s power and aroma of coffee grounds moves me towards Pauillac, alternatively it’s a slightly weaker 2000 Saint-Julien. Let’s go with 1998 Pauillac!”

No matter how analytically you arrive at your answer, you might still be way off. But statistically, you’ll get more answers right with a systematic approach to blind tasting. And this is what we believe will give us the upper hand in May at the French Embassy in London and in April at Maison Bollinger in Champagne.

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