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Murray Almond's "From the Left Island"

A Bluffer's Guide to Blind Tasting -Introduction and Part 1
© Murray Almond
(Photos © Sue Courtney)
29 July 2001

The enjoyment of wine takes many forms, from the alcoholic effect, to matching food to enjoying the wine itself. Probably the most intimidating form of enjoying wine is Blind Wine Tasting.

Blind Wine Tasting is where the wine is presented without the taster knowing the identity of the wine. Blind Wine photo copyright Sue Courtney The original objective of blind tasting is to allow the taster to evaluate wine without being biased by knowledge of variety, vintage, region or maker.

The better-known and far more intimidatory form of Blind Tasting arises when the objective becomes for the taster to guess the variety, vintage, region and maker. This test is typically performed in front of the sardonic raised eyebrow and the slight knowing smirk of the person who knows what's in the masked bottle.

There are some people who can reliably pick a chardonnay from a chenin, but for most it's a guess to various stages of education.

But fear not, I've applied my years of experience in Blind Wine Tasting, both as Blinder and Blindee to develop a serious of techniques to assist in the art of the Blind Wine Tasting. Perhaps more succinctly, lessons in How To Cheat at Blind Wine Tasting.

Lesson 1. Check the Bottle

Often at blind wine tastings the bottle is there on the table; but may be covered in foil, a bottle bag or a brown paper bag. This is Nirvana to the Blind Wine Taster. The presence of the bottle provides a plethora of clues to the eventual identity of the wine.

Firstly ensure that this is the bottle the wine was originally in. Many Blinders, some as clever as I, decant the bottle into a different shaped bottle to throw the unwary Blindees off their game. Posing the question "So this has been decanted out and back?" should verify this. Even if they lie you can see it in their eyes.

Having verified this, there's the shape and colour of the bottle to provide the first clues to the actual wine. Just a glance can increase your chances of being recognised as a wine guru two- or threefold. Follow the clues below.

  • A tall, green bottle, it's likely to be a Riesling
  • A tall brown bottle, likely a Riesling, but a chance to be a Gewurztraminer
  • A bottle with a rounded shoulder, chances are a Shiraz of Pinot, but allow for the chance of a Rhone-style blend (see the future lesson, Know Your Enemy for more on this option).
  • A bottle, brown or green, with straight neck, round shoulder and straight sides, you are right on track for a cabernet sauvignon-based wine, or perhaps a merlot.
  • Many new wines are modifying this cabernet bottle shaped to make it a bit angled, and may be a bit taller than usual, this is an additional clue to the wine. It pays to look at these things as you wander around the bottle shop.
  • This cabernet- shaped bottle in clear glass will probably a sweet white wine, probably semillon, or perhaps a French white burgundy. Be wary of this one, some NZ and Oz makers are putting all sorts of white grapes into this shaped bottle, like riesling, chenin blanc and others. You may have to actually taste the wine to narrow this down further.

The visual inspection is, of course, made much easier if the bottle is not wrapped, but just has the label turned away from you. In this case there are additional options:

  • Verifying the presence of a back label. Grange does haven't a back label, the rest of the Penfolds range does.
  • Most importers' stickers are on the back label. Good news if you know the Blinder has some imported wine in his cellar for just this type of event.
  • Some front labels are quite wide so you can see the edge. Chateau Tahbilk is a ripper for this. I found this to my pleasure when I was presented a Chateau Tahbilk red in a blind context. Having spied the bottle I was able to claim, after making a great show of sniffing the wine "Ah, classic Nagambie Lakes character". Even I had been wrong from there on, the mark has been made.
  • Of course for some whites you can see through the bottle and read the label backwards. "Ah yes, a classic Sauvignon Blanc, very reminiscent of the 1999 Cloudy Bay". All without smelling or tasting the wine (although it is wise to do so, you don't want to give the game away).

Often your Blinder covers the bottle, but leaves the neck foil on. You need to have a browsing around the bottle shop to learn the labels here, but the investment is worth it. Here's some examples.

  • In many cases the name of the winery is printed on the neck tag, you're home free here.
  • If it has a blue diagonal stripe, go for Houghton White Burgundy.
  • A red capsule, try the Penfolds, there's many other examples here.
  • If a screw thread is there, go for Riesling, probably South Australian, but this is changing with the 2001 vintage to thankfully include other areas in New Zealand and Australia.

The final tip in this lesson is to try and get the chance to pour your own glass. If not on the first pour, reach for the bottle for to give yourself a top-up. Drink the glass hurriedly, if you have to, to make this opportunity available. Pouring your glass allows you to feel the bottle, which can provide additional clues to the identity of the wine you're trying to pick.

  • Holding the bottle can verify the shape of the bottle, many bottle bags disguise the difference between the cabernet and shiraz-type bottles.
  • You can sneak a peak to see if the foil has been removed, if not take a peek.
  • If the bottle bag is thin, you can check on the size of the label.
  • If the bag is very thin you may be able to read the label through the bag. This has worked for me more than once.
  • You can also see if the bottle has been embossed in any way. Many Rhone wines, especially Chateauneuf-du-Pape have embossed bottles. The aforementioned Houghton White Burgundy has the company crest, as does Morilla Estate from Tasmania.

One last thing, while you have it, take a peek, or feel, how deep the punt indentation is under the bottom of the bottle, the deeper the punt, the better the bottle may be.

That's it for lesson one, and already you may have worked out what wine you're drinking without tasting a drop!

In future lessons I'll pass on further tips for turning the Blind Wine Tasting to your advantage.

If you have your own tips, let me know by email. It'll just be our secret, you can trust me, I'm an Australian Wine Lover.

© Murray Almond
29 July 2001

Send comments to Murray at fromtheleftisland@yahoo.com.au

More in this series -
Part 2 - Know Your Enemy
Part 3 - The Snotta Method
Part 4 - Taking a WAG and getting to Carnegie Hall


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E-mail me: winetaster@clear.net.nz