There are many places to taste wine: fairs, vineyard visits and in-store guided tastings, as well as popping the cork of an unfamiliar wine at home. None, though, is as controversial as a blind tasting.
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While many people, wine novices and experts alike, consider people who do well at identifying wines in blind tastings to have considerable skill, others have been questioning this kind of tasting. Legendary American wine importer Kermit Lynch even went so far as to say that “blind tasting is to wine drinking what strip poker is to love.” But don’t be swayed by others; you can decide for yourselves. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
A blind tasting doesn’t require taste-testers to actually cover their eyes, of course. They just aren’t allowed to see the bottles from which the wine has been poured, or to know anything about the manufacturer, the label, the price, the grape, the country of origin or the year. The theory is that this allows testers to judge each wine on its own merits, without being swayed by anything other than how it tastes, and this is the customary method of judging formal wine competitions.
Although there is a persuasive logic in favor of blind tasting, there are disadvantages as well that can be particularly damaging to wines that shut down and enter a “dumb phase,” in which the aromas practically disappear and the wine does not display its full potential. This primarily happens with wines that require extended aging. This can make some wines, like those from Bordeaux, for instance, seem less impressive and complex than wines that may be preferable during the tasting but may not really be better if you take the long view.
In addition, the downside to neutralizing the role of a wine’s larger context, such as the region and culture it is from and the type of grape from which it is made, is that it emphasizes technical wine-making skill over the romance of a given wine.
All the same, holding a blind wine tasting in your home could be a pleasant and informative way of spending an evening with friends − if you do it right. The secret lies in choosing the participants wisely. Add a dollop of good theme planning and efficient preparation, and you’ve got a winning activity. Just follow this guide to holding a blind wine tasting in your home:
Participants: Anywhere between six and 12. Since the success of the evening depends in large part on the guests’ willingness to share their impressions with everyone else, the goal is to bring together a group of people who will be open and pleasant, and will save their criticism for the wine rather than for each other’s opinions. The point of the blind tasting isn’t to identify which wine you’re drinking but to sharpen your senses and better pinpoint your own personal taste.
Theme: Give your creativity free reign, since there is no limit to the number of possible themes. Common themes include geography (tasting wines from a particular geographical area, say various Israeli Cabernet Sauvignons), grape (tasting wine made from the same grape in different countries; say, a Syrah wine from Israel, Australia and France) and a comparison of different kinds of wine (say, Chardonnay vs. Sauvignon Blanc). If participants are novice or casual wine drinkers, it’s better to pick a theme that lets tasters know the kind of grape and the region in advance, to minimize the natural urge to guess and give them a chance to focus on the wine’s characteristics.
Those who know their wines better might enjoy challenging themselves to a freestyle blind tasting in which every participant brings wine of any type and tasters have to guess type of grape, country of origin and vintage. Don’t feel threatened by the challenge; I’ve already seen some of the most seasoned wine tasters get each of those categories wrong.
Preparation: The most important thing is to remove identifying details from the bottles, such as the capsules around the necks of the bottles and the corks. Cover the bottles (and the labels, of course) with aluminum foil and give each one a number. If you really want to keep your guests in the dark, bring out all the wine in similar-looking bottles (not necessarily the ones they came in), since the shape of the bottle can sometimes give the game away.
One common method is to give each tester a flight of wine, meaning a selection of, say, three glasses containing three different wines. The bottles can be revealed after each flight or at the end of the evening. After the big reveal, it’s best to give the wine another taste to see if guests change their minds once they know the previously hidden details.
You can make it a single-blind taste test and give the guests the wine list in advance, without letting them know the order in which the wines will be tasted, or can make it a double-blind test, in which participants aren’t told anything about the wine.
When wine lovers feel they are being judged by how well they can identify a wine in a blind tasting, it can be a stressful experience. But if you inject some humor and don’t take it too seriously, this can be a wonderful, challenging and enjoyable way of spending the evening with friends.