Blind tasting Chilean red wines
August 13, 2017
I’ve set myself the challenge over the next few weeks of blind tasting the most common types of Chilean red wine until I can tell them apart in a blind tasting. I’m doing this to become a better wine professional and also to help me pass the terrifying WSET diploma exam when I’ll have to blind taste 12 wines and write intelligently about them. At the least I want to be able to identify any Chilean wines that are included. So I’m starting with the thick-skinned red varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Merlot, Malbec and Syrah.
What is blind tasting anyway?
A couple of people have asked me if blind tasting means you have to wear a blindfold when tasting. Fortunately not, as I’m sure I’d knock over my glass half the time! Actually it just means that you don’t know anything more about the wine in your glass than what you can perceive through your senses. Either you cover up the labels and anything else that could help you identify the wine or somebody else pours the wines into your glasses when you aren’t looking.
It’s quite liberating in a way, as it means that your opinion of the wine won’t be influenced by the label or your perceptions of the wine producer.
Usually you taste several wines (typically between three and six) together in a “flight”. By serving them all together, one into each glass, you can go back and forth, comparing them. Is this one more aromatic? Does that one have more body? Which do you like best?
What are you looking for?
If you’re blind tasting for fun, your objective may be just to see which wine you like best out of a group of wines. There may be a theme, such as all the wines in the flight are Sauvignon Blanc or they are all from Bordeaux.
On the other hand, you may just be faced by a set of glasses of wine without knowing what they are or where they are from. In the WSET diploma exam, the 12 wines could be any white, red or rosé wines from anywhere in the world, including less well-known regions like Mexico or India.
There may be a theme for some of them, eg four Cabernet Sauvignon wines from different countries and in different styles or four wines from Chile (hence my current challenge). In the exam, you have to accurately describe the wine and then take a stab at what variety it is and where it is from, giving reasons for your answer.
Eat your heart out, Sherlock Holmes
OK, I’ve really got nothing on Sherlock Holmes. But I am slowly learning to be a wine detective; to look for all the clues that can help me identify a glass of wine. To do this, it really helps to have a checklist to help you look for clues eg colour, tannins, acidity, body and so on. There are a number of standard ones out there but the one I have to know by heart is the one used by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).
By way of example, let’s imagine you have a deep-coloured red wine in front of you. The deep colour tells you it’s likely to be a thick-skinned variety like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Carmenère, Tannat or Syrah.
What can you smell? If there are aromas that remind you of green pepper, chilli pepper, tomato leaves or similar “vegetal” notes, known technically as “pyrazines”, then it’s from a very special family of grape varieties that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Merlot (and Sauvignon Blanc). So you can rule out Malbec, Tannat and Syrah.
If there is a strong aroma of blackcurrants, then Cabernet Sauvignon is a strong possibility, while aromas of black plums tend to indicate Merlot.
When you taste the wine, the level of tannins and acidity are likely to clinch the matter. If it’s high in both and smells of blackcurrants, then it’s probably Cabernet Sauvignon.
So succeeding in blind tasting is about knowing your grape varieties too. Unfortunately there are rather a lot. To give you an idea, the ultimate guide to varieties is Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, including their Origins and Flavours, written by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. 1368 varieties! That’s an awful lot of varieties to learn about and taste! Especially if you live in Chile, where few foreign wines are available. But hey, as with any challenge, you have to start somewhere. And for me, that’s a line-up of Chilean reds. Wish me luck!
Want to know more about tasting wine?
To find out about WSET courses, this website gives details of providers around the world.
Two books worth checking out:
Burton, N., 2016, The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting. Acheron Press.
Clarke, O. and Rand, M., 2015, Grapes and Wines: A comprehensive guide to varieties and flavours. Pavilion Books Company Limited.