Have you ever seen a sommelier pick-up a glass of wine and correctly identify what varietal it is, what wine region it is from, and what year it was born? It’s a very cool little magic trick! Getting this trick down is a lot like other magic tricks you learn; it takes knowing what to do and then a lot of practice. Who isn’t up for practicing wine drinking? [crickets chirping] So practice is not an issue, the real trick is to learn how to taste wine correctly—and a really fun game, with some helpful tips, can help with that.
What you’ll need to host a really fun Blind Wine Tasting Party:
- Something to cover up the wine bottles while pouring the wine into glasses. There are a lot of great ideas to cover-up the wine bottles. You can use aluminum foil, a right-sized paper bag, masking tape on the label (and then write a different number for each bottle), or if you want to go all fancy schmancy, you can buy special bags made for covering up wine bottles. There are really inexpensively ones sold on-line (amazon has them for as low as $20).
- Invite people who love to have fun and drink wine. Tell guests about the really fun drinking game you’re planning.
- Make sure guests have a plan regarding transportation after the party. It always starts out with, “l’m not planning to get drunk, but the next thing you know…). Uber, Lyft, a friend or whatever.
- Tell guests admission to the party is a bottle of red wine (or white wine depending on whether guests prefer white wines).
- Make sure there is enough space to host the party. You’ll need a big table for everyone to not only drink the wine but write down notes and predictions. A restaurant can work if you buy their wine or agree to eating their food but someone’s house is just as good.
The info-graphics at the end of this post can be copied and pasted onto a document, such as Microsoft Word. Then, each should be printed in color, since color is a large component of evaluating the wine and the color info-graphics help with this. Print out enough copies for all the participants, plus a few more. You can use a color printer or if you don’t have one, use a Copy Store (e.g. FedEx). If you use a store, you should get the info-graphics laminated so that you don’t have to incur the cost of printing in color again.
Alternatively, your guests can use their phones and this URL link to see the info-graphics.
As you know, wine needs time to breathe. So open the bottles of wine a few hours before the game begins.
When you pour the wine, it should be poured to about 1/3rd of each person’s the glass.
Give the infographics to each of your guests. Also, hand your guests one white piece of paper in case there is not a white wall nearby [this is good for some laughs later on as undoubtedly guests will feel silly and think it silly to have a white piece of paper held-up against their wine].
The wine server should explain the following to game participants who are not familiar with blind wine tasting (probably most guests):
First it should be known that blind wine tasting doesn’t mean that guests don’t see the wine their drinking. You probably know that but in case you don’t… It means that you don’t see what kind of wine you’re evaluating i.e. you don’t see the bottles’ labels.
When participants look at their glasses, they should hold it up against a white background (and have plenty of light). A white wall can suffice or a white piece of paper (this is why participants receive the white paper).
Step 1: Look down into the glass to see the colors of the wine and density of the wine (opaqueness).
Step 2: Give the glass a swirl and then a slight tilt to form the legs of the wine. The legs are the streams of the wine streaming down the wine glass. If they stream down slowly, it means there is more alcohol. If there are more legs, then there’s more alcohol. More alcohol usually, but not always, means that the wine comes from a hotter climate. Warm climates include: California, Italy, Spain, most of Australia, South Africa, and Argentina (not too far south). Cool climates include: Oregon, the state of Washington, France, Germany, and the rest of Northern Europe, and Chile to name a few. USE THE INFOGRAPHICS TO NOT ONLY MARK THE SCORE CARD APPROPRIATELY BUT ALSO TO FORM AN OPINION ON THE WINE VARIETAL, VINTAGE AND REGION.
Step 3: Hold the glass toward a white background and in a place with sufficient light. Identify the colors of the wine and its translucence. In general, white wines tend to gain color when they age and red wines tend to lose it. With enough time, both wine and red wine turn an orange color. This change of color as the wine ages starts at the edges of your wine in your glass, so look in that area first to identify age.
MARK SCORE CARDS
Merlot has a slightly orange hue on the edges, which can be confused for an older wine. For Malbec, there’s a light purple hue on the edges of a wine glass. Malbecs are also hard to see through (opaque). Syrah/Shiraz are darker and opaque than most wines.
You can smell 10,000 things but you can only taste four (sweet, sour, bitter and salty, which is not in wine), so smelling your wine is really important.
Smell the wine after swirling it around. To intensify the smell, you can cover up the glass with your hand while swirling the wine, then take your hand away and smell. This is not necessary though.
At first, with your mouth open, try to smell the wine like you’re sneaking up on it (from the side bottom of the glass while the glass is titled) rather than sticking your nose in the glass like an aardvark. Take a deep inhale; this will give you the alcohol level (the more it punches you with fumes, the more alcohol there is). This will also give you the fruit flavors, whether the wine was barreled in wood, and earth smells. The rising alcohol fumes are actually the conduit that delivers the other smells to your nose. You can move your nose to and from the glass until you feel that your getting the optimal smelling experience.
Take a few seconds to re-acclimate your nose to normalcy, then stick your nose in the middle of the glass. This is where you want to do short, quick inhales like a dog sniffing around. Some people call this technique, the Cocker Spaniel sniff. [It’s another one of those moments where guests inevitably laugh.] This technique is where you can pick up the earthy, herbaceousness or wood-derived smells.
Try to identify
(1) Fruits such as dark fruits (blackberries, blueberry, black currant, plums) or light fruits (strawberry, raspberry, cranberry)
(2) oak vs stainless steel (or other barrel aromas)
(3) herbaceousness and earthiness
When you do, mark this on your score card.
DON’T FORGET TO MARK YOUR SCORE CARDS
Different parts of your mouth can identify different flavors. For example, the front part of your tongue is where sweetness is identified, whereas the middle of your tongue is where tannins are identified.
Swishing the wine around in your mouth is where you can pick up the body and tannins (see wine term notes below in info-graphics).
MARK YOUR SCORE CARDS
Cabernet Sauvignon: As you swish a sip of Cabernet Sauvignon around in your mouth (to better discover all the nuances), you’ll notice not only a chalky (mouth-puckering) quality from the tannins but also your taste buds will discover the wonderful hints of herbs and spices. Cabs tend to have hints on the nose and palate of dark cherries and all kinds of spices. Because most Cabs are contained in new-oak barrels—a note of vanilla can be tasted.
Pinot Noir: As you swish this wine in your mouth, you can pick-up acidity, which is what gives the wine a fresh, tart and sour taste. Good wine, including Pinots, balance acidity with the sweetness and tannins of the wine. If you’re a cook, you can appreciate the balance of a good meal (acidity, sugars, spice, etc). Wine is very similar in that when those aromas and flavors blend together in the right way, as they often do with many Pinots – it’s an amazing and delicious experience.
Frequently you’ll get aromas of cherries, raspberries and cranberries with low tannins so the acidity is more pronounced and that frames those flavors to make the wine really pop with distinct flavors.
Burgundy wine tends to have a good balance of acidity and flavors drawn from its Old World wine making style. New World Pinots tend to be more fruit forward and less soft, making the wine taste more “jammy”.
Syrah: Syrah’s fruit notes are dark blueberries and plums. Syrah’s earthy spicy notes are of pepper and tobacco. Old World Syrahs of Rhone, France tend to be earthier than New World Shiraz’s of Australia, which tend to be fruitier.
Zinfandel: Zinfandel is a sweeter wine, almost jam-like in aroma and flavor, but also has a high alcohol content. Of course this is true of red zinfandel, not white.
The strong fruit flavors of Zinfandel are blueberry, cherry, boysenberry, plum, cranberry and licorice. It also has a spice and tobacco finish. Zins are like a marriage of a lot of other fruity varietals but more intense.
Zinfandel is lighter in color and body than a Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot but with higher tannins than a Pinot Noir. The higher alcohol content (around 15-16%) tends to make for a bolder wine.
Sangiovese: It is high in acidity like Pinot Noir and has medium-high tannins like Cabernet Sauvignon; it has fruity notes of cherry, strawberry and plum like Zin and notes of tobacco and smoke, like Syrah. It’s a chameleon!
The color and body is between a Pinot Noir and Syrah, but can be more or less sweet, depending on the region where it is grown and its style.
For more information about how to identify wine, read How to Taste Wine Like a Pro
The best scoring is simple. Three points for getting the varietal correct and one point for getting the region or the vintage correct. Feel free to change the scoring to suit your guests’ opinions.
Region for beginners should be broad, such as Napa/Sonoma, Burgundy, Chianti, Mendoza, etc. Beginners should also have less variety in vintages, which will probably naturally occur if the guests bring their own wine.