Reviewers' Best Blind Tasting Experiences
Biased opinions go right out the window when it comes to a blind wine tasting, as key identifiers like labels and bottle shape are concealed. Love it or hate it, it’s all about testing your skills—hopefully, the taster has a fond memory of the grape varietal or vintage to assist with correctly identifying the wine.
We asked our reviewers their greatest blind tasting experiences. Here’s what they have to say:
"Well, that is easy. I was at a private dinner in Bordeaux with a négoçiant and a group of important American importers. The négoçiant was joking that I was "New Parker”—this is before I ever joined The Wine Advocate and when the original Wine Journal was taking off. He served a white blind so I was pretty sure it would be Bordeaux. Usually, even professionals ask questions, whittle the possibilities down so that they can make an educated guess. I don't know why, but on this occasion, even without tasting the wine and with all eyes upon me, I just asked "Is this 1996 Haut Brion Blanc? ‘Bingo! Cue rapturous applause and gasps of amazement, including myself. I think that is the only time I have done that. I have forgotten the names of the people at that dinner but from time to time one will come up to me during en primeur and just say "1996 Haut Brian Blanc.” Then I have to explain that they witnessed the solitary occasion that will happen but if they think I am just being self-effacing, then I can live with that." —Neal Martin
“Blind tasting is always a big challenge, and by nature I like to remember those I have guessed right. I quite enjoy seeing my friends’ astonished faces with esteem—on the other side it is such a big shame to guess almost everything wrong. So no wonder I will tell the story where I guessed every wine correct. I was at a friend’s dinner party and everyone brought a bottle of wine. I am smart enough to distinguish the regions from the shape of bottles, and we know each other very well, no wines other than Burgundy and Bordeaux we would bring for premium dinners. When we talk about premium wines from these two regions, Grand Cru (Classe) or the equal quality level is always a must. The best way to do the blind tasting is funneling. For Burgundy, you talk about Côte d’Or first and then Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, and for Bordeaux left or right bank first. Another benefit of funneling is that, when you do this, you can observe the responses from your friends’ faces (but I do have some tricky friends who always show encouraging feedbacks when you go to the wrong direction). Luckily enough, I guessed every wine correct that night—it was a huge pleasure to see my friends post the results on their social media. Do you learn a lot from my best blind tasting experience? It’s not a sharing on techniques and skills at all. I don’t know who invented blind tasting, but for me it’s more like a game. To some extent, it is very important when you judge the quality of some wines by not seeing the labels, and it is a good way to push you to think hardly when you drink. To be honest, if not for any exams or competitions, I would suggest that we just enjoy drinking a good bottle of wine, rather than bother ourselves with blind tastings.” —Liwen Hao
“I’ve tasted wine blind once or twice weekly for more than a decade as part of my job. There’s comforting repetition in the process. The same number of wines per flight, tasting out of the same glasses; nosing all the wines first, then deciding what order to taste them in. Finally, writing the notes and rating the wines.
That routine doesn’t lend itself to memorable tasting experiences—at least, not lasting memories. For a day or two, you might remember wine #2 in the second flight was really special, or the flight that was so good overall that it put a smile on your face for the rest of the day.
The truly memorable blind-tasting experiences (for me, anyway) always occur outside the tasting room.
One afternoon above Côte Rôtie, I wrapped up tasting out of barrel with Jean-Paul Jamet. I think we’d tried close to ten different lieux-dits from the 2007 vintage and had moved onto some older wines out of bottle from the wire cages in the cellar. Finally, he opened an unlabeled half-bottle without telling me the year.
As we swirled and sniffed the wine in our glasses, I couldn’t help but break into a big grin. All of the hallmark Jamet complexity was there—smoked meats, briny olives, cracked pepper—but smoothed out by the patina of age into an even more compelling whole. I was transfixed, at a loss for words.
After tasting it and a long pause, I stammered out some complimentary descriptors in my high-school French: “Merveilleux, soyeux, très élégant…”
Jean-Paul waved all that away. “Can you guess the year?”
I had little idea. It was clearly older than the wine we’d previously tasted (1988), but it was still so vibrant, so alive. I ventured a guess: “Quatre-vingt cinq?”
When Jean-Paul moved his hand, I could see 1981 written in grease pencil.
That year isn’t considered a particularly great vintage in Côte Rôtie, yet here I was, confronted by a wine that blew me away for its complexity and finesse 25 years after it was bottled. Now that was a blind tasting to remember.
The other memorable blind tastings I’ve had have been with good friends and good wine.
Upon the release of the 1994 California Cabernets, one of my friends hosted a blind tasting in his basement for 20 or so people. I don’t even remember what wine I brought, or all of the attendees, but I remember some of the standouts—and they weren’t necessarily the wines you might expect.
The DiStefano from Washington State was a pleasant surprise, coming close to the Leonetti at about half the price; both outshone many of the Napa wines. And a wine from Waiheke Island, Stonyridge’s Larose, showed well, opening our minds to the idea that New Zealand could be a source of high-quality red wines.
Another group of friends makes the NFL playoffs into a blind-tasting experience. Every year, we descend on our host’s house with foil-wrapped bottles to be numbered and placed in a lineup. To be honest, I don’t always remember the wines afterward, but it’s a heck of a good time.” —Joe Czerwinski
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