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Blind Tasting like a Master Somm. Sort of.

blind tasting

A few weeks ago, I attended a master-class seminar on blind tasting at RdV Vineyards here in Virginia.  Our guide for the afternoon was Jarad Slipp, Master Sommelier, and the Estate Director at RdV.

We followed the Court of Master Sommeliers Deductive Tasting Format (aka, “the grid”).  I had never used the CMS DTF before, and honestly, I found it a little bewildering.  And intimidating.

And a little bit nuts.

Deductive reasoning (or top down reasoning) is supposed to take you from a general premise to a specific conclusion.  Along the way, you accumulate evidence and examples to support your premise.  So, in theory, the grid is supposed to help you get from red wine to Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012 in 44 easy steps.  But the trick to the grid is this — all of the evidence you accumulate draws on previous (and cumulative) wine knowledge and tasting experience.  If you don’t have a ton of wine knowledge and tasting experience?  You’re in for a long afternoon.  Or, you might discover your wine knowledge and tasting experience isn’t what you thought it was.

If you’ve never seen the movie, Somm (aka These People are Nuts!), this is how deductive tasting goes down (no really, this is exactly how it goes down):

And this is the piece of my wine education on which I’m the weakest — systematic tasting and evaluation of wines.  So I thought, it’s time to Carpe the Diem and learn this process.

Or die trying.

The seminar started with Jarad doing a run-through of a (non-blind) deductive tasting, using an RdV 2010 Rendezvous (one of RdV’s two Bordeaux-style red blends) as an example.  And btw, the guys in that video don’t exist in a vacuum.  Jarad’s run-through sounded exactly like the video. Which is somewhat comforting.  Because that means this is a process, one that can be learned. And I was totally processing.

And then it happened.

Jarad took a microphone out of his back pocket and handed it to me.

He may as well have handed me a live hand grenade.

No one told me there would be public speaking!  That was not in the brochure!  I hate public speaking.  I can write all day, but ask me to open my mouth in front of a large-ish group of people?  I turn into a partial mute and can’t remember my own name (think Norma from Orange is the New Black).

So, I got all blushy, turned into a partial mute, and casually passed the microphone to the Mr. Armchair Sommelier (he speaks in public all the time), and telepathically communicated wine stuff to him.

I was able to correctly identify the grape varieties in 5 of the 6 wines.  Yay, right?  Nope.  Identifying the grape variety is only one small piece of the deductive tasting puzzle.  After you (hopefully) get that correct, you still need to identify the country of origin, region/appellation, quality, and vintage.

It’s bewildering, intimidating . . . and a little bit nuts.

Here’s the basic deductive tasting format (emphasis on basic — click on the link above to download the full grid).  All of the answers to these questions are designed to take you from an initial premise to a final conclusion.  They are clues to the tasting puzzle, if you will.

Are there any “floaties or chunkies”?  (All tasting notes should start with this).
Is it clear or hazy?
How bright is it (i.e., how much light does it reflect)?  Here’s the brightness scale:  Cloudy-Hazy-Dull-Bright-Day Bright-Star Bright-Brilliant.
How about the color itself?  Intensity and hue?
Any secondary colors (along the outer edges)?
Any rim variation (a change in color from the center to the edges)?
Are there legs or tears?

Are there any obvious faults?  Corked-oxidized-baked-vinegar.
Intensity — is the nose delicate, moderate, or powerful?
Fruit or Non-Fruit:  Who’s Driving the Bus?

This was one of the most helpful tidbits of the seminar.  Who’s driving the bus??  The answer to that one question can provide several clues to the origin of the wine you’re tasting.

According to Jarad, “all white wines have some kind of apple and some kind of citrus.  So don’t just say apple and citrus.”  What kind of apple?  What kind of citrus?  You’re not done yet. What’s the condition of the fruit?  Ripe, fresh, baked, stewed, dried, peeled, tart, jammy??

If non-fruit is driving the bus, is it organic (dirt, forest floor, compost, mushrooms) or inorganic (rocks, minerals, chalk, slate, flint)?

Are there flowers, herbs, vegetables, spices?  Which ones?  And what’s the condition of the flowers, herbs, etc.?  (Btw, the condition of the flowers almost always follows the condition of the fruit.  Good to know, right?)

Is there any evidence of wood (i.e., oak)?  None?  Old?  New?  French?  American?

Another Jarad maxim:  “Taste once for flavor and once for structure.  Because structure never lies.”  The structure of a wine can reveal several clues about a wine’s identity.

Palate (Flavor)  Confirm what your nose told you about the wine!
Character of Fruit
Organic vs. Inorganic

Palate (Structure)  Here’s where all those Medium plusses come into play.
Dry or sweet?  Bone Dry, Dry, Off-Dry, Medium-Sweet, Sweet, Lusciously Sweet
Acidity?  Low, Med-, Medium, Medium+, High
Alcohol?  Low, Med-, Medium, Medium+, High
Body?  Light, Medium, Full
Texture?  Creamy, Round, Lean
Tannins?  Low, Med-, Medium, Medium+, High
Balance?  Anything pulling your focus?
Finish?  Short, Medium-, Medium, Medium+, Long
Complexity?  Low, Med-, Medium, Medium+, High

Initial Conclusion
Old World or New World?
Climate?  Cool, Moderate or Warm?
Possible Grape(s)?
Possible Countries?
General Age Range?  1-3, 3-5, 5-10, 10+ years

Final Conclusion
Grape Variety / Blend
Region / Appellation
Quality (Grand/Premier Cru, Gran Reserva, etc.)

OK . . . on to the wines we tasted!

The retail prices I listed are the average, taken from
The CMS deductive tasting grid combines nose and palate descriptors, which I think is pretty efficient, because (at least in my mind) they often end up redundant.  Also, Jarad told us upfront that all of the wines were high quality.  So, I knew I’d get at least that part right.

My tasting notes ended up looking a lot like a giant stream of consciousness/brain dump:

Glass #1

My initial (quick sniff) premise:  Sauvignon Blanc.

Clean, clear, light straw color.  Starbright.
Grapefruit, lemon, peach.  Tart, not ripe.
Restrained.  >>> Young?  Old World?
Herbaceous.  Basil.  Decidedly green.  >>> Sauvignon Blanc?
Who’s driving the bus?  Minerals.  Chalk.
No obvious oak.
High acid.
Medium alcohol.
Light, lean body.  Lean texture.
Medium intensity, medium complexity.
Old World Sauvignon Blanc.

And . . . here’s where it fell apart for me.

Where is Sauvignon Blanc (mostly) grown in the Old World?  France.  Where in France?  The Loire Valley and Bordeaux.  Guessing between Loire and Bordeaux would have been a total crapshoot for me.  But Jarad is the one with the fancy initials after his name, so he offered a clue:  “White Bordeaux  almost always has a hefty dose of new oak.”

This wine was light, lean, and had no oak.  So, that leaves us with . . . Sancerre.  1-2 years old.  Easy peasy, right?

Except I’m pretty sure I couldn’t distinguish between a Sancerre and a Pouilly Fumé (which would have been a bit rounder and riper).  More practice needed.

Btw, I’m so not getting this vintage thing.

The brown bag reveal, please . . .  
Alphonse Mellot Sancerre La Moussière  2014

Retail = $30ish.


Glass #2

My initial (quick sniff) premise:  Chardonnay.

Greenish-gold color.  Starbright.
Thicker tears.  >> More alcohol.
Lemon, green apple, pear.  >> Chardonnay.
Lean and tart.  Kind of briny.
Dried flowers.
Which flowers?  Dunno.  Chamomile?  (I apparently need to spend more time smelling individual flowers.)
Who’s driving the bus?  Rocks. Minerals. Chalk. >> Old World?
No obvious oak.  >> Throw the entire New World out the window.
High acidity.
Medium+ alcohol.
Lean-ish texture.
Old World Chardonnay.
Where is Chardonnay (mostly) grown/famous in the Old World?  France.
Where in France?  Burgundy.  Chablis.

And, I’m falling apart again.  I don’t drink enough White Burgundy or Chablis to be able to recognize the difference.  More practice needed.

Go back to the rocks and chalk.  Where are the rocks and chalk?  North >> Chablis!  3-5 years old.  (White Burgundy is produced further south, and would taste “warmer” and more tropical.  And it would probably show some oak.)

Still not getting the vintage.

The brown bag reveal, please . . .  
Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis Grand Cru Valmur 2011

Retail = $70ish.


Glass #3

My initial (quick sniff) premise:  Riesling.

Bright, clear, light straw color.
Stone fruit, peaches.  Meyer lemon.  Yellow apple.
Who’s driving the bus?  Wet stone and slate. >> Riesling!
Inorganic?  Petrol!!  (Sidebar:  In the wine sales world, apparently you call that petrol/diesel note “beeswax”, so it’s more appealing to customers.)
Lilies.  The only time I’ve smelled one that didn’t make me sneeze.
Off-dry.  Sugar masks acidity.  Actually razor sharp, high acidity.
Lower alcohol.
Medium+ intensity.  Medium+ complexity.
But that petrol!  >> Older.
Old World Riesling.
Where is Riesling (mostly) grown/famous in the Old World?  Deutschland!  And where in Deutschland do we find the heaviest incidence of slate?  Mosel!  5-10 years old.

Sigh.  I’m not sure I could taste the difference between a Mosel and a Rheingau Riesling.  More practice needed.  Obviously.

Nope, still not getting the vintage.

The brown bag reveal, please . . .  
Joh. Jos. Prüm Graacher Himmelreich Spätlese 2009

Retail = $40ish.


Glass #4

My initial (quick sniff) premise:  Pinot Noir.

Clear, ruby red.
Red fruit or black fruit driven?  Red.
Strawberry, cherry, red currant.  All ripe.
Rose petals.
Who’s driving the bus?  Fruit.  >> New World.
Inorganics?  Cinnamon, spice, brown sugar.
Oak influence.
Medium/Medium+ tannins.
Medium+ acidity.
Medium+ alcohol.
Oregon?  Does it taste ripe or unripe?  Ripe.  Can’t be Oregon.
Where in California?  Uh-oh.  Dunno.  Russian River Valley?  Sonoma Coast?  I’m really grasping at straws here.  Apparently, RRV is more black fruit, Sonoma is more red.  And this wine is definitely more red.  So, Sonoma it is!  3-5 years old.

Couldn’t we just agree to go with oldish or newish for the vintage and call it a day?

The brown bag reveal, please . . .  
La Follette Sangiacomo Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2012

Retail = $38ish.

I did some post-seminar research, and Kathleen Inman, co-owner and winemaker at Inman Family Wines, described the difference between RRV and Sonoma like this,

“Sonoma Coast is more silk, while Russian River is velvet.”

Was I drinking silk or velvet?  Again, I’m not sure I have the tasting chops to know the difference.  More practice needed.

Glass #5

My initial (quick sniff) premise:  Red wine.  Smart-assery aside, I have no idea.  Something rustic.

Dark ruby color.
Red fruit or black fruit?  Can it be both?
Black currant, cherry, plum, raspberry.
Kind of hot.  Roasted.  >> Côte-Rotie??
Kirschwasser.  That’s crazy-town.
Violets.  Crushed, dried.
Bay leaf.  Crushed and dried.
Leather and dust.  Funky.  Rustic.
Who’s driving the bus?  Definitely not fruit.
Little oak.  Neutral?
Medium acidity.
Medium+ to high alcohol.
Medium intensity.
Medium complexity.
Rustic, rougher tannins.  Medium +.
Where in the Old World do we see rustic, rougher tannins?  Rhône.

And . . . I’m falling apart (yet) again.

Côte-Rotie is in the Northern Rhone, and uses only Syrah (and sometimes a little Viognier).  Does this wine look or taste like Syrah?  No.  Not inky enough to be Syrah.  Think further south.  You can just taste the sunshine.  If you say so.

Go back to those roasted fruits and rustic tannins.  >> Châteauneuf-du-Pape!  3-5 years old.

I think I need a Rhône wine tasting seminar.  More practice needed.

Grrrr.  Vintage.

The brown bag reveal, please . . .  

Domaine des Sénéchaux Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012
Retail = $48ish.


Glass #6

My initial gut after a quick sniff:  Cabernet Sauvignon.

Slightly orange on the edge.  >> Older.
Raisin color.  >> Older.
Some rim variation (a change in color from the center to the edge).  >> Older.
Sediment.  >> Older.
Black fruit or red?  Red.
Cherries and red currant.
Graphite.  Cedar.  >> Cabernet Sauvignon.
Sage.  Dried.
Who’s driving the bus?  Rocks.  And pencils.  >> Old World.
Medium+ acidity.
Medium alcohol.
Medium intensity.
High complexity.
Medium tannins.  Jarad:  “Aristocratic tannins that taste like $.”
I think I’ve got this one.  >> Older Bordeaux.

And where in Bordeaux is the focus on Cabernet Sauvignon?  The left-bank.  I’m totally tracking with left-bank.  But there’s no way I could have drilled down to Médoc.  More practice needed.

And older, I get.  But to pull 1996?  No way.

The brown bag reveal, please . . .  
Château Poujeaux Médoc 1996

Retail = $50ish.

My big takeaway from this seminar is this . . . to use the CMS grid effectively, you have to have cumulative experience.  Lots of it.  (You also have to know what gooseberries, baby’s breath, and Daikon radishes smell like).  If you’re a wine novice, and you’ve tasted 100 wines, this will probably be an exercise in frustration for you.  If you’ve tasted 10,000 wines, have an organoleptic memory like a steel-trap, and years of experience, this will still be über-challenging, but you’ll feel like you could get there.  The key is practice.  With disciplined practice, I could get to the point where I’m correctly identifying the grape variety, the country of origin, maybe a region, and even general quality.  But a specific vintage?  That still feels bewildering.  And intimidating.  And a little bit nuts.

More practice needed.


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