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The Eyes Have It

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blind tasting

Blind tasting is a humbling experience.  It’s all at once immensely instructional, and intimidating as hell.  Your palate is exposed, and your wine tasting credibility is on display.


I belong to a wine tasting study group, which is not at all like “book club”.  This is an environment where the spit glass is as important as stemware (but yes, a little part of me dies inside every time I spit out Alsace Grand Cru).  Most of us are pursuing either an Advanced Sommelier credential (Court of Master Sommeliers) or the WSETDiploma (Wine & Spirit Education Trust).  We meet a couple of times a month, and run through four to six wines in a blind setting, and try to identify them (both variety and region) using the Court of Master Sommeliers Deductive Tasting Format aka, “The Grid”, or, in my case, the WSET Diploma Systematic Approach to Tasting.

It ain’t easy.

In theory, these tasting grids are supposed to help you get from red wine to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in 44(ish) steps.  But here’s the rub — all of the evidence you accumulate draws on previous (and cumulative) wine knowledge and tasting experience.  There are no short cuts.  Competent blind tasting requires study and practice.  A lot of it.

And mistake is the best teacher.

I’ve gotten a little more confident identifying the white wines.  The reds, well, they’re a little more challenging.  Pinot Noir, got it.  Tempranillo, mostly got it.  And I totally nailed a Northern Rhône Syrah last night (pats self on back).  But Bordeaux keeps tricking me.  Twice now, I’ve misidentified a left-bank Bordeaux as a Nebbiolo.

So frustrating.

Despite the sting to my wine ego, I want to learn from my mistakes, so I set up my own side-by-side Bordeaux vs. Nebbiolo comparison to see if I could figure out where I’m going wrong.

For this exercise, I chose two wines that wouldn’t wreck my wine budget for the month (they were each about $25).  I selected a left-bank Bordeaux from Haut-Médoc and a Nebbiolo from the Langhe region of Piedmonte.  Sure, I could have compared a Barolo to a Pauillac, but if I’m going to drink a Barolo or a Pauillac, I want to sip and savor (enjoy), not study and spit (analyze).

According to the National Institutes of Health, eighty percent of the sensory information the brain receives comes from our eyes.  Appearance may not be everything, but it is something.  The appearance of a wine (its clarity, brightness and color), is a first and critical clue in identifying a wine, and it’s often overlooked.  I’m frequently guilty of seeing a wine and thinking, yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s red (or white).  And, in my haste to move on to the nose and palate, I see the wine, but I don’t really look at it.

And there’s a difference.

Seeing is reflexive.  You see something without effort, you don’t necessarily pay attention to it.  However, you look at something with intent and reason.  You pay keen attention to it.

Take a look at the photo below.  The difference in color between these two wines is obvious and striking (even the corks give clues).

The Nebbiolo (on the right) is clear and bright, a translucent ruby with a slight brick-orange tinge at the rim.  The Bordeaux (on the left) is clear, definitely not as bright, deep ruby, and not translucent at all.

Not to minimize the importance of nose and palate . . .

Both Cabernet and Nebbiolo are insanely powerful wines (if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you’ll get the mental picture when I say they remind me of The Mountain) with tannins and acids that could fling you across the room.

The nose on the Nebbiolo was intensely aromatic; red cherry, violets, roses, tar, tobacco, and vanilla.  The nose on the Bordeaux was equally intense; graphite, black currant, cedar, sage, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Both wines were dry, high in acid, high in tannins, high in alcohol, and full bodied.

The Nebbiolo was all red fruits, but powerfully flavored (betraying its translucent hue) — cranberry, red currant, pomegranate, roses, red cherry, forest floor, and funk.  The Bordeaux  was dark and broody — black plum, black currant, sage, graphite, violets, and cedar.

It’s this symbiotic power and intensity that’s been throwing me off my tasting game.  But if I’d just look at the wine . . . a deeply colored, opaque, powerful, tannic, acidic red almost assuredly isn’t a Nebbiolo.  Appearance is something.

The eyes have it.


Armchair Sommelier Wine Tasting Guide

Spice up your next party with our FREE wine tasting guide! Learn what to look, smell, and taste for while appreciating your favorite bottle. We’ve also included a printable tasting notes template and a tasting wheel.