Tips for blind wine tasting

I have some friends who try to test me by producing at the supper table a wine in a decanter and saying, “Now tell me what this is.” 

I must admit from the start that I prefer to be the person offering the decanter rather than to be receiving it, for true success in this game can only be gained from a lifetime of tasting, a good palate and a great memory. Certainly I have tasted a good number of wines in my life. They can add up fairly swiftly at a wine fair or when you are a completion judge, but I only have memories of a few of them: the particularly good and the particularly bad. 

Over the past sixty years I can only lay claim to two particular successes. The first was in Adelaide, at the home of the person who owned the largest single property in the southern hemisphere. 

Before dinner he took me round his cellar and it was apparent that he was a great claret lover. At dinner, I placed the wine as a Château Beychevelle; sadly I failed on the vintage. The second occasion was at the Cork and Bottle, one of London’s best wine bars, which then belonged to a New Zealander, Don Hewitson. He gave me a glass of white wine and said, “What is this?” I tasted it and replied, “It tastes of nothing and smells of nothing. It must be Cresta Doré.”

I was right. Cresta Doré was one of New Zealand’s first attempts at producing light wines and was made from the Muller-Thurgau grape.

Know what kind of wine you are likely to be offered

Knowing what someone is likely to offer you, I have found to be the first useful tip in blind wine tasting. It is what has helped me on both these occasions, and there are also other signs to look out for. 

Sometimes the host will not use a decanter, but wrap the bottle tightly in a towel. If the outline is of a Burgundy bottle, it is unlikely to be a Cabernet Sauvignon. A discreet ferret round before you go to table might reveal empty bottles. Knowing what the wine is going to be before it is produced can be a big help. This is the background to one of Roald Dahl’s cruellest short stories – Taste.

I am able to offer you one or two other tips which might be useful, which generally work if there are a number of people involved in the wine tasting. 

Bluff your way out

You can say, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I should take part in this because I’ve already seen the bottle.” Of course, you have not and you run the risk of having your bluff called.

The Vandyke Defence

This tip I named after Pamela Vandyke Price, the long-time Times wine correspondent, whose autobiography was entitled A Woman of Taste. Regularly at tastings she would say in a loud voice “I wish women would not wear scent at these events.” Alternatively it might be men and aftershave which can be a safe tactic in time of difficulty. 

Loss of the senses

I must admit to having on occasion used hay fever as a seasonal excuse for my lack of tasting ability, and similarly a cold might be a useful winter alternative. Sadly loss of taste and smell are symptoms of Covid-19, so I think it would be an unwise excuse to come up with at the moment. If you were not shunned by the company, it would be unlikely you would be believed if you could show any relish for the wine you were drinking.

I think somewhere in the Bible it says, “Wine is a mocker.” Do not be mocked for any lack of tasting ability, just enjoy the wine.  

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