Super (Somm) Bowl: Blind Wine Tasting Tips from Pros at the Top of Their Game

With sensory practice and some helpful hints, identifying the classic grapes and regions is not as hard as you think!

Elite Sommeliers Blind Tasting

You can learn a lot about wine from sommeliers in training for the Master Sommelier exam. The classic wine grapes and regions all have a “tell”–a set of sensory traits that help wine pros ID them blind. Here are some of the blind tasting clues this bad-ass group of somms shared during a recent blind tasting practice at my house–following an intensive day of testing wine theory, blind tasting and service at the prestigious, invite-only Rudd Roundtable.

Mia van de Water, Wine Director of NYC’s North End Grill (second from the left) became the first woman Rudd Metal winner–awesome. She had a pretty pithy “tell” for the Sancerre, which the whole group nailed. I was super impressed that most of the somms got this Vouvray Sec–it was delicious but not totally screaming the classic scents this group knows to tease out. Most everyone got the German Riesling, too–but how to tell it’s Mosel? Read on. (I’ll share their blind tasting tips for classic red wines in a future post.)

Sancerre – This was in Scott Ota’s (far left) flight and he nailed it–to be expected from the guy named Texas’ Best Sommelier in 2013. Sancerre Blanc is made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc, and considered a benchmark of the varietal. It’s “tell” is detectable pyrazines—less geek-ily referred to as the “green,” “vegetal,” or “herbaceous” notes found in SB and certain other classic grape varieties. I liked Mia’s homing device for a Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc: not enough pyrazines to be from New Zealand, but too much to be from just about anywhere else!

Vouvray Sec – As every somm at this level knows, apple and delicate floral scents can be found in lots of classic whites–to the point where as soon as this registers, the neurons of nosing fire up a whole new level of layers in the taste memory banks, searching for the needle in the haystack of fleeting fragrances that distinguish that particular wine from all others. In this case Nick Daddona of Meritage Restaurant in the Boston Harbor Hotel (second from right), ferreted out the “tell”–a sort of wet wool and beeswax character specific to Chenin Blanc grown in the Vouvray district. It was so subtle we were impressed he got it – in this case his descriptors were “a certain old muskiness like an antique shop…” Pretty evocative, really.

Mosel Riesling Spatlese – On the subject of apple and floral, here’s another wine type where the experienced taster notes those traits and quickly moves on to further peel the onion. What sort of floral? Honeysuckle–count on it. And a wet slate minerality that you don’t have to visit the Mosel during a rainstorm to get a sense of–WD-40 will give you a sense of the scent, just don’t inhale. Everyone got this very classic wine.

California Viognier – This time instead of apple fruit, you’re looking at exotic tropical. How to distinguish that it’s Viognier rather than, say, a luscious Monterey County Chardonnay? Jerusha Frost, Head Sommelier of Chefs Club in New York City (far right), showed how you have to search amid the opulent fruit for florals or sweet herbs – jasmine, chervil, sweet basil.  She did all this while fighting through a serious attack of hayfever.

I know you are impressed, as I was, with these tasters and their insights. Now, if you’re not too exhausted from all this hard work, you’ve got homework: hit the farmers market, the antique shop, the hardware store and the florist–or maybe call your Avon lady.Whatever you do, breathe it all in as you go, and file away those fragrances for your next tasting.