Leading the blind One of the perks of being a sommelier is having the opportunity to taste wines in myriad settings.
The purest way to sample a wine is through a blind tasting, during which the bottles are covered in material to disguise them. In some blind tastings, the wine is served in black glasses, so the taster can’t see if it’s a red or a white.
At a semi-blind tasting, you are given a couple of hints – perhaps where the wine is from or the type of grape used.
Another way is to taste with a “leader” – the winemaker, a master of wine or a master sommelier. These are the most educational as the person leading the tasting goes deep into the subject, describing the vineyard, the soil and climate, and what happens to the grapes before and after they are harvested.
Then there’s the “wines at large” tasting – a room full of people and a plethora of bottles with an array of varieties. In such a setting, it’s difficult to find a place to start, so I look around to see if there’s someone I know and then ask them if they’ve tasted anything interesting. One needs to be focused in this type of setting as these events can be more of a wine social – I often get carried away with chatting and forget to taste the wines. Which is best? All have their advantages, with each offering a different experience.
My preferred choice by far is to taste semi-blind, which is what I try to do when I’m sampling a wine that I am considering pouring by the glass. As I already know what I’m looking for and the price point that the wine has to fit into, once I have collected bottles that are of interest, I ask someone to help by pouring the wines into labelled tasting glasses. Which is which I do not know.
We recently held a prosecco tasting, the results of which were varied. The tasters included an Italian sommelier, who thought that only one of the bottles was worthy (interestingly, he doesn’t even like champagne); his significant other, who has no formal training but likes prosecco in general; and me. I’ve noticed that prosecco is becoming more popular with consumers and it’s outselling champagne in many markets. On a value basis, it is affordable as it is about the same price as an average glass of wine, whereas champagne, of course, is priced at a premium. Both are wines from specific places that have rules about the production of the drink: champagne is from Champagne, in France, and is made from pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier; prosecco is from the Veneto region of Italy, and is made from glera.
We tasted six bottles of prosecco that day. In first place was one I had enjoyed in the past but not tasted in a while. The Italian sommelier didn’t choose his hitherto preferred bottle as his top choice, but his significant other did.
This shows how much labels influence what we expect to taste: our eyes “see” the flavours we think we should experience in our glass. Following your nose, closing your eyes and thinking about sensations in the sip that you’ve just taken is a much better gauge.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers