Blind Wine Tasting Themes

blind wine tastingA blind wine tasting is a great way to bring some excitement and fun to your next wine tasting party. It is a wine tasting theme which can be educational, enlightening, surprising, humbling and even hilarious. So what is a blind tasting? A blind tasting is a wine tasting arranged so that the people assessing the wines do not know what the wines are until after they taste them! If you are the host, you can either have planned the wines and know them, or you can ask guests to bring wines blinded so that you are in on the fun as well. You would be surprised by how much many of our experience and judgement of wines is influenced by the knowledge of the producer, region, price or even the appearance of the label. A blind wine tasting takes that all away so that you can objectively (as much as possible with wine) assess the quality of a wine without these biases coming into play. There are also many games or challenges that a blind wine tasting can offer which makes this wine tasting theme even more fun. Read on for more details and some ideas on how to make the most of your blind wine tasting.

  • What are the advantages of a blind wine tasting?
    As I mentioned before, the main advantage of a blind wine tasting is the ability to have you and your guests assess the wines in question without any outside bias. Without knowing the producer, price or even the appearance of the bottle you have to taste and form an opinion on what is in the glass without any other complications. This is a great way to put all the wines being tasted on the same playing field without anyone being able to make excuses for a wine or to be unfairly biased against a wine. We all like to think that we are unprejudiced, but it is amazing how differently a taster can describe the same wine whether they know what it is or not. For example, we have seen many examples of the same wine being described as lean, thin, and lacking in flavor and complexity when tasted blind while being described as austere, powerful, elegant and sexy when the taster knows that it is a highly regarded $200 bottle of Premier Cru Bordeaux. Tasting blind is the ultimate way to level the playing field. Who knows, you and your guests may even judge the cheapest wine the highest. It is fun to find surprises such as this.
  • What are the disadvantages of a blind wine tasting?
    Some experienced wine enthusiasts prefer not to taste blind, arguing that knowledge of the wine's origins and pedigree are critical to the accurate evaluation of a wine. I personally can find it frustrating to taste a wine and not be informed as to its identity until the very end of the tasting. After all, it is nice to be able to study a wine while knowing what it is, especially when you are first learning about wines, to build up your mental library of wine styles, aromas and flavors and to connect these to the label.

    However, I think there is a happy medium. While some hosts do not reveal the wines until the end of the blind wine tasting, we like to be a bit more open. In a blind wine tasting we often start with the wines blinded so that all the tasters can get an initial feel for the wines. We then open up the table to a preliminary discussion where guests can share their opinions of the wine or even take guesses at their identity. Then, the wines are revealed while we all still have wine in our glasses so that, once we know what the wines really are, we can all go back and taste some more to further assess the wines with the knowledge of their identity. This is really the best of both worlds in my opinion. You get the unbiased views of a blind tasting followed by the intellectual study of the wine once you know what it is.

  • How do you set up and conduct a blind wine tasting party?
    A basic blind wine tasting is easy to set up. Simply cover the wine labels of the wine bottles in a way that makes it impossible to know their identity. Most people use brown paper bags, the type that wine is wrapped up in at a supermarket or wine shop. The bag can be pinched or twisted at the neck to expose the top of the bottle or taped in place if need be. An alternative is to wrap the bottle in aluminum foil. However, any way you disguise the bottles is fine. The bottles are then numbered (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) so that people know which wine is which when the bottles are uncovered.

    • When covering the bottles, keep a few things in mind: First, it is a good idea to remove the capsule around the top of the wine bottle completely as its color and any writing on it may give away the identity of the wine. Second, the corks in the neck of wines often have writing on them which can give away their identity as well. For example it can say the name of the producer, the vineyard or the vintage on the cork. Therefore, it is safest to open the bottles prior to bringing them to table and hide the corks where the guests cannot see them. Finally, the best way to blind a wine is to decant it into a suitable wine decanter. This removes the possibility that guests can recognize the bottle from its appearance.
    • Types of wines to include in a blind tasting: There are many different ways to choose wines for a blind wine tasting. Very frequently, the wines all share some similarity. For example, it is common to make sure all the wines come from the same region, grape varietal, vintage or even producer. So as an example, you could do a tasting of 1999 Red Burgundies. Or all wines made with predominantly the Syrah grape. There are infinite possibilities. Sometimes it is fun to do a blind wine tasting without any restrictions so that all the wines have nothing in common with each other, intentionally at least. One fun way to do this is to have your guests each bring a wine already blinded in a paper bag or foil. You will be surprised how difficult it can be to identify even simple things about the wines if you have no knowledge of the wine.
    • To keep the guest blinded or not: This is up to you. Many times it is easier if the host is the one person who knows what the wines are. But this takes the fun out of the blind wine tasting for the host! One way to get around this so that it is blind for everyone is to have someone else who will not be tasting bag and number the bottles, a friend, a spouse, etc. Another is to remove the foil capsules and corks for all the bottles first and then apply the paper bags without looking at your hands. Then carefully number the bottles randomly. While this is not completely blind, if done carefully it can prevent the host from truly knowing each wine. Finally, if your guests are each bringing wines already blinded, then the host will be blind as well. Each guest will be unblinded to only one wine, the one they brought themselves (they will probably recognize their bag and bottle shape).
    • Hide bottle shapes: This may not be obvious to a beginning wine taster but as you gain experience you will notice that certain types of wines and wines from certain wine producing regions have different types of wine bottles. Take a look through the wine shop the next time you are there. For example, Cabernet and Merlot based wines (Bordeaux grape varietals) tend to be bottled in tall, narrow bottles with parallel sides up to their dramatic shoulder. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir based wines (Burgundian grape varietals) have shorter, more stout bottles with a gradual shoulder up to the neck. There are other types as well. Why does this matter? In a blind tasting, not all the wines presented may have the same bottle shape. This may give something away to an experienced taster. For example, if the theme is Californian red wines, a tall, narrow Bordeaux-style bottle may give away that it is likely a Cabernet or Merlot based wine while a short, fat bottle will give away a Syrah or Pinot Noir. While these rules are not hard and fast they can definitely come into play and give something away. One option to solve this problem is to decant the wines into suitable wine decanters. If you don't have enough decanters, another solution is to decant wines from odd shaped bottles into empty, clean and dry bottles so that all the bottles on the table have the same shape.
  • When is the best time to reveal the wines:
    As discussed above, some tasters prefer to only reveal the wines at the very end of the blind wine tasting. However, I believe that much can be learned about the wines by assessing them in the context of knowing their origins and identity. Therefore, we prefer to have the best of both worlds. Start the blind wine tasting with the wines hidden. Then give some time for guests to assess the wines, make some notes and form opinions. Give a chance for each guest to discuss their thoughts or even take a guess as to what they are drinking. Then, while everyone still has wine in their glasses, reveal the wines one by one (with dramatic flair of course!). This way, you can go back and taste the wine again after knowing what it is, cementing that taste and the name of the wine together in your tasting memory banks.
  • Some fun ideas to make a blind wine tasting even more interesting:
    • Throw in a ringer: A "ringer" is a wine thrown into a blind tasting which does not fit the general theme, inserted to try to trick your guests. For example, if the wine tasting theme is red Bordeaux, you could throw in one blind Californian Cabernet Sauvignon (a Bordeaux varietal). While you don't have to do this each time, it can be fun to see if anyone recognizes the wine as different from the others.
    • Have guests cast a vote before seeing what the wines are: Prepare note cards at each guests seat for them to write a score (on a 100 point scale or other scoring card) or a few comments for each wine. Then reveal the wines and have each person read their score or comments for each wine. This can be a funny and embarrassing event. But it can be enlightening as well.
    • Have guests guess the identity of the wines: Blindly guessing the identity of a wine can be very difficult. Even with an experienced taster, correctly identifying just one aspect of the wine (vintage, producer, region, etc.) can be quite satisfying. This can be a bit easier if the wine tasting theme is rather narrow, red Bordeaux from the 1990's, for example. Ask your guests to each take a guess on each wine. Not just to score the wine or make general comments, but to actually guess what it is they are drinking. Any level of detail is fine. Have them guess the region, grape varietal, producer, vintage, etc. Early in your tasting experience you may be lucky to even identify the wine as red or white! But as you grow more experienced, you may find that you are starting to form tasting memories and can use your knowledge and sensory experiences to find similarities between new wines and previously tasted ones. This can be a humbling experience, but an eye opening one as well. Don't get down on yourself if you can't identify anything about any wines at first, it is very hard! That is part of the fun of a blind tasting!
    • Award prizes: To make the fun even more exciting, consider offering a prize for the guest who guesses the most things correctly. How you arrange this is up to you, but get creative. An obvious choice for the prize would be a bottle of wine, but you can get creative with this as well.

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