Generally speaking, during blind tastings, sommeliers are split into two groups: the ones who feel most confident with their sense of smell, and the ones who mainly rely on their sense of taste.
The question is: are there ways we can improve one or the other element in order to become a better taster?
And the answer is: of course!
- Sniff therapy: Smell the spice, the fruit/veg you’re struggling to recognise in the wine. Try this for a minute for several times each day for a few months. You will finally be able to identify the strong white pepper spice in Gruner Veltliner, for instance.
- Run or walk: It is proved that additional moisture in the nose after a cardio activity helps to improve our sense of smell. So weirdly, exercise really helps! Just 15 minutes of exercise is enough.
- Reduce your alcohol intake: before exam or competitions, drink wine only during blind tasting, and do not heavily consume alcohol for at least a month before the important date.
- Look around you! Smell the coffee or tea you prepare in the morning, sniff the body wash you’re using, the parmigiano shaved on your pasta. Go to the grocery store and pick up whatever you can in order to stimulate the receptors inside your nose. And yes, you can’t be afraid of looking like a fool!
- Make sure you drink plenty of water and add zinc or Vitamin B12 to your diet. This is found naturally in oysters, lentils, pecans, eggs, fish.
- Make a note of the sensation that certain types of flavours are able to generate within you. The nerves that control your sense of smell are directly connected to the emotional part of your brain, overlooking the rational one.
For anyone who has experienced Covid-19 we know that the sense of smell can take longer than expected to recover. So my suggestion would be to take the opportunity (virus permitting) to focus on the other essential fragment of blind tasting: the palate.
The book ‘Beyond Flavour’ by Nick Jackson MW (about £15 on Amazon) literally changed my perspective on blind tasting.
Traditional tasting notes are sometimes not enough to reach a logical conclusion for a wine. However we can always rely on its acidity and tannic structure.
The explanations and advice given in this book are concise, vivid and with practice and training they make total sense.
So for instance, Nick says that “Syrah tannins are tightly coiled, found on the tongue” or “Chenin Blanc acidity is crescendo, bracing, almost uncomfortable”.
Here’s a quick example of how the book encourages you to spot the differences and learn how to carefully examine a wine’s structure.
- List the grapes you are struggling the most to identify. One of my weaknesses is Malbec vs Syrah, for example.
- Write your own notes and insights on these black-listed varieties following the guidance of the book.
- Sit down in front of a couple of glasses filled with your blind tasting enemies and your notes.
- Start a comparative tasting but focusing on the palate rather than on the nose. Write down your sensation. Draw your feeling. Give a mental shape to the wines and their structure. Where do you feel the tannins? What shape are they? Are you feeling the acidity straight from the entry or does it develop further in the mouth? Is that acidity horizontal? Vertical? Or does it act like a rollercoaster?
- Train every couple of days and, if you can, find a group of like-minded sommeliers so you can taste and compare. One day focus on neutral white varieties, one day on aromatic ones, one day light-bodied reds, the next full-bodied examples. Exchanging opinions is crucial to opening your mind and refining your own perspective.
To conclude, the best way to become a better taster and achieve a full understanding of the wines in front of you is to pay more attention to the flavours you encounter every single day. Describe them with your own words, and spend more time examining them.
Then, I honestly think you should read this mind-blowing pocket guide and learn how the structure changes for every single grape variety and forget the old school descriptors.
Wine is three-dimensional; it is about intensity, sensation and layers.
With this two-track approach, I’m sure we can all become better – and more successful – tasters.