When nine of France’s wine elite sat down for a blind tasting that pitted the best of French Châteaux with unknown North American blends in May of 1976, only one journalist bothered to even show up.
Time magazine’s Paris correspondent George Taber arrived, admittedly, as a favour to the organisers.
But little did he know he was about to get the story of his career.
Jaws dropped as the top scores went not to France’s grand cru varietals but to a Californinan white and red – a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s leap Wine Cellars.
The results shocked everyone present.
Odette Kahn, the editor of the influential Revue du vin de France (French Wine Review), demanded her scorecard back before it leaked to the press – unsuccessfully.
Leaders of the French wine industry later became so enraged they banned the organiser – the Englishman Steven Spurrier (who has included an UMAMU Estate Chardonnay in one of his tasting masterclasses!) – from the nation’s top wine-tasting tour for a year.
The French press largely ignored the story, called the results ‘laughable’, and inadvertently helped create the legend that later featured Alan Rickman and Chris Pine in the 2008 drama Bottle Shock.
But according to George Taber, the most important aspect was that the Judgement of Paris ‘broke the myth that only in France could you make great wine’.
How does one do a blind wine tasting?
The results of the 1976 Judgement of Paris should provide relief to the wine tasting novice.
If not even France’s top sommeliers could distinguish wines from across the Atlantic with those in their own backyard, then really it’s all downhill from here for the rest of us.
Blind wine tastings level the playing field, forcing you to rely on your own senses and indeed preference. Compared with professional judging where in scoring wines, one needs to put aside personal preference for how well the wine is made.
A blind wine tasting will throw aside everything you think you know about wine – while paving the way for a radically new relationship to it.
So how exactly does a blind wine tasting work?
Well key is to taste a wine without knowing what it is (ie blind) and try to figure it out.
Here are five key steps to undertaking a successful blind wine tasting:
- Decide whether you will be tasting red wines, rosé wines or white wines (or all three) and provide at least two different bottles of each category if possible otherwise just taste one wine. The ASI Best Sommelier of the World in 2016 (Arvid Rosengen) suggests you focus on well-known or famous varieties (think Margaret River Chardonnay or a Barossa Shiraz in Australia) rather than choosing any wines willy-nilly. A blind wine tasting can greatly improve your palate, so choose wines you crave to get to know better.
- Make sure all wine bottles are wrapped in aluminium foil (or similar) to hide their identity, ie ideally before those present have seen the labels, and number the bottles to facilitate note taking and surprise yourself during the reveal at the end.
- Pour wine into a glass (note you can use black-coloured glass (or similar) if possible to avoid preconceptions based on colour).
- Make sure there are enough glasses to go round (a standard bottle will provide a 50ml taste for 15 people) and write down results on a scorecard or blind wine tasting sheet (or similar) after each tasting.
- Use a spittoon as much as you can, as you may get drunk depending on how many wines there are. You and your blind wine tasting party can enjoy the remaining wine after scorecards are on the table and participating wines revealed.
When my friends and I do blind tastings, we all bring a bottle each and we wrap the wine in foil and pour into our glasses and we talk about the wine and try to narrow it down and nail it!
The bottle gives us clues as does the wine in the glass.
The person who brought the wine, and knows about it, can enjoy talking through the tasting with that wine. You can blind a bottle and test it on your partner or friend and talk about the wine!
Use the UMAMU blind wine tasting sheet (free download) to help you along
There is no one way to perform a blind wine tasting.
The most important point of a blind wine tasting is to have fun with friends and family – though improving your wine palate is a seductive bonus.
Arvid Rosengren points out that many wine tasting novices feel insecure about their abilities to accurately conduct a blind wine tasting.
While a sommelier might deftly be able to pick out hints of citrus fruits, snowpea or blackcurrant, remember that world-class sommeliers like Rosengren practise blind wine tastings on a daily basis – many of them will also have purposefully sniffed blackcurrants or snowpeas multiple times to cement the scent profile in their memories.
You and I meanwhile are here to learn and have fun.
To help you along, we have created an UMAMU Estate blind wine tasting sheet that you can download – just click here to see the printable .pdf document.
The blind wine tasting sheet encourages you to consider flavours, textures and sensations as well as how a wine makes you feel.
A blind wine tasting is always full of surprises.
From discovering a new variety you never thought you’d enjoy, to learning how to distinguish a Margaret River Syrah from a south Australian Shiraz, you cannot lose from a blind wine tasting.
(Unless you were one of those 9 French wine experts who mistook a Californian Cabernet Sauvignon for a Bordeaux blend in 1976 that is!)
If you're looking for blind wine tasting inspiration, we have curated a series of vertical tastings from award-winning vintages at our Margaret River vineyard. Click here for our UMAMU Estate Cabernet Sauvignon vertical tasting, click here for our UMAMU Estate Chardonnay vertical tasting, click here for our UMAMU Estate SBS/SSB vertical tasting.