wine grapes
Wine grapes. Photo courtesy of Michelle Carl.

“Blind tasting is not easy,” says Stephanie Frederick, our Sommelier Society of America instructor for today’s deductive wine tasting class. “Today there are New World producers making Old World styles and vice versa. It can be hard to figure out what’s happening.”

While Ms. Frederick makes it clear the sommelier exam will not be easy, she does tell us we won’t be thrown any ringers on the level one test (phew!), and that we really just need to get to know the grapes and their characteristics. Which grapes are high in acid? What ones have tobacco notes? Which ones are bold?

To help us do this as well as better understand the difference between Old and New World wines — on the sommelier exam we’ll need to not only name the wines, but exactly where they come from — we do a compare and contrast blind tasting. The wines are served in pairs, and we need to write up a formal note comparing and contrasting the samples and saying where they’re from. For each pair, it will be the same grape, but one will be Old World and one will be New World.

Yamhill Valley in Oregon Wine Country
Yamhill Valley in Oregon Wine Country. Photo courtesy of eyeliam.

Deductive Tasting Tips

Before we taste, however, we’re provided with some helpful tips. First of all, we’re handed a print out to show us the format of a deductive tasting. Everything about the wine, from its color to the intensity of vanilla notes (oak aging) to the fruit flavors tells you something about the wine. As you look at, smell and savor the wine, you have to analyze every aspect of it. What is the clarity? Is it earthy? Is there minerality? How sweet is it? Is it Old World or New World? These are just a few of the many questions you need to ponder during a blind tasting.

For anyone who has been reading Epicure & Culture’s Sommelier Certification Series, you’ve head about Ms. Frederick’s Three Prong Method:

  • Look at the wine -> write something down
  • Smell the wine -> write something down
  • Taste the wine -> write something down
  • Deduce

According to Ms. Frederick, we won’t even have time to check for spelling, so having a tasting method is essential so we’re not scrambling during the sommelier exam. That’s why this blind tasting class is so important, so we can practice.

wine cellar
Bordeaux wine cellar. Photo courtesy of Grand Parc.

Ms. Frederick also provides some tips on how to prepare before the exam. First of all, the night and morning before the exam it’s vital not to eat anything that will linger on your palate — like garlic or spices — as this can affect what you taste. No fragrances should be warn, as this can interfere with what you smell. Make sure to have a pen that’s easy to write with, as you’ll want to save as much time as possible. Another way to do this is to watch the instructor pouring the wines, and take some notes about the colors beforehand. And lastly, when studying make lists on flash cards that categorize the major grapes into groups like high acidity, high alcohol and full body, and always have these cards with you to look over when you have a few minutes.

We also discuss some characteristics that can give you clues into certain grapes and wine styles. For example, more color in a wine as well as secondary flavors typically means it’s older and more complex. Moreover, Old World wines tend to be lighter, more delicate, higher in acidity and lower in alcohol, while New World Wines will be bolder, more luscious and bursting with fruit flavors.

On the test it’s essential to make answers as specific as possible. For example, never just say a wine is from France. You need to specify where in France. If you say a wine is acidic, make sure to note if it’s low, medium or high acidity. Avoid the word “sweet” unless you’re talking about a dessert wine. Additionally, when you make a statement about a wine, also talk about what this tells you. For instance, if you a say a wine has high minerality make sure to note what this means about the wine (hint: it’s Old World). Or, what it indicates if you get intense fruit on the attack that goes bone dry on the finish (hint: high alcohol).

wine class
Deductive tasting during my sommelier certification course. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

The Tasting

Pairing One

During the sommelier certification class we go through four different tasting pairs. The first pairing is a light pale white wine, with flavors of apple, pear and grapefruit, with herbal notes on the back palate and a light body. Both have a high acidity, although Wine One is noticeably higher. I also notice that Wine Two is almost tangy with primary fruits, while Wine One is more subtle with an intense minerality — a dead giveaway that it’s the Old World selection of the two. While at first I think it might be a riesling due to the high acidity and apple and pear notes, the herbal notes lead me to say sauvignon blanc, which is the answer. Wine One is a Sancerre from France’s Loire Valley (Old World) and Wine Two is a sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand (New World).

Note: Notice how it’s important to not just say “France” or “New Zealand,” but to specify exactly where in these countries. If you don’t, you’ll lose points on the blind tasting.

Pairing Two

The next tasting pairing is also whites, both pale straw in color with peach flavors and a high acidity. I note the first wine is higher in minerality and acidity, leading me to believe this is the Old World choice. Wine Two also has more intense notes of peach and candied fruit, while Wine One offers more of a lemony, pineapple flavor. For a moment I think I taste some spice, which leads me to consider gewurztraminer, a grape synonymous with the Alsace Wine Region; however, there is one striking characteristic that tells me it is undoubtedly riesling: notes of petrol. This is a quintessential characteristic of this wine grape. In the end, the answer to the pairing is a kabinett riesling from Mosel (Old World) and a riesling from Walla Walla, Washington (New World).

Again, note how specific the answers are — especially the German riesling, which also lists the quality level. For more on this, click here.

red wine
Red wine. Photo courtesy of Sophie.

Pairing Three

For our next blind tasting pairing we get into reds. The two reds are both translucent, with subtle flavors of red fruits like cranberry, strawberry and raspberry as well as spices like vanilla and clove. Each also has smooth tannins, medium body and medium acidity, although Wine One is a bit lighter and earthier. I deduct this is the Old World wine of the two due to its finesse, as Wine Two seems more focused on ripe fruit. While at first the fruit profile leads me to think it may be a grenache, I ultimately switch my answer due to the lack of candied fruit roll up notes and light color. Moreover, I consider tempranillo — the famous wine grape of Spain — but change my answer as I don’t get any tobacco notes on the finish and, again, the color is too dark. It’s ultimately the light body and higher acidity of the wine that leads me to correctly guess pinot noir. Wine One is a Burgundy pinot noir from the Cote de Nuits (Old World) while Wine Two is a pinot noir from the Russian River Valley of California (New World).

Pairing Four

Pairing Four ends up being the toughest for me, as despite having most of my notes correct I end up getting the answer wrong. I note both wines have a purple-black color with smooth tannins and lots of plum and spice. While I think I taste tobacco, I believe what I may have been picking up on was some black pepper. Because I detect the wine as being very smooth it gets stuck in my head that it is merlot, instead of really analyzing the wine and what it does to my palate — although the New World wine does have fruity flavors that match merlot’s profile. Yes, the wines are smooth; however, they are also bolder, darker in color and more full bodied than a merlot. In the end, Wine One is a syrah from the Northern Rhone and Wine Two is a shiraz from McLaren Vale, Australia.

This just tells me I need to study more — as in drink more wine — to better acquaint myself with these wine grapes and how they differ from region to region.

This article is part of an Epicure & Culture original series, Sommelier Certification.

Do you have any deductive tasting tips for a sommelier exam? Please share in the comments below.

Also Check Out:

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Sommelier Certification: Exploring Spanish Wine From Sparkling Cavas To Elegant Rioja Reds

Sommelier Certification: The Not Always Sweet Story Of German Wines

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Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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