Can Master Sommeliers really identify virtually any wine in the world based on taste and smell alone?

What are some interesting facts about master sommeliers?

Can they really identify virtually any wine in the world based on taste and smell alone?

What fun questions!  I like the second question even better because I get asked all the time, “Can you and other Master Sommeliers really identify any wine in the world in a blind tasting?”  Although I'm not a master sommelier (yet), I've met quite a few of them through my journey to become an advanced sommelier.  To answer the first question, here are a few interesting facts about Master Sommeliers I’ve learned:

 

  1. They are human just like the rest of us and do not possess super powers.
  2. Their uniform tie/scarf is nicknamed the "Harry Potter" tie.
  3. They drink a lot of Fernet Branca.
  4. When they are not drinking Fernet, they drink Burgundy, Riesling and lots and lots of Champagne.

Master Sommelier Fred Dame with his "Harry Potter" tie[/caption]

Let’s get a little more serious and answer the second question "Can they really identify virtually any wine in the world based on taste and smell alone?" The short answer is no, however the process is more involved than just taste and smell.  In order to identify a wine blind, sommeliers are trained to use more than just their smell and taste.  We use a deductive blind tasting method, in which we systematically go down a checklist known in the sommelier community as the "Grid".  It is broken down into 5 sections: Sight, Nose, Palate, Initial Conclusion and Final Conclusion.  Each section, leading up to the initial and final conclusions, covers different details that helps reveal valuable clues about the wine.  These clues help to form the initial and final conclusion.  The “grid” is as follows:

SIGHT

Sight covers the following: Clarity, brightness, color, concentration of the wine, rim variation or hue at the edge of the wine as it is viewed from the glass.  Also, using sight, the sommelier must determine if there are bubbles (CO2), sediment or flocculation.  Then the glass is swirled to judge the viscosity of the wine (or its “legs”).

In a formal Advanced or Master blind tasting examination 3 white wines and 3 red wines are poured blind.  Only 25 minutes are allotted  to decipher the 6 different wines and no notes are allowed.  That is only 4 minutes, 10 seconds for each wine, and that’s it! So the sight evaluation has to be covered pretty fast, generally in 15 to 20 seconds.  A lot of the time, sight is overlooked compared to the nose and palate, but it can give very valuable clues and first impressions to the wine.  For example, when a young red wine has an orange hue, it is a clue that it could be a Sangiovese, Nebbiolo or Tempranillo varietal, before you even begin to smell the wine!  Cool huh?

 

NOSE

Always check for flaws first in a wine, such as: Corkiness, sulfur, volatile acid, brettanomyces, or oxidization.  Although, brettanomyces is often up for debate since some sommeliers - myself included - don’t mind a little barnyard, leather and dirt in our glass.  Make note of the intensity of aromas and do a rough age assessment of the wine.  After that, a big chunk of time is spent identifying different fruits, non-fruit (organic matter such as: mushroom, peppers tea leaf, etc.), earth (inorganic matter such as: chalk, slate, flint, cat pee, etc. You heard right, I said cat pee!) and lastly wood.

This is the section to invest the most time, since our nose can pick up over 10,000 unique smells and is the most powerful tool when it comes to blind tasting. Naturally we associate the word “tasting” with using your tongue “palate” when truthfully most of the “tasting” is done with your nose.  Some experts believe that tasting is a combined experience of the nose and palate, which I completely agree.  However, when learning to blind taste, the nose and palate are kept separate as they reveal different clues from the wine.  Read more about taste and smell here.

 

PALATE

Finally getting to the “tasting” portion... All the aromas identified in the nose section are  confirmed again here, with the following structural assessments added: Sweetness, body (think about the weight and texture difference between whole milk and nonfat milk), tannin (think about how eating raw walnuts drys out your gums), alcohol and acidity. At last the wine is swallowed (just a small amount) to determine the finishing length, complexity and if the wine is balanced.

The structural assessment is a very important tool for Sommeliers to determine the correct wine from wines that are otherwise difficult to tell apart, i.e. A German Riesling can be very similar to an Alsatian Riesling on the nose, but Rieslings from Germany are often higher in acidity and lower in alcohol and body compared to its Alsatian counterpart. One would not have been able to tell the difference unless they correctly assessed the structural characteristics.

INITIAL CONCLUSION

Based on the information gathered in the previous sections, and using the deductive method, the wine is narrowed down to just a few possibilities. Think about blind tasting as a super exaggerated funnel, with wide opening on top representing ALL the wines in the world, and through knowing what the wine is NOT (or process of elimination), eventually coming to what the wine could be (reducing to a couple potential options).

At this point a sommelier will place a wine in either new world or old world style, determine the climate of the growing region, 2-3 possible grape varietals, and a possible age range for the wine.

FINAL CONCLUSION

Sometimes the answer is as obvious as the days are bright (at least here in sunny California), other times it could feel like a coin flip or worse - having no idea at all. Either way, it’s time to go for broke. Take one last sip of the wine, and a moment to reflect back on every piece of information you’ve gathered thus far and say the final answer with confidence: The grape, country, region, sub region, appellation, quality level and exact vintage.

A Master Sommelier will get it right most of the time - 75% or more to be exact, that is the score needed to pass tasting at a Master Sommelier’s level, 65% for Advanced Sommeliers -  based on their knowledge, experience, olfactory system and lots and LOTS of practice. Even then, no one is able to identify every wine in the world. There are too many wines not made in the "classic" style and they are impossible to identify. Napa Cabernet can be made to show nothing but Bordeaux characteristics or vise versa. Tasting is also very subjective and personal, with each sommelier having their so call "ringers" and "Achilles's heel". I personally can pick up the smell of Lychee (since I grew up eating tons of these in Taiwan) from a mile away and never have problem identifying Gewurztraminer, Viognier, and Torrontes. On the other hand the smell of watercress or daikon just never seem to stick, which prevents me from correctly identifying  a Gruner Veltliner to save my life!

To officially answer your second question: sadly no one, not even a Master Sommelier can identify ALL the wines in the world, but they can often get pretty darn close. I hope this helps! If you’ve read this far and are still intrigued by what exactly each element means in a blind tasting and what it tells you about a wine, I recommend you read How To Taste Wine written by Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser.  Who happens to be one of the best teachers for blind tasting out there and also a great mentor.

That’s all for now, drink well, drink often, and talk about your wine like a pro now that you know how the “grid” works!

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