Blind tasting exam, MW style: what’s it like?


Blind tasting exam, MW style: what’s it like?

Yesterday. I joined in a tasting session with two MW students who were doing a test practical paper. I’ve never done a tasting like this before, and to be honest, sitting down with 12 wines (all red in this case) and an accompanying set of questions is incredibly daunting, even for someone who tastes all the time. What I lack is any training in the way to approach this sort of structured blind tasting: a logical framework to guide me through, channelling what I know in the pressured situation of an exam. So here are my notes, not written necessarily as exam answers, but just to illustrate what is going through my mind. [I haven’t altered them in any way in light of the answers.] I’m a very open sort of person, so please be easy on me posting my raw notes from this tasting. Unless you’ve sat through it yourself, it’s hard to understand how challenging it can be. I think by posting my comments absolutely unedited, they are more interesting and useful for readers. I merely added in the names of the wines. Thank you to Robin for letting me crash your tasting, and to Nikolai for setting the test.

Q1: Wines 1,2 and 3 are all from the same country of origin. Two of them are made from the same grape variety. Identify the country of origin and the grape varieties used for each one.

So I try the first three wines. They taste European. The middle one is the outlier: paler in colour with sour cherries and plums and good acidity. It tastes quite Pinot Noir-like, but like a Spätburgunder, with some leafy green notes. It just tastes very like a German Pinot, although I can’t say why.

But 1 and 3? Darker in colour. No 1 is quite refined with sweet black cherries and plums. Quite polished and sophisticated, with some silkiness. Ripe but not warm-climate ripe.

No 3 has some bite, with a bit of volatility. It’s bright and fruity with blackberries and black cherries, and some sour cherry character. Very hard to place.

So I’m sort of stumped. I don’t think it’s Italy, although it could be – a Pinot Nero flanked by two Dolcettos, for example. Nor does it seem like France, just because wine 2 isn’t an obvious Pinot Noir (or could it be from Alsace? Hmmm), even though 1 and 3 seem quite French and could be Merlots. And because nothing is riding on this tasting for me, I’m thought of taking a chance and choose Austria, with 2 being a Saint Laurent and 1 and 3 being Blaufrankisch. But then the next question makes me reconsider. What about Germany? Then I can stay with the Pinot Noir and use this for wines 2 and 3, and wine 1 can be something richer, maybe a Dornfelder?

Q2: Wines 2 and 3 are from the same region. Identify the region as closely as possible and comment on the style and quality with particular reference to viticultural techniques.

So now I’m stumped even more and will have to revise my answers to the first question. Before, I thought 2 was Pinot Noir or Saint Laurent, and 3 Merlot or Blaufrankisch. Now, I don’t think that is possible. Now I think that both must be Pinot Noir from somewhere likes Alsace or Germany, but they are completely different.

(2) is all sour cherry and plum and is pale in colour with distinct green notes. (3) is fuller in body and richer, with more fruit, and is a darker colour, and has a bit of volatile acidity. How could this relate to viticultural techniques? Well, if they are German, they could be from the Pfalz or Baden. They don’t taste like the Ahr. Maybe Baden? Soils would make a difference, as would exposure of the site, but the question talks about viticultural techniques. Yield would make different wines, as would trellising technique and interventions such as fruit zone leaf removal. The richer colour of the latter could be because of lower yields, removing the leaves in the fruit zone, and doing a green harvest. Wine 2 with its lighter colour and greener flavours could come from higher cropped vines on less favourable sites.

Answer: the wines were from New Zealand.

1 The Wine Society’s Exhibition Hawke’s Bay Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec 2014
2 The Edge Pinot Noir 2017 Martinborough, New Zealand
3 The Society’s Exhibition Pinot Noir 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand}

Q3: Wines 4, 5 and 6 are all from the same region and made from the same grape variety. Identify the region and grape, and discuss the style and quality of each one, with particular reference to winemaking.

I’ll begin by tasting the wines one by one.

4 – juicy and vivid with fresh acidity and sweet black fruits, with a sour cherry finish. Medium bodied with a really juicy quality. Has high acidity and moderate tannin. Tastes very European, with a few year’s bottle age. Still quite tannic. Has a little bit of warmth so not Bordeaux or Burgundy, but not as warm as the southern Rhone. May be this is Italian with that bitter cherry/damson edge?

5 – sweetly floral on the nose, with good colour. Youthful and aromatic and quite berryish. Juicy, fruit forward palate with good acidity. Tastes quite carbonic and primary, and is very fruit forward with wild strawberries and raspberries. Fresh acidity. This is very European and the brightness is leading me to a carbonic maceration commercial style, possibly Beaujolais. No oak. A commercial wine.

6 – This is sappy and bright with good acidity and a light body. Has freshness, but also a tiny bit of development. Bright, juicy cherry fruit dominates with low-ish tannin and a nice savoury twist. There’s a nice grainy structure, and the fruit isn’t too primary or overpowering. No evident oak.

For me, there are two options. The first is Gamay from Beaujolais, which wine 3 certainly could be, but maybe less so wines 4 and 6. So the other choice would be Dolcetto from Piedmont. What would lead me to the latter is the distinct sour cherry character of wine 4, and the taste of wine 6. These aren’t warm enough to be from the south.

What about winemaking? I think wine 5 is carbonic maceration, made in a way to accentuate the youthful fruitiness. Wine 4 is more structured, so I think conventional maceration and extraction then ageing in neutral oak. Wine 6 has a nice elegance to it, so maybe ageing in large barrels after a short maceration, or could this be aged in concrete? 6 could also be more of a wild-ferment, low intervention wine.

Answer: Beaujolais

4 Thibault Ligier Belair Moulin a Vent Les Rouchaux 2014
5 The Society’s Beajolais Villages 2017
6 Domaine des Chers Saint-Amour 2017

Q4: Wines 7 and 8 are made from the same grape variety. Identify the grape variety. Identify the country and region of origin as closely as possible for each wine, making reference to style and commercial positioning.

So I taste both wines. They are quite dark and fruity. No obvious variety leaps out of the glass to me. This is the stage where you are just waiting for something to identify itself: why can’t one of the wines be really obvious, leaving me with a sense of certainty? So I’m going to have to do this the hard way.

(7) is fruit forward and supple with ripe but restrained black cherry and blackberry fruits, and nice freshness. It’s polished and fruity and clean. Medium tannin, moderate acidity, moderate ripeness. There’s some warmth here. No obvious green notes so I don’t think it is Merlot, and not blackcurranty enough for Cabernet Sauvignon. It could be Syrah (but a relatively warm climate version, there’s no black pepper here), or it could be Tempranillo, which can be a bit generic with no obvious features. I don’t get any obvious oak. It’s warm climate old world or a balanced, slightly cooler new world.

(8) is ripe and sweet with some green olive hints. Rich with some warmth, and hints of tar. Deep in colour with a savoury twist. There’s a subtle hint of mint here that makes me think of Australia, and some tannic structure. Shows a bit of blackcurrant character, too.  Meaty and rich, finishing with a touch of sweetness. Quite a commercial wine, and I reckon it’s Australian.

So I’m going to make a call. I think the variety is Shiraz. The first is either from the Languedoc or from Australia, and it’s a warm climate wine made in a restrained style without too much ripeness or oak. It’s a medium-priced wine. The second is a more commercial Australian Shiraz from a lesser region (or a lesser part of a good region), selling at a lower price.

7 The Society’s Exhibition Hermitage 2014 (made by Chave)
8 The Society’s Exhibition Shiraz 2014 Victoria

Q5: Wines 9, 10, 11 and 12 are all made from the same country of origin, but different regions. Identify the country of origin and the grape varieties used for each wine. Identify the winegrowing region of each wine as closely as possible.

I’ll start here by tasting the wines one by one. As I taste, I hope I’ll get some clues.

(9) has liqueur-like black fruits on the nose. It’s supple and taut on the palate with compact structure and hints of leather and spice. Good tannins. Medium-weight fruit, with some warmth to it. But also nice structure. Is it Carignan? It reminds me a bit of Carignan. Quite a serious wine.

(10) has an ashy, gravelly, chalky edge to it that leads me straight to the Cabernet family, and in particular Cabernet Franc. Or it could be Carmenere. This has a bit of development. It’s ripe and generous, with nice green notes.

(11) is lighter in colour, with nice supple, juicy red berry fruits. Quite warm with some generosity. Sleek, ripe and balanced with red fruits and some green tea notes. Could this be Cinsault? It’s pretty harmonious. Or Pais?

(12) is ripe and very fruity with some blackcurrant fruit. Generous and ripe with a rounded blackcurrant fruit character and some pastille notes. I think this could well be Cabernet Sauvignon from a warmer climate.

So, my answer for the country of origin is Chile. I think the first wine is a Maule Carignan, with its fresh acidity and compact black fruit character. I think the second is a Carmenere, and so I reckon this is from Maipo. The third would then be a Pais from Itata or somewhere else down south, and the last a Cabernet Sauvignon, which I’d place in Colchagua.

I’ve either nailed these last four wines, or I’ve got them completely wrong. I guess in the exam you want to get them right, but even if you don’t, if you explain your working, and your working is essentially sound, you could score points even if you come to the wrong conclusion.

Answer: Chile
9 Caliterra Tributo Malbec 2015 Colchagua, Chile
10 De Martino Alto de Piedras Carmenere 2011 Maipo, Chile
11 De Martino Cinsault Old Vines 2016 Itata, Chile
12 The Society’s Exhibition Merlot 2016 Peumo, Chile


7 Comments on Blind tasting exam, MW style: what’s it like?
wine journalist and flavour obsessive

7 thoughts on “Blind tasting exam, MW style: what’s it like?

  1. Bravo for publishing this. Blind tasting is a sobering experience. How many times over the years have I seen expert tasters bamboozled when tasting blind. Wine makers also, even when confronted with their own wines (myself included). Interesting the Italian and Dolcetto ‘go to’ reflex. I recognize that. Sometimes knowing too much or having tasted too much just complicates things. That first impression is nearly always the most reliable; pondering things over generally messes things up.

  2. Yes – I love blind tasting but they are very hard to get right. I’d agree first impressions nearly always the best and over-thinking it leads to confusion. Afterwards I always end up kicking-myself….”I nearly said that” etc.

  3. A fascinating read and all the more valuable for being shared in ‘raw’ form. I’ve only got Diploma Unit 3 ahead of me but your thought process is really helpful.
    How long did they give you for this?

  4. Well done Jaime!
    I think you did pretty darn well.
    The only one you really crapped out on the answer was the first, but NZ Pinot Noir can be a bit ridiculous sometimes in terms of body/alcohol. I think you probably threw yourself when you declared, “They taste European.” I sort of know what you mean, but with 30+ years of winemakers travelling in both directions, there are so many exceptions to the rule that, if I were an MW student, I’d avoid that generalisation.
    Great to have printed your unedited thoughts.
    Cheers Rob

  5. Well done for even attempting it and you did v well, considering the wines and the questions. An actual MW exam wouldn’t have had quite such tricky wines (4 from 4 regions in Chile – never been in an MW exam) and the questions would have been better worded. Now only 12 whites, 12 mixed wines, 14 written papers and a 6,000-10,000 word Research Paper and you can break out your suit for the inauguration!

  6. Tasting blind is always a humbling experience and as far as it goes, that was pretty well done indeed!

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