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BLIND TASTING: with the Oxford University Blind Tasting Society

BY WINE & CHEESE EXPERT, DAN BELMONT

I love blind tasting – I’m not terribly good at it – but I think as an exercise its incredibly helpful towards the goal of appreciating a wine. Its more about asking the right questions than guessing correctly. I should note, that when blind tasting, you’re not blindfolded – the wines labels are simply hidden, stripping away all preconceived notions of what’s being poured. You must trust your palate.

On 1 February I travelled out to Magdalen College at Oxford University with a hand-truck full of American wine to lead a training session with the Oxford University Blind Tasting Society. The top scorers of the group ultimately compete in the annual Varsity Match against the team from Cambridge University. The match has been held for 63 years and Oxford, the current reigning champs are on top, 40-23. 

Competitors score points by identifying the following:

- Predominant Grape Variety
- Country of Origin / Main Viticultural Region / Sub-District
- Vintage

- Additional points are rewarded for your observations that lead you to identification

It’s tricky business. There are over 10,000 wine grapes in the world. That, combined with changes in climate, vinification practices and increased interest in natural production methods create outliers than no longer fit within the typical specificity of a style of wine from any given region. Yet, there were talented palates in the room that were able to pick out a wine down to the producer and specific cuvee (looking at you, Domen Presern – current society president).

 

I was privileged to pour wines from some of my favourite producers from the U.S., with Hermann J. Wiemer’s Dry Riesling representing the East Coast; and with generous help from the Napa Valley Vintners and some friendly distributors, the West Coast was well represented.

Mr. Presern aside, it was difficult to get other participants to share their notes – its scary stuff! Nobody wants to mix up a Zinfandel for Pinot Noir (yet many in the room did, thanks to the gorgeous lift in the Heitz Cellars Ink Grade Vineyard Zinfandel).

My message to them was simply to trust your palate, because how your brain processes taste and smell is unique to you. Sure, we know certain things about chemistry and the compounds in certain varietals that offer us some universal truths, and you can learn that with time and well, drinking more wine. However, being able to dig into a wine, deducing clues from what you see, smell and taste – and then being able to communicate that – its 90% of the task. From there, I believe that deciding whether you like it or not is arguably more important than knowing what it is!