Tasting Blind: Notes from a Wine Judge

So how do “Top 10” wines get chosen? How to Double Gold, Gold, Silver wines rise to the top? Many times, a set of judges (sommeliers, writers, winemongers, etc.) taste a lineup of dozens of wines in flights of five or six wines each. Yesterday, I was at Ray’s Boathouse NW Retrospective, a “single blind” tasting – meaning the judges know what grape the wine is made of, but not the producer. (I also love “double blind” tasting, where you know neither the variety or the producer.) This is an amazing opportunity to taste many wines at once – in this case, 62 whites in about two hours!

So I drive down to Ray’s at noon, and head into the Northwest Room, and am greeted by organizers Lori Magaro and Jenny Neill, who tell me the rules and lead me into the room where the wines are ready and waiting. A few other judges are already there, and I get settled at a table where the “Aromatic Whites” – wines such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chenin Blance, Siegerebbe and Auxerrois which usually show very aromatic characteristics – are waiting. The judging sheet has 30 wines listed by number – X1 through X30 (the numbers have been changed to protect the innocent grapes!). I start with X1 through X6. Six glasses, each with about two ounces of wine, are lined up in front of me. With the single blind system, we know the variety, so therefore, we are looking to see if the wine we are tasting shows the classic varietal characteristics of wines traditionally made from that particular grape.

I have a system, as I know each judge in this room does. First, I smell each wine without swirling, and write down the very first word that comes to my mind. In this case: X1, leesy; X2, linalool; X3, candied pineapple; X4, overripe peach; X5, lime zest; X6, wet dog. Yes. Wet dog. I don’t second guess these – I just let the first word come to mind and I write it down. Perhaps this is just a mental word exercise for me, but I’ve found that doing this lets me go back to my first memory of that wine and my ratings usually are in line with my first impressions.

Next, I go back to X1 and go through the whole rating process: 5 points each for Nose, Palate, Finish and “Other,” that je ne sais quoi that makes one wine shine and stand out. Wine X1 is light straw in color – from that I can tell there’s probably no oak involved, and I didn’t smell any anyway in my first sniff. On this second sniff, the yeasty, leesy smell – brought out if a wine is left on the left-over bits of yeast for a while to gain complexity. I think this wine has gone through that process – which should give it a creamier mouthfeel. It also smells like bright citrus – lime zest and lemon.

Some of the wines are slightly cold – this often happens in judgings, but the judges usually just let them sit to warm up a bit so the aromas can be released. Flaws are often hidden by cool temperatures. I just hold the coupe of the glass in my hand to warm it just a tad. More aromas come out – white flowers and fresh herbs like tarragon. When I taste, sure enough, that creamy mouthfeel is there. Not much, just to soften up the zestiness. This wine is listed as an Auxerrois, an Alsatian variety, not grown in the states much at all. On the palate, it also has lively acidity, with a bright, clean finish.

X2 is a very different wine – more lush, with linalool characteristics – a chemical compound that shows spicy and floral aromas – like lychee fruit, for instance – very common in this grape, Gewurztraminer – which is know for its spiciness (gewurz means spiced or perfumed). In this wine, I smell white pepper, sugared lime peel, fresh peaches and biscuit (prehaps lees stirring?). Then I spit – everything! Even so, after 62 wines, you still get a tiny buzz, so focus is very important!

In other wines, I smell and taste: petrol and evergreen boughs (a Riesling characteristic), baked apple, spiced pear, 7Up, brown sugar, dust, lemon curd, stone, yellow flowers. And some not so great aromas: plastic bag, acetone, sulphur, and yes, the classic wet dog. These can be from flaws in winemaking, overripeness, lack of oxygen in the winemaking process, etc. Learning to taste and smell wine is a lifelong education, and I see myself as just learning this process – and as much as I try to get things right, or smell things right, I know there are some things I just don’t have a clue about – so on the education goes!

These were just the Aromatic Whites. I also tasted through 32 Chardonnays – whew!

I just wanted to give you all a bit of insight into the mind of a wine judge – what we experience and how I, at least, think about the process.  So when wines that end up as Top 20 in the Northwest, or whatever – this is just one process that may have got them there.

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2 thoughts on “Tasting Blind: Notes from a Wine Judge”

  1. Nice insights Shannon, with good information about what makes some wines more memorable than others! Keep up the good work!

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