Say the secret word and win $100. OK…umm, merlot? Well, maybe, maybe not. Blind tasting of wine can be much more challenging than answering questions from a 1950’s quiz show, and perhaps more fun. However for many people who enjoy wine, blind tasting is often a very humbling, albeit educational experience. There are professionals who regularly blind taste wines as part of what they do for a living. Other people do it for the fun of it. Quite frankly, there are so many wines being made today in so many different styles in so many different regions, the odds are against successful identification in many cases.

It’s not always enough to know what the basic flavor profile of a particular grape is. Our friend merlot for example (yes, that’s right – our friend, there’s no need to be wine snob), is often characterized as having black cherry, plum, currant, and clove flavors (there are chemical compounds that make this so). But even if you could remember that information and the basic flavor profiles of 50 of your other favorite Vitis vinifera grapes, there are several other factors that need to be considered. The soil where the grapes were grown, the amount of moisture, the ripeness level of the grapes when picked, just to name a few, all contribute to a wine’s attributes such as the level of acidity and herb like-flavors.

As if that weren’t enough, other factors introduced in the wine making process itself play a big part in how a wine will taste. Every winemaker has a goal of what they want to express in their wines. The origin and type of oak used and the duration of time a wine spends in oak casks can impart different flavors like vanilla and smoke. The duration of time a wine spends in a bottle will also affect the flavors by potentially developing earthy or mushroom qualities, for example. Let’s not forget that many wines are created by blending one or more grape varietals, each with their own basic flavor profile and set of flavor variables. This all makes for interesting wines, but it certainly adds to the difficulty of the blind tasting process.

Fear not. You do not need to successfully blind taste to enjoy wine. Furthermore, despite the somewhat grim picture of blind tasting success described here, many people are surprised at how much they really can identify about what they are tasting in a wine. With some basic knowledge about even just a couple of grape varietals and some experience with tasting a few different types of wine, you’ll begin to build a frame of reference for wines that you know and be able to spot similar characteristics in other wines. Most importantly, don’t over think it and don’t worry about getting it wrong. Fortunately, with blind tasting of wine, practice makes…well not quite perfect. Just remember, it’s the journey of exploration that counts.