Only 256 people in the world can call themselves Master Sommeliers: experts at tasting, describing and selling wine. They’re so rare because each sip of wine is a perceptual puzzle: Over 25 different taste and smell variables (sweetness, acidity, texture, finish, etc.) define each wine.
But you don’t have to be a super-taster or super-smeller to become a wine expert (although if you are, it wouldn’t hurt). With just a little bit of science in your toolkit, you can train both your senses and thoughts to be a little more discerning — and start to approach that expert level.
The Triangle Test
The best way to start on your journey toward wine wisdom is to try what’s called the “triangle test.” It’s used frequently in wine research.
Have a friend secretly fill two glasses with the same wine and a third with a different, but similar, wine. Compare the tastes until you feel confident guessing the odd one out.
Dissimilar wines make this test very easy, so try two wines that are mostly alike but vary in ways you can actually taste. But research doesn’t recommend trying to taste for the difference between vintage and non-vintage wines — even experts can only guess these right slightly more often than they would by random chance.
The Acid Test
Next, you can start training your tongue to discern levels of specific flavors. One of the wine dimensions you can taste, and get better at tasting with time, is acidity, according to Janice Wang, a research psychologist studying wine perception.
Fill glasses with water and add different amounts of lemon juice. Taste them, noticing the subtle differences in acidities.
The Alcohol Test
Wang, along with her chemist husband Domen Prešern, used a similar setup to help train members of Oxford University’s Blind Tasting Society to discriminate the level of alcohol in wine.
They filled glasses with different mixtures of vodka and water. “But it was terrible,” said Prešern, who, if he had to (reluctantly) repeat the experience, would have filtered the mixtures to reduce the potent, and telling, smell.
To help you figure out how to label the smells of wine, Wang recommends visiting a farmer’s market and just taking time to smell the roses, fruits and spices. This will expose you to the full spectrum of smells, she says.
Know Your Wines
But sensing flavors in wine is only half of the sommelier’s toolkit. Wine experts also have a deep knowledge of what certain wines usually taste like and why they taste that way. Wang and Prešern strongly encourage new wine tasters to become intimately familiar with a large amount of wine information before starting blind tasting practice.
Luckily, there’s help for this, too. Tons of expert sources have already compiled lists of the typical characteristics of wine varieties, which are freely available online.
To study, start with 10 classic wine varieties. Copy these descriptions onto individual index cards. On the other side, put the type of wine and where it is from. Assess your knowledge by guessing the type of wine from the description and vice versa. Instead of shuffling the cards randomly, try using these guidelines:
If you have no idea what the answer is, place the card in the next three cards
If you have a close guess, place the card in the next 4-7 cards
If you guess perfectly, place the card at the back of the deck
If you guess a card perfectly three times, take it out of the deck and replace it with two new cards
Flights of Fancy
Armed with better senses and knowledge of how to label your senses, you’ll be ready for the best learning tool: tasting wine with others. For the closest approximation of a Master Sommelier blind tasting exam, you’ll need a flight of six whites and six reds, a few other people and thirty minutes to silently sniff, slurp, spit and scribble.
Ideally, according to Wang and Prešern, someone should be responsible for selecting the flight of wines to taste so that no tasters have prior knowledge of what the wines could be. Knowing just one of the possible wines could result in you comparing every glass to that one kind of wine instead of tasting in as unbiased a way as possible.
As you work your way through the flight, try to write as much as you can about what you smell and taste. If there are any wines that tasted the same, sample these back-to-back to tease out the finer differences.
Once everyone is done sampling, what’s in each glass can be revealed. Discuss your descriptions with the rest of the group, and don’t be afraid to be wrong. The reasoning process is more important than getting the right answer. Wang said that even as president of the Oxford Blind Tasting Society, she would incorrectly guess the wine varietal or origin 80 percent of the time during practice, but her incorrect guesses weren’t far off.
It helps to have a range of expertise in the room to hear different takes on what you tasted. You might also learn which flavors you consistently attend to more than others.
But if you can’t find an expert, Wang recommends crowd-sourced wine reviews on sites like Purple Pages or Vivino. These descriptions are much more trustworthy than those on the back of the bottle, which are just meant to sell wine, says Prešern.
Now that you’re a wine expert, how should you go about figuring out which wines to buy?
If you — or the person you’re buying it for — can’t tell the difference, you can save money by avoiding the most highly rated wines, says Charles Spence, Wang’s PhD advisor and collaborator. And, he adds, if the wine comes in a box, has a fancy label or is in a heavier bottle, that alone will bias the drinker into having a more favorable opinion of the wine.
Prešern’s advice is to “be adventurous” and try wines you wouldn’t normally seek out to expand your palate.
Cheers and happy tasting.