The Gifts of Sense
The training sommeliers undertake before an exam is much like that of an elite athlete and detective. Our reps are not done with weights or wind sprints; but, rather rigidly timed blind wine flights utilizing “The Grid”. The grid is the written steps to help the sommelier analyze wines in an organized and concise manner. It must be memorized and internalized so deeply that you don’t even think about it, as time cannot be wasted when you are in an exam situation. Each section of the grid helps a taster build the logical argument of what possible wines could logically be in the glass and conversely – what wines they are probably not. Let’s take a journey through the grid. . .
Sight – Sight reveals a lot of clues, of course, red or white. Alas, more clues will be needed to pass the exam and many more are offered. The intensity of the color usually denotes the climate – lighter color matches a cooler climate and darker color corresponds with a warmer climate (and possible oak ageing); compare a chardonnay from Chablis to one from Napa and you will see the difference. Small bubbles may suggest early bottling after fermentation and reveal a clue to regions. Wines with higher viscosity may show “legs” - where the wine sticks to the surface of the glass when swirled and then slowly drips down. Legs denote higher sugar levels or alcohol levels. Hints of subtle brown or orange towards the rim of the wine may be a clue for age.
Nose – Nose will reveal if the wine is sound or not and if it is youthful or showing signs of vinosity. High or low aromatics give clues to the grapes and vinification techniques. What types of fruit are sensed – citrus, stone fruit, tropical, or berries? Is this fruit fresh and barely ripe, sun-ripened, or almost sun-dried? That will reveal the possible climates, terroirs, and vinification techniques. Cooler climate wines will have a fresh and tart fruit expression, whereas warmer climates will show very ripe fruit. What notes other than fruit, called the secondary notes, are present? Vegetal, mineral, and oak notes like vanilla and baking spices are what to perceive here. Each observation builds the argument for what it may be and what it isn’t. . .
Palate – finally, you get to taste it! Does it feel like nonfat, 2%, or whole milk on your palate? That tells you if it's light, medium, or full-bodied – again more clues about growing regions and possible grapes. Shiraz from Barossa Valley will not feel like nonfat milk nor would a very cool climate Mosel riesling feel like whole milk. Again, the wine is analyzed for the quality of the fruit – fresh, baked, or sun-dried? What other notes are there? A note of green bell peppers would reveal pyrazines – so a wine in the sauvignon family, fresh potting soil could be a clue to cab franc, and for a white wine - if detecting notes of saffron and ginger, that could be botrytis. Each observation helps the sommelier narrow the list of possible grapes on the table and allows them to logically deduce what the wine probably isn’t.
Structure – this is the framework of the wine. This is where you call the acid – if you were getting tart fruit and it made your mouth water, you would be safe in calling it med plus to high. The fuller the mouthfeel, the higher in alcohol it most likely is. Tannins, the astringency that makes your mouth go dry, is natural to some grapes – looking at you Nebbiolo - and acquired from oak ageing. Determining the quality of the wine, the length of the finish, and the complexity chips away at possible grapes still left on the table and should help you narrow it down to three options.
Initial Conclusion – this is where you reveal the suspects that you are left with, starting new world or old world; higher alcohol wines with a sweetness to the finish are more likely to be New World, and wines finishing with acidity or bitterness tend to be Old World. Call the climate – you have the clues from the ripeness of the fruit you called and possible minerality notes. Alright, name your three grapes – they tend to be laterals for each other and the clues above should help you get to the finish line. Now that we have the contenders noted, what is the possible age range? 1-3 years old? Maybe older?
Final Conclusion - time for the cleansing breath as you push through the last rep of the set. You have just gone through like a detective and have narrowed down your suspects. Time to say it was Ms. Plum in the Conservatory with the wrench, or rather – New World or Old World, the grape(s), the region, the quality level, and then the age. Now take another deep breath and move on to the next wine. . .you have five more before you reach the finish line and 25 minutes to complete. . .
Please reach out to Mariano to help find wines for your own blind flights and do reach out to me if you are curious about what the grid looks like. Cheers!