Sunday, November 29, 2009

Blind tasting -- it's not just for wine

This week I've been having a discussion with a friend on Facebook who claims that all red wines taste the same. He's across the country from me, so I had to send him blind-tasting instructions by email, and it occurred to me that the concept is worth sharing.

I love blind tasting, and not just with wine. Whether it's bottled water, sea salt, olive oil, coffee -- if there are three different items to compare, I want to get my mouth involved.

Some of the joy comes from discovering cheaper items that are just as good or better than more expensive items. But I just like comparing. This is why the Coke vs. Pepsi taste-off was so popular in the 1980s: it was the only blind taste test I can remember being held for the general public in shopping malls. It wasn't the soft drinks that were fun -- it was the process.

So here's a copy of my email to my friend about how to conduct a blind taste test (I suggested buying two Syrahs, one from warm Paso Robles and one from cooler Santa Barbara County, neither cheaper than $10 or more expensive than $25). If you haven't done this yourself, try it with any product you like: soda, chocolate bars, slices of apple, whatever. Blind tasting really is fun.

Here's how I'd do it. Have another person there. Have her pour one glass of each.
Smell first; your nose is more acute than your tongue. Stick your nose in the glass and take a big sniff. Take several. Take notes on the aromas.
Don't worry about being technically accurate. Concentrate first on the smell of the fruit -- is it cherry? Blackberry? Raspberry? Currant? Then try to put a label on other aromas: Wood? Raw meat? Pepper? Play doh? Iodine? Don't worry about whether it sounds good or not, try to get something down that describes it to yourself.
Then, taste one. Pros swish it in their mouth with a little air and spit it out, but you don't have to do that. But don't gulp, you need to stay sober until you're done.
Again, write down your impressions -- this is key. The main reason people don't remember what wine tastes like is they don't take notes, then they get wasted.
Then do the same with the other one.
See if you can guess which is which. If you do get one from a cool climate and one from a hot, the cool-climate Syrah should be peppery and possibly even gamy. The hot-climate Syrah should have richer fruit and more alcohol.
If you have multiple people, you can have several people do the experiment at once -- this is so much fun, you can make a party out of it. One person has to sacrifice themselves as the person who knows which is which.
Mainly, you're just forcing yourself to pay attention to small differences that you normally don't. If you can tell the difference between lagers, Syrahs should have differences that are even more extreme.
I hope you enjoy this. I do this exact sort of thing several times a week, every week, and not just with wine. I love for my wife to give me two similar items to blind-taste; pastured eggs from different farms (very low recognition rate), different brands of soy sauce, you name it.
On some products, it really doesn't make a difference what you buy. I can't tell one regular, non-seasoned sea salt from another. We have two different kinds of water filter and I can't distinguish the effects.
But wine always tastes different. When I like the cheaper one better, I'm happy, but this almost never happens unless the cheaper one costs at least $10, hence my lower limit.
Enjoy, let me know how it goes.

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