Ronan Sayburn inclines his smooth head to examine the three glasses in front of him and begins to talk, spooling observations and deductions like a Yorkshire Sherlock. “Even looking at the first wine I would be thinking, ‘It’s quite brilliant, quite bright, [the light is] reflecting off the surface quite well, which possibly could be an indication of high acidity. It’s almost water white and has a touch of green to it so I would think it’s super-young and could well be [made in] stainless steel…’”
A sturdily-built Godfather among sommeliers, Sayburn is leading a seminar on blind tasting – the art of identifying a wine’s region and country of origin, the grape(s) from which it’s made and its vintage, with nothing more to go on than the liquid in your glass.
If it sounds like he’s extracted a lot of information without so much as taking a sniff, he hasn’t finished yet. “Looking at viscosity, I would be thinking just above average, those tears form relatively slowly, they’re quite wide apart, not very pronounced – so perhaps it has an alcohol of 13-13.5%.”
Blind tasting is a peculiar skill. Some think of it as a party trick; “People come up to me all the time at parties with a Paris goblet half encrusted with vol-au-vent and say, ‘What’s this then?’” says Sayburn, who was Gordon Ramsay’s wine man back in the day and is now head of wine at 67 Pall Mall. It’s far more coolly professional: he likens it to “a detective or lawyer gathering evidence and then presenting it in a courtroom”. Skilful blind tasting requires a vast memory database built from experience as well as immaculate flavour recall.
But that shouldn’t stop you testing yourself during this period of house arrest by having a bash at blind tasting wines from your own stash. The most common mistake is: do not alight on the first detail that catches your attention and jump to a conclusion. “It’s quite a difficult thing to have self-discipline to keep gathering evidence,” says Sayburn. “A classic example would be if you were given a Hunter Valley sémillon. What’s the alcohol on a Hunter Valley sémillon? Yeah, usually 10.5%, so you pick up a glass, smell it… you could assume it’s a riesling and if you’ve made your mind up too early, you won’t get to that last thing on the swallow – the impression of alcohol – and you might miss it.”
Blind taste a wine and you are trying to glean information from every observation: the colour, viscosity, what tasters call the primary aromas (those fresher smells that come from the grape), secondary aromas (which relate to the winemaking) and tertiary aromas – those that come with increasing maturity. Then there’s acidity, tannins, alcohol, body, the difference between the nose and the palate. So where do you even start? Simply by listening as carefully as you can to the wine and thinking calmly about what you can see, smell and taste and feel.
One of the best tips is to try to get into the winemaker’s head. “What is he doing to this wine and why is he doing it? Do you think the second wine is in oak?” I do think the second wine is in oak: it has a butterscotch, vanilla, roasted hazelnut smell.
Sayburn takes the observation to the next level. “And if you’re thinking that’s got nice new oak, it doesn’t smell like cornflakes or granola, it doesn’t smell like oak chips, so it’s probably good quality French barrels… Now that’s expensive. A new oak barrel’s going to cost you 900 euros. How many bottles of wine are you going to get out of a 225-litre barrique. 300 bottles? So that’s going to put a direct price of three euros per bottle – that’s quite expensive. Do you want to know what new oak smells like? It smells like money. So it’s probably from a premium region.”
Once you have homed in on the flavours, you can begin to ask whether they belong to a warmer, cooler or more moderate climate. The second wine is a chardonnay. There’s more hesitation when it comes to guessing – sorry – assessing where it comes from, although the consensus is Burgundy.
Sayburn leads the class through the paces: “Burgundy, but is it north, middle or south? Chablis in the north, high acid, very mineral, limestone; in the middle a bit more full-bodied, very elegant; bit further south, a bit warmer, bit more tropical, maybe a touch more alcohol on the finish.” It’s from the south, a Rully. But as Sayburn points out, when you’re narrowing down the options of where: “It’s getting more and more difficult to differentiate, especially with chardonnay and pinot noir, new world or old world, Sonoma Coast or Burgundy.”
The professional approach is very analytical so it’s pleasing to hear Sayburn say that listening to our inner voice is also valid – “Do you like the wine? It’s not scientific, but I’m not a big lover of Châteauneuf du Pape, and when I feel that heat in my chest I always know – oh, it’s Châteauneuf.”
My own intuition usually finds nebbiolo and sangiovese, because the moment I smell them my first thought is: “Ah, I’m home.” Building a personal vocabulary of tastes and smells is also invaluable. Sayburn gently encourages us to detect the mooli and green watermelon notes in a grüner veltliner – but the wine is correctly identified by a sommelier who says she picks up a slightly soapy note in the grape.
So get out your corkscrews and have a go. Tasting in this way makes you “see” the wine in a different way. It’s particularly good if the pourer can help guide you towards the wine by asking a series of closed questions once you’ve begun to make an analysis – for instance, “Do you think this is riesling or sauvignon blanc?” “Spain or California” and so on.
Try not to get addicted to the challenge, or you might open your entire wine stash.
Wines of the week
Domaine Bunan Mas de la Rouvière Bandol Rosé 2018, France
(13.5%, yapp.co.uk, £20.75)
I’ll mostly be recommending three wines from the same online retailer for a while. Today all three bottles are from Yapp, who tell me their website was ferociously busy again last weekend, but that – happily – there are still stocks of some wines, while many are on reorder. This Bandol rosé has a glimmer of magic to it – dry and tantalising. Beautiful
Domaine Bunan Mas de la Rouvière Bandol 2015, France
(14.5%, yapp.co.uk, £21.50)
The red sister to the rosé above, made in Provence from syrah, mourvèdre and grenache noir. There’s an untamed, animal side to this wine (think salami or olives) and a taste of summer’s warmth. I’d drink it with lamb kebabs.
Domaine Teiller Menetou Salon 2018, France
(13.5%, yapp.co.uk, £16.75)
And finally here’s a lucid sauvignon blanc from one of the Sancerre satellites – open and bright with a touch of sherbet lemon and grass.