Sommelier Reveals How He Identifies Wine With Just a Few Sips

A mind-bogglingly complex process of deduction.

by Bianca Bosker
Getty Images / David Silverman

True wine geeks can identify a bottle of wine with just a few sips. In this excerpt from Cork Dork, journalist Biana Bosker describes sommelier Morgan Harris at a blind tasting contest.

The clock started as soon as he touched the first glass. He began with the reds, as usual.

“Here we have a clear red wine of moderate-plus concentration with dark ruby at the core and slightly lighter ruby meniscus,” he began, borrowing one of the Court’s three approved synonyms for the color “red” (“purple,” “ruby,” “garnet”).

A clear wine meant it had been fined or filtered, processes that can remove tannins, bacteria, and other elements from the wines. It also indicated that the wine was young enough not to have much sediment, a byproduct of aging that appears around a wine’s tenth birthday. The wine’s concentration—the color intensity at the core of the glass—and the meniscus—where the edge of the wine meets the glass—offered clues about grape variety and age. From my tasting group practice and manic solo studying, I knew Syrahs and Zinfandels tend to be purplish and dense, whereas Pinot Noir is a clear, pinkish ruby. The wine in Morgan’s hand was opaque, and more red than purple. Syrah, Merlot, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tempranillo came to mind. Red wines lose color as they age, while whites (colored “straw,” “yellow,” “gold,” or “amber,” in Court parlance) gain color. Morgan’s wine was dark ruby at the core, only slightly paler at the edges. Probably under ten years old, I thought.

Morgan lifted the wine to the light.

“It is day bright,” he said. The grid allows for “dull,” “hazy,” “bright,” “day bright,” or “star bright,” with “hazy” hinting at flaws, and “star bright” suggesting youth.

He rolled the bowl of the glass along the edge of the table, so wine covered its sides, and eyed the liquid as it dripped down. “Our viscosity is moderate plus.” Viscosity: the wine’s body, or thickness. The tears of the wine were fat and slow. This suggested higher alcohol—warmer climate.

He was twenty seconds in. Three minutes and forty seconds to go.

Morgan plunged his nose into the glass so that its rim pressed against his cheeks. That first sniff was crucial. If it was intense and unmistakably fruity—plum, fig, cherry, blackberry—that would be a vote for a New World wine, meaning it came from anywhere but Europe. More restrained, savory aromas—dirt, leaves, herbs, even stones—would trigger thoughts of the Old World, a.k.a. European wines.

“A moderate intensity of ripe red and black fruits, red and black plum, with a little red and black cassis.” I mentally rifled through everything I’d memorized and tasted. That could be New World Cabernet, maybe Merlot? The Court’s tasting terminology is so standardized—and the profile of certain varieties so established—that each phrase carries a set of associations that, to the trained ear, hint at possible directions. If you know the language, you can decipher the code. Mentioning rose and lychee is a giveaway that you’re heading for Gewürztraminer. Green bell pepper in a white is synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc. Olive, black pepper, and meat mean you’re barreling toward Syrah. Plum? Merlot. Cassis? Cabernet.

He rattled off more aromas—rose, fresh-tilled earth, oregano, saddle leather. More Old World than New World, I decided. Consistent with Cabernet or Merlot from France, or Tempranillo, used to make Rioja in Spain.

Sixty seconds down.

“We have a little bit of cinnamon and sort of vanilla, sort of baking spice molasses.” Translation: a wine aged in new French oak barrels, which characteristically impart those spicy vanilla caramel tones. This was consistent with Bordeaux, a region in France where winemakers often age Cabernet blends in barrels made with new French oak. Also consistent with Rioja in Spain. Also consistent with Napa Valley in California.

“I think there’s a little Brett here in this wine, this little, sort-of animal character, barnyard, earthiness.” That sentence screamed Bordeaux, where Brett (short for Brettanomyces yeast) frequently gives wine the perfume of sweaty Thoroughbreds, which can be as much a flavoring as a flaw.

Two minutes had passed.

Morgan took a big sip of the wine, slurped, and spit it in a solid stream.

The palate. This includes flavor sensations (“bay leaf,” “ashy”), and, the ultimate objective evidence, structure (acid, sugar, alcohol, tannin, body).

“There’s a sort of roasted red pepper, roasted tomato that makes me think there’s some Pyrazine in this wine.” That word. Pyrazine. A chemical compound present in green peppers, peas, Sauvignon Blanc, and—you guessed it—both Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

Three-and-a-half minutes. Thirty seconds to go.

This wine was dry (not sweet). Moderate-plus tannins. It was moderate-plus in acid and moderate-plus in alcohol. Higher acid indicates grapes grown in cooler climates, higher alcohol can mean warmer weather. So it had to be from someplace warm, but not too warm. More evidence for Europe over California.

He took another sip. Five seconds left.

I knew, from my own experience, that Morgan had to be racing back over everything he’d said. The vibrancy of the wine’s color, plus its sparkle, fruitiness, and high-ish tannins all suggested a relatively young wine. The tomato, leather, and even the new French oak could be consistent with Spanish Tempranillo. But those layered flavors, with the mixture of plum (hint: Merlot), cassis (hint: Cabernet), and pyrazine (hint: oh yeah, Cabernet), pointed to a blend of at least two different kinds of grapes. Winemakers on the left bank of Bordeaux make wine from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (mostly), with some Merlot (less) and a few other grapes (even less). Winemakers on the right bank of Bordeaux will blend Merlot (mostly) with Cabernet Sauvignon (less), and a few other grapes (even less).

Left bank, I guessed. With that Brett and the oak, it had to be Bordeaux.

Morgan, as the Court required, provided his initial conclusion—the range of grapes and regions to which he’d narrowed it down.

Then, his final answer: “This is a Merlot-dominant blend from the right bank of Bordeaux from the village of St. Emilion in the 2010 vintage of Grand Cru Classé quality.”

One wine down, five to go.

Adapted from CORK DORK by Bianca Bosker. Published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Bianca Bosker.

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