In a recent tasting, a group of us picked a “grenache” theme, and each  brought a randomly purchased bottle, a total of seven. We ended up with a mish-mash of Californian, French, Australian and Spanish wines. After  randomly shuffling the bottles and  double-blinding them, we attached  “A’,”B”, “C” etc. labels onto the bags. Each of us  poured a few ounces of this line-up into seven glasses in front us. We then tasted them in one session, and discussed and unveiled them one by one.

As luck would have it, two people had bought the exact same bottle, a 2010 Tres Picos Grancha Borsao from Spain.  These now got randomly distributed into the shuffled tasting. One would think that these two bottles would be like identical twins in a crowd, easy to spot. Think again!

Having done this together for many years, and faced this same predicament on piror occasions, we knew better. In fact it is very difficult to do so. So we did not have high expectations from ourselves.

In the end the two bottles happened to end up in positions “B” and “F”, indeed well shuffled. No one in the group could confidently proclaim these two ahead of the unveilings. I came close, in that I did pick the two out correctly, but I was not confident of myself. My trick was to rely on my sense of smell rather than my palate.

In such tastings, I have developed a habit of ascertaining the noses of each pour before I put anything in my mouth. The smells emitted by the wines are more nuanced, and less subject to interference from prior smells as compared to taste.  I noticed a distinct similarity between “B” and “F” from the get go, as compared to the others. I also know well that most reds from Spain contain generous amounts of American oak, and this was indeed the feature that struck me about them .But then I couldn’t be certain because California and Australia could also potentially contain this feature.

I decided to begin my tasting starting with “F”, rather than “A”, as we customarily do. It was my first sip of wine of the day, and a flavor explosion lit in my mouth, fruit, alcohol, spice, oak, you name it. It was a big wine. I then wished I had greased my palate with a starter, a white wine maybe, before I plunged in. I let it all settle and went to “B” and it tasted nothing like “F”. I shook my head, and returned to a regular, line-up tasting routine. There was enough in each glass to taste a second and a third, over half an hour or so. “B” and “F” did not come together until that third retry. The others just went through the line-up, smell and sip, smell and sip, and remained clueless about which were the two.
This experience teaches us several lessons about the subjectivity of wine tasting. The first that all tasters know well is that what you tasted before definitely alters how you perceive a given wine, to the degree that it can conceal two identical wines placed well apart in a line-up. Second, if in doubt, your  nose will give you more reliable clues than your palate. Finally, never let an important wine be your first sip of the day.