Blind tasting is a game, and rarely fair
If it were necessary to prove that wine is a subjective trade, it suffices to take a look at this curious activity that is blind tasting.
Currently, a total of 180 people around the world are eagerly awaiting test results that depend in part on their blind taster skills. Stage 1 and final exams for the Master of Wine involve evaluating and identifying wine in, respectively, 12 and 36 spooky, anonymous glasses.
I took the exams in 1984, when things were simpler. The Australian wines definitely looked Australian (the whites had a distinctive greenish tint thanks to the prevailing fashion for depriving them of all contact with oxygen). This was also before barrel-fermented Chardonnay tended to taste the same everywhere in the world it was made. The range of grape varieties and countries that could appear on the Master of Wine exam was also much narrower than it is today. This year’s MW candidates were presented with wines from, among others, Carricante, Torrontés, Albariño, Marsanne, Roussanne and Zinfandel (twice).
WM reviewers are keen to emphasize that quality assessment and reasoning are just as important, if not more so, than strict identification. Still, that will be little comfort to those who have already checked this year’s wine list published on MW’s website and seen that their guesses – and a lot of guesswork is involved in the blind tasting – were way off the mark. reality.
Most of us wine professionals who taste regularly are pretty good at judging quality, but blind tasting for identification purposes is like a sport; you have to train and be in great shape to do it well.
Today, I almost no longer need to identify wines blind. It’s not that I refuse to do it, but people rarely present me with wines blind. There was a blessed time when the people of Bordeaux allowed wine critics to taste their premiere blinded, but they stopped doing it from the 2016 vintage (maybe because they didn’t like the results; too many underrated upscale wines?). Virtually the only exceptions are around two or three very familiar dinner tables where we too often ridicule each other. And I get another chance every February when I help judge the Oxbridge Wine Tasting Competition. Here, it seems fair to record what we judges do with the wines before we mark the contestants’ papers.
On two interesting occasions recently, I have been invited to dinner parties which attempted to recreate what was arguably the most famous blind tasting of all, the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, when the best French tasters been invited to compare their own best wines with some California upstarts. . They ended up, much to their dismay, by adamantly preferring American wines to the likes of Ch Haut-Brion 1970 and Bâtard-Montrachet, a white Grand Cru from Burgundy.
All of the wines in this famous blind tasting were either Chardonnays or Cabernets, these being by far the most common Californian wines. So when I sat down for a replay at The Vineyard restaurant near Newbury in April this year, it just never occurred to me that the first pair of clearly white wines would be anything but Chardonnay.
Our host was someone equally familiar with California wine, Silicon Valley Bank wine professional Greg Gregory, who had paid a lot, including this dinner for six at a 2019 auction at benefiting the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation. As the only wine professionals at the table, Gregory and I sipped the first two glasses of white and engaged in an arguably very boring discussion about which white Burgundy was and which California chardonnay while the rest of the table was paying attention to the Orkney scallop. first course.
The answer was: neither. They were both Rieslings! (If you know anything about wine, you’ll know how vastly different Riesling and Chardonnay are.) The 2009 Cuvée Frédéric Émile from Trimbach and the 2016 Château Montelena from Mendocino, Northern California, smiled upon us in the glasses. This was the most striking illustration I have come across of the blind tasting bias. (We were a bit more in the loop when, along with trout and horseradish, we were served a pair of Sauvignon Blancs.)
At the end of June, I was involved in another reenactment of the blind tasting of the Judgment of Paris underwritten by another charity auction, this time the Marie Curie London Brain Game. A couple of investment bankers have secured a dinner for 20 people in the basement of Noizé, the French restaurant in London which now occupies the former site of Dabbous.
Patron Mathieu Germond, who keeps a fine wine list, nobly donated some of his best bottles for the event and, in recognition of the scale of the auction, Marie Curie purchased a few even more glamorous bottles.
I was asked to host the tasting and organize the blind part. I know how confused people can be between lenses, so I lent Germond some colored plastic clips to go on one of each pair of glasses rather than risk the confusion of talking about “the lens on the left /right”. Guests were asked to raise their hands for wine they thought was from California.
I found it fairly easy to distinguish the (extremely good) 2017 Chardonnay Kutch Sonoma Coast from the more earthy 2017 Rapet Corton-Charlemagne. I also distinguished the rather beautiful Littorai, The Haven Pinot Noir 2013, another Sonoma Coast wine, from the lighter Stéphane Magnien, Premier Cru Faconnières 2011 Morey-St-Denis.
The next pair were the two most expensive wines by far. Both mostly Cabernet, both 2008 and both absolutely flawless. I was convinced that the 2008 Ch Latour Premier Cru Bordeaux, renowned for its slowness, would be much more tannic and youthful than its Californian counterpart, the 2008 Ridge Monte Bello from the heights of Silicon Valley. The latter has proven over the years to be my favorite California Cabernet. It has an impressive longevity (the 1975 tasted in 2018 was still just as good) and just as subtle as a Bordeaux Premier Cru. As this blind tasting proved, where I confused the two wines.
Blind tasting competitors look for all possible clues: shape of the bottle, remnants of aluminum foil around the neck, color of the glass. The shameless will even look for any opportunity to get a glimpse behind the scenes. As the late New York writer Alex Bespaloff said, “A five-second glance is worth 10 years of blind tasting experience.”
My most regular torturer in this respect regularly decants his mystery wines from completely, often absurdly, unrelated empty bottles. And a trading host solemnly witnessed long disputes between his guests, all well-informed blind tasters, over the identity of the second wine he served in a carafe before revealing that it was the other half of the magnum we had tasted previously. Nobody got that one either.
As I said, objectivity takes a vacation from any blind tasting.
Paired wines tasted blind
Wines listed in the order in which they were served in Noizé. American prices are given for the first two pairs because the wines are easier to find there.
Dom Rapet, Grand Cru 2017 Corton-Charlemagne
$159.99 The Wine to Buy, Sarasota, Florida
Kutch Wines Chardonnay 2017 Sonoma Coast
$52.98 Rye Brook Wine & Spirit Shop, NY (any Kutch will work well for a blind tasting between France and California)
Littorai, The Haven Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 Sonoma Coast
$84.99 Lighthouse Wine & Spirits, Beverly, MA (2014)
Dom Stéphane Magnien, Premier Cru Faconnières, 2011 Morey St-Denis
$74.99 Mt Carmel Wine & Spirits Co, Connecticut (2013); $78.99 The House of Wine, San Francisco, CA (2013)
Ridge Vineyards, Monte Bello 2008 Santa Cruz Mountains
Purevine wines at $250 or James Nicholson wine at £250
Ch Latour, Premier Cru Classé 2008 Pauillac
$585.99 Bayway World of Liquor, NJ; £596.68
Tasting notes on the Violet Pages of JancisRobinson.com. More resellers of Wine-searcher.com
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