Wine: secrets of blind tasting

October 13, 2016
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When was the last time you were asked to guess what the wine was in your glass? Anyone who professes some knowledge of wine will be familiar with this usually humbling challenge. But how much faith should we place in blind tasting? And why is it considered the gold standard of wine expertise? After all, we wouldn’t question an art critic’s ability to respond to, and assess, a painting when they don’t know who painted it. At best, it amounts to checking the bone fides of any taster confident enough to pronounce on the quality of a wine; at worst, the challenge is pressed with scepticism about whether there is any such thing as wine expertise. But why is this the right test of expertise in the wine world?

The best blind taster I know told me that his skill was based mostly on memory. He is an experienced taster and writer, and when presented with a liquid he has to identify he asks himself: have I tasted this wine before? If he has, he wonders: “when was that”? In this way, he slowly homes in on a specific event. This is due to what we call episodic memory. However, when put on the spot, he goes through the Sherlock Holmes routine that people expect. As he swirls the glass and sniffs it, he will say things like, “This is a wine from the old world: a red wine from a white wine area. Good vintage. Lots of ripeness and showing development. There are only two producers who make wine like this. I would say it is a 2005 Domaine Leroy Volnay Santenots.” When the bottle is revealed, people are astonished. But they have been fooled. The wine was correctly identified but our expert knew what people wanted to believe about his mastery as a blind taster.

Winemakers, wine writers and sommeliers can benefit from bouts of blind tasting without having such remarkable episodic memories. When conducted in a spirit of inquiry, blind tasting can be illuminating, reminding us how good a well-made cru Beaujolais can be, and reminding us of the need for humility. But it is not the odd success in identifying a wine that matters so much as coming up with good guesses that reflect the character and quality of what’s in the glass. Good tasters will rate one another on the reasons offered for plumping for a Rhône or a Languedoc, say. And at the reveal, pourers will say, “I can see why you thought it was a Southern Rhône.” By this we learn something about the wine in our glass and the wine that we thought was in our glass.

In the end, there may be no such thing as the unprejudiced tasting. Experienced tasters often try to guess what their hosts have given them to try. People are said to prefer Coca Cola to Pepsi when they can see the labels on the can, however, reputedly, they prefer Pepsi to Coca Cola when blind tasted. What matters is the subtle interplay between our top-down assumptions—what we are expecting of a wine (is it Muscadet or Chablis?)—and the bottom-up impressions that our senses impart to us. If we are too firmly guided by our top-down assumptions we will discount the sensory clues. While, if we attend solely to the flavours delivered through our senses we may not know where to start. A key component is having the right wine category in mind. I remember being told by a waiter that the chef wanted to present a bottle of champagne with his compliments. It arrived in my glass without me seeing the bottle. At the first sip I winced: this is a lousy Champagne, I thought to myself. I took another sip and realised: this is an excellent Prosecco. To perform as well as you can in blind tasting requires a delicate balancing act between considering a number of possibilities and being open to whatever the wine is showing you. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

But should we set such store by blind tasting? Surely the goal of tasting a wine is not to guess what it is and who made it, but, when merited, to appreciate and to celebrate it as an achievement.