by Tim Atkin

The joy of blind tastings

They may not be as unpopular as estate agents, traffic wardens or international bankers, but wine tasters are generally regarded with suspicion and even derision by the general public. I still keep an angry letter from a reader of The Guardian on my notice board, quoting some of my tasting notes back at me. “Nuts on the nose?” he harrumphed. “You must be nuts in the head.”

Professional tasting notes can be baffling to ordinary wine drinkers. Things that we take for granted are gobbledygook to them. That’s why they enjoy it so much when we make fools of ourselves, failing to tell the difference between, say, a cheap own-label sparkling wine and Dom Pérignon.

The popular press also thrives on such stories, reveling in the embarrassment of “wine snobs”. That’s why I’m surprised it didn’t make more of a tasting organized by the president of the Grand Jury Européen, François Mauss, and covered in the current issue of the World of Fine Wine.

Mauss asked a group of experienced tasters to assess six glasses of red and record their impressions, giving the wines a note as well as a mark out of 100. The wines varied in score between 87 and 91 and elicited a range of comments. One taster described wine six as “very inviting and lush” and number three, somewhat dismissively, as “a nice food wine”.

So far, so good. But guess what? The wines in the glasses came from six bottles of the same wine, the 2001 Léoville-Poyferré. There were mitigating circumstances — they were sourced from, variously, Hong Kong, the USA, Germany, Switzerland and the château itself (twice) — introducing questions of storage conditions, transport and bottle variation, but the fact remains that not one panel member guessed that they were the same wine.

To be fair to them, they were probably tempted to find nuances that weren’t really there, unaware that Mauss would play such a trick on them. There may also have been genuine differences between the bottles, all of which were sealed under cork. Random oxidation and even low levels of cork taint may have thrown the tasters off the scent. But it was still embarrassing.

Would I have done any better? I’d like to think so, as someone who tastes something close to 15,000 wines a year, a fifth of them in the last month. But if there’s one thing wine teaches you, it’s humility. A face covered with scrambled egg is only a glass away. As Harry Waugh famously replied when asked if he’d ever mistaken a Bordeaux for a Burgundy: “Not since lunch.”

Should this make us question blind tasting as a whole? If members of the prestigious GJE can’t get these things right, is there any hope for the rest of us? You might not be surprised to hear, given my chairmanship or co-chairmanship of four different blind tasting competitions, that I believe they serve a useful purpose, provided the tasters are competent.

Some people are better at tasting wine than others. It’s also something that gets easier — or less hard perhaps — the more you do it, provided you are prepared to learn from your mistakes. It took me two years to be confident of spotting a wine with the yeast-derived taint, brettanomyces, thanks in large measure to the help of Sam Harrop MW, a world expert on the subject.

It’s also important that tasters judge consistently. The Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) calibrates people’s palates by repeating one or more wines in the same flight and I sometimes think we should do the same thing in competitions here to prove that tasters’ opinions aren’t random.

I also think that there should me more emphasis on spotting faults: rot, smoke-taint, TCA, oxidation, burnt rubber/vine stress, volatile acidity and my good friend brett. At least part of the WSET syllabus should be devoted to it and it should be a key feature of the Master of Wine examination.

So what purpose do blind tastings serve? First and foremost, they create a level playing field, removing what the Portuguese winemaker, Dirk Niepoort, calls the temptation to “drink with our eyes”. It is no coincidence that no one in Bordeaux can taste the first growths or super seconds blind during the en primeur week. You have to go to the château. The top producers want you to see their wines in sumptuous surroundings, not on a tasting bench mixed in with a bunch of petits châteaux or, worse, Bordeaux blends from the New World.

I like the fact that blind tastings sometimes allow unfancied wines to outperform more famous names. Otherwise, how would we ever question the status quo? Strange as it may seem, I also like the way they put me on my mettle as a taster, especially if I’m assessing the wines as part of a panel. And what if I make a mistake? No matter. As the writer Samuel Beckett once put it: “Fail again, fail better.” It’s an appropriate quotation for those members of the GJE.

Originally published in Off Licence News

Leave a Reply