wa2.gif (4241 bytes)

abut9.gif (3095 bytes)

abut12.gif (3207 bytes)
abut10.gif (3636 bytes)

abut11.gif (4039 bytes)

Understanding a wine: 
where blind tasting fails
Wine nuts are a strange bunch. When wine geeks gather, a favoured activity is to 'brown bag' wines (disguise their identity) and then taste them in 'flights' (matched groups of two or three at a time), identity unknown. This is known in the trade as 'blind tasting'. Two versions exist. 'Single blind' is when the list if wines to be tasted is known, but not the order; 'double blind' is when nothing is known about them at all.

Blind tasting is also a crucial component of wine competitions and tasting panels. It's widely thought to be the fairest way of assessing a wine. If you don't know the identity of what's in your glass, you are less likely to be swayed by lofty reputations and gasp-inducingly expensive labels. Medals and awards are typically awarded in blind tasting contests.

I can understand the rationale behind this. It's hard to be totally objective when you've just popped the cork on a Grand Cru Burgundy that cost you £40 a pop. But I'd argue that blind tasting fails many wines, especially traditionally styled fine wines destined for long ageing when they are tasted in their youth.

There are four key reasons for this:

Closing down. A wine that is closed is, in simple terms, one that doesn't smell much. Many fine wines go through a 'closed' or 'dumb' period as part of their development, a period that may last for some years. Typically a wine destined for long life will show well for a couple of years and then close down for some 5-10 years, before developing the tertiary bouquet that is so highly prized in geek circles. But it's a frustratingly inexact science, and the only reliable way of tracking the development of fine wine is if you buy in quantity and regularly pop corks. Nice work if you can get it… It goes without saying that blind tasting wines that are closed is going to result in them being severely underrated.

Another problem for blind tasters is that great wines are often deceptively simple or austere in their youth. As an example, the other day I tried one of the worlds great Rieslings: the Clos Ste Hune from Trimbach, Alsace. This was the latest release of this famous wine, the 1996. Had this wine been blind, there's a good chance I'd have been thrown by the currently rather harsh acidity: in its infancy this is a pretty austere wine. But because I saw the label, I could make a pretty good guess that this superbly concentrated, intense wine will be absolutely sublime after a decade or two in the bottle.

To assess a wine's ageing potential, you really do need to know the track record of the producer and region. It just isn't sensible to make assessments of ageworthiness from blind tasting. Although you can guess that a tight, tough, gum numbingly tannic red wine may have the stuffing to age well, this isn't enough. Without knowing the pedigree of the wine, it really is a mug's game predicting how it's going to age. Last week I tried a couple of Grand Cru red Burgundies from the celebrated 1999 vintage. These were blown away by a couple of village wines from the same vintage, but because I know the track record of the producer and the vineyard sites, my money is on the Grand Crus being far the better wines in the long run.

Finally, context is an important part to the wine. The more you know about the history of the region, its culture and the background to the producer and vineyard site, the more you'll appreciate what the producer is trying to do. Wine is more that just what's in the glass, and if all you have is an unidentified liquid in front of you stripped of its context, then there's something valid missing in your assessment. Take a young unoaked Semillon from Australia's Hunter Valley. Tasted blind, this will be a light, acidic rather simple white wine that is unlikely to win any medals. But this is one of the jewels of the Hunter: a traditional style that fills out and gains a wonderfully rich, toasty character with several years' bottle age.

To get the best out of a wine you have to understand it. To this end, the more information and context you have the better. By ignoring the contextual aspects of a wine, blind tasting falls short, and I'd argue that it doesn't deserve the emphasis that it currently enjoys in the world of wine. I'd actually go a little further and suggest that any sort of 'tasting' exercise has its limitations. Wine is for drinking. It's only as you open a bottle in a social context and drink it at leisure, noticing how it evolves in the glass and complements the food it is served with, that you'll fully understand what it's about. But that's another story.

Back to top