How we approach wine alters our perception

aldi baron amarillo reserva rioja

Most readers will be familiar with the picture of the old hag/beautiful woman. It’s a simple drawing in black and white, but whether you see a young woman or a big nosed old hag depends on how you look at the picture.

When it comes to wine tasting, what you ‘get’ also seems to depend on how you approach the wine, I reckon.

Last night Fiona gave me three wines to taste blind, which she selected at random. It’s a game with a degree of danger associated with it. I have perhaps 250 wines lying accessible, of which some are very smart and not meant to be drunk yet. There are also a lot of inexpensive samples, so the wine she selects comes from a very large pool.

So I am presented with a red wine. I take a sniff, then a slurp. Lots of ripe fruit, but not new world. The ripeness does, however, suggest somewhere sunny. And some oak influence. I plump for Spain. Quality level? This seems quite serious: ripe, a bit oaky, but high end. I give it 90/100.

When I see the bottle, I’m gobsmacked. It’s an inexpensive Rioja with some wire round the bottle, from Aldi at £5.99. If I’d seen the bottle before I tasted, I’d never have gone that high with the score, if I am honest.

The sight of the label would have changed the way I perceived the wine. I’d have been looking for specific things in the wine: knowing it is a Rioja, I’d be searching for vanilla and coconut notes from the American oak, for example. Knowing it is £5.99 in Aldi, I’d be looking for signs of cheapness.

As I come back to taste the wine knowing what it is, it does taste a little different. Where previously I’d given it the benefit of the doubt, and focused on the positive qualities, now I see it a bit differently.

This is the reality of wine tasting. We bring a lot of ourselves to the tasting event: our experience, our preferences, our biases, how much we paid for the wine—all these factors can shape perception. Famous wines benefit from this, and it’s a feedforward cycle that keeps the likes of the first growth Bordeaux Château at the top of the pile. When they are opened, it is usually with great ceremony and sky high expectations. If you’ve just paid hundreds of pounds for a bottle, then you are willing it to succeed.

For the record, the great value Aldi Rioja is called Baron Amarillo, and it’s a reserva from the 2006 vintage. For the price, it’s great. The other two wines tasted blind were Henry Fessy Moulin à Vent 2008 (this wasn’t obviously Beaujolais-like, and showed richness that had me in France, but further south) and Quinta da Covela’s Colheita Seleccionada 2006 white, which is an oak aged Chardonnay Avesso blend from Portugal (this was deep coloured and very rich; I had it pegged as an aged new world Chardonnay – it was actually really nice). Fiona had chosen all three wines because they had orange capsules.

13 comments to How we approach wine alters our perception

  • What was the score after amending for cheapness & cheapness? Is this case not the very reason for tasting wines blind? Are you planning to retry blind later, to clear the benefits & the doubt?

  • Daniel B

    I don’t think it entirely unreasonable to be influenced by the label, especially when tasting young wines. Knowing the identity of the wine will give you information about its track record ability to age – information which is difficult to deduce from tasting alone.

    What your post really shows up is, once again, the nonsense of scoring wine, and the dilemma about whether scores should relate to pleasure giving qualities today, or the potential capacity to give pleasure after a few years cellaring.

  • There must be something important in orange capsules :o))) and scientists should focus on relation between quality of wine and capsule colour!

    On the other hand, people generally pay more attention to the wine tasted blind and evaluate it higher. And positive expectation give positive results…

  • I’m curious Jamie; do Aldi send you samples in the hope you review them or was this a personal purchase?

  • Damien, Aldi send samples hoping that I’ll recommend the wines in my Sunday Express column. I will recommend this one in due course.

  • Andras, good point. The way I see it is that blind tasting is helpful in removing prejudices. Those prejudices should not be reapplied. But the greater information that comes from seeing the label helps form a more informed opinion. I’m 88 on this wine now. So it’s excellent value for money.

  • Daniel, good point and I concur

  • Andrew Halliwell

    I love blind tastings, because you really have nothing to go on. If you can do it regularly, it’s a good way to learn about wine I think, because every time you guess “wrong”, you can go back and try and see what threw you off track and then remember a little bit about that wine, so that you might be correct next time round. It’s a bit like listening to the radio to help learn a foreign language – you really have to concentrate, whereas if you watch TV in a foreign language, the pictures give it away and it’s easy to get the gist, without paying too much attention.

    Last night we had two wines blind, a 2009 Zin from Lodi and a 2007 Nebbiolo Reserve from Mexican producer L.A.Cetto. Not surprisingly, nobody guessed the 2nd wine. But the point wasn’t to guess the wines, it was really to talk about the wines and learn from eachother’s perceptions before homing in on a few options. Fun night.

  • Thank you, Jamie, I would love to try it some day. Checking out the local ALDI tonight.

  • Tom Bexton

    I’m 88 on that.. ;)

  • Lee Newby

    As a WSET Diploma student I have learned to taste blind and run every wine though a systematic approach that works, you can taste quality in the complexity and balance. I think everyone should taste blind every once in awhile and not just when judging in competitions.

  • Justin Howard-Sneyd

    Jamie, You raise some profound questions…. at Laithwaites, we now do our QC tastings blind – to very interesting effect. Good wines rise to top of the pile. But so do obvious ones.
    One thing to note is that the average scores, which used to range between 13.5 to 18, now tend to fall in the 14.5 to 17 range. I think, without the reassurance of the label, tasters are less inclined to stick their neck out.
    I am sure that, as ‘professional’ tasters, we bring our preconceptions to the table much more than we think we do (but then so do the ordinary wine drinkers who are our customers).
    Blind tasting stops you believing in your own hype, and as one of the more scientifically minded critics, I am sure that you recognise the benefits of being brought down to earth periodically. I know I do!

  • That’s a nice ‘control’ tasting; one day a guest at a DRC lunch, the next tasting (unknown) wines that Aldi have sent in at the £6 mark. There aren’t many critics who can say they do that are there? Some are perhaps more “independent” than others indeed. Not to be sycophantic, just realistic.

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