When critics disagree, again

I’ve just been involved in another one of those twitter tussles about controversial wine topics. This time it was, fortunately, a fairly good natured discussion about the results of the recent tasting in Hong Kong where Eduardo Chadwick pitched several vintages of his Sena ‘icon’ (horrible term) wine against various top Bordeaux, tasted blind, and also a report of a similar sort of tasting conducted in Chile for visiting MWs.

Lo and behold, the wine professionals in Hong Kong preferred, on the whole, the Chilean wine Sena. It came top, if indeed it is acceptable to see blind tasting as a sort of competition. And the MW in question said this about the tasting that she took part in:

“One of the highlights of my trip to Chile – blind tasting of Chile versus Bordeaux. Once again the Chilean wines beat Bordeaux into submission.”

These results are not unprecedented. For many years now, since a momentous tasting in Berlin, Chadwick has pitched his Chilean icons against some of the world’s most expensive wines. Often, the Chilean wines have won. [Although they didn't at a tasting in London that I attended in 2009, report here.]

My assertion is that in these tastings, the tasters have simply got it wrong. The set-up exploits the fact that many wine professionals are poor and/or inexperienced blind tasters. Aside from this, some very able tasters (in terms of recognizing wines blind, as in the sort of tasting exam you have to take to get the MW qualification) may actually have poor taste (in terms of the sorts of wines that they prefer). They may be good at differentiating wines, and spotting good quality from poor quality, but fail to distinguish great wines from merely very good commercial wines.

When you say this sort of thing, people often don’t like it. ‘So are you saying 16 MWs got it wrong?’ was one response, as if for me to answer in the affirmative would be out of the question.

I’m not bashing Chilean wines. [I pay a lot of attention to what is going on there.] And I don’t think that most Bordeaux is as good as some people think it is. As a commentator, I would say that I am truly egalitarian and open-minded to all wine-producing countries. I’m certainly not old-school wine trade, parochial in my outlook.

But Eduardo’s icon wines, while being very good quality indeed, are not yet in the same league as top Bordeaux. They are made in quite a ripe, international style. I don’t think they come close to top Bordeaux, in my opinion. So that’s why I say it.

Now I know that the Bordeaux marketplace is distorted by the fact that the top wines are used as investment vehicles, but even so, I’d say that my opinion is reflected in the market place by the prices these wines fetch on the secondary market.

We have to recognize that critics disagree about wines. The assumption that if critics are all equally experienced and competent, they will come to the same conclusion. That’s not how it is. So, you have to choose which critics you will follow. Personally, if someone says to me that they think that Sena is the qualitative equal of the best from Bordeaux, they are not a critic I choose to follow.

41 comments to When critics disagree, again

  • Gareth

    Isn’t there a difference between an evaluation of quality and deciding if you like something as a matter of personal preference? While people might know full well that any number of composers write ‘better’ music, it won’t stop them buying the latest (insert pop band here) album.

    I also wonder if one Chilean wine might stand out in a tasting of Bordeaux wines by virtue of it simply being different to the others, again compromising the objectivity.

    Some interesting thoughts Jamie, I’m looking forward to the comments on this one.

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  • keith prothero

    The fascination of wine. I organise many Blind Tasting events,and I have learnt that there is no point trying to be too cute and try to confuse people.
    Even “experts” rarely tag the appellation,let alone vintage or producer.
    and many prefer in blind tastings the cheaper wines—–but of course not so much when the wines are revealed :)

  • Angela Lloyd

    Jamie, I think it would be helpful if you would expand a little on what you believe makes top Bordeaux better than Sena. Is one of the reasons because, with age, Bordeaux has the ability to evolve, while Sena just ages without becoming more complex over time? Have you tasted older vintages of Sena? Whilst I (think) I’ve tasted it just once at a Wines of Chile tasting in London several years ago, I have more regularly tasted older, good Bordeaux; their secondary complexity is one of the attributes by which I judge quality. It’s interesting here, in South Africa, that smart young red wines, cabernet in particular,impress in their youth and are deemed to be of good/excellent quality, but with time, while they don’t deteriorate they also don’t show more interesting characteristics. I don’t know why, though much the same is said about Californian cabs.
    This topic should generate some good debate; I look forward to reading others’ comments.

  • Steve Connolly

    I don’t know if you were being deliberately confrontational with the statement that some very able tasters may just have poor taste in the wines they prefer. That seems harsh. How about different taste? I think the whole question of context comes in again. If you know you are drinking a classed growth claret are you able to taste it as just a wine, or only as a classed growth claret, and is there any difference?

  • Tim Carlisle

    I think that Stephen Brook gets it about right when he comments on tasting Bordeaux en Primeur blind.

    The issue with tasting blind is that you ignore breeding and track record. By doing so you ignore the potential that a wine may become. Taste a 2006 Chilean wine that will reach it’s peak in 3-5 years against a 2006 Bordeaux that will not peak for 8-15 years and the Chilean may come out on top, but without understanding where the wine is going and what it might do you don’t have the full picture.

    In addition we know that at these sorts of tastings a bit more fruit and a bit more alcohol will make a wine stand out as having greater concentration but it may not work in the long run.

    A good Margaux is about more than fruit, things like minerality and perfume are why it deserves to be highly priced. Stand it against a bigger but more obvious wine and however good the taster is it will seem dilute and lacking in concentration and so suffer as a result.

    That is why these comparisons are basically a waste of time.

  • Howard G. Goldberg

    We shouldn’t be surprised that critics disagree about wine, whose character and quality is essentially evanescent and elusive. Critiquing wine is like critiquing music and restaurant food: What one hears another may not hear; what one eats may not taste the same to another. And besides, these experiences may not be repeatable.

    Such musings have led me to conclude that in tasting there are no — repeat no — Authorities whatever, despite MW and other initials after critics’ names, and personal publicity that can reach Everest-like heights.

    How can people agree impeccably on what is organic and thus subject to variation when they can’t agree on what is inorganic and thus stable?

    How many insightful academics disagree on the meanings of Shakespeare’s plays, which, unlike wine, do not change on Monday, Wednesday and Friday? How many interpretations are attached to Van Gogh’s paintings, which are not subject to bottle variation and thus are the same on Tuesday and Thursday?

  • Adam Lee/Siduri Wines

    So in 2009 when you wrote in your blog that you prefered an inexpensive negotiant Bordeaux in a blind tasting to 2000 Mouton….

    (here’s the quote…”We then visited La Garde in Pessac Leognan, where we had dinner. At dinner, where we were joined by winemaker Guillaume Pouthier and Matthieu Chadronnier, a lot of blind tasting was done. The most interesting bit was a pairing of two wines, one of which I thought was first-growth quality and complex in a Graves style, the other which I thought was a good wine but which was dominated by a roasted oak character to its detriment. The first turned out to be Dourthe Essence 2000; the second Ch Mouton Rothschild 2000. I’d rather drink the former by a mile.”)

    …..how does that fit into this blog? Is it acceptable for a negotiant Bordeaux to best a first-growth but not a Chilean wine like Sena? Seems hard for me to understand….

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  • These blind tastings just make me smile. Another chilean “icons” (hate the term, too) beating top Bdx. So, what’s new? I often wonder what’s the REAL purpose of these tastings: just to prove that cheaper wines are better than the more expensive ones? Or is it just another way to increse the hype for certain wines, so they can sell better?

    But the most laughable aspect for me is to put a 2005 Chadwick in competition with a 2005 Margaux, for example. I mean, isn’t it obvious which one will be the winner in a blind tasting? I bet nobody will ever try the same wines 20 years from now :)

  • Darren Brogden

    That’s a provocative post Jamie to say that some MWs have poor taste. You may well be right but surely they have earned the right to speak with some authority on what makes a wine great? We all have our own ideas about what constitutes greatness in a wine and that of course accounts for differences in opinion about a particular wine. However, I would be hesitant to accuse somebody of poor taste just because their judgement differs from mine.

  • I think the challenge to prove that Chile can produce similar taste and style of Bordeaux like Seña has been said way to much and now the challenge is to continue finding our own style and show the world new unique chilean terroir style wines. We have several new regions and terroirs like Maipo Alto, Apalta, Leyda, Limari that let´s be honest, only the last 10 years have been producing and we have some attention. Let´s see what happens in 20 more when we go over the mountains in higher altitudes and southern. Let´s be patiente. Chile got the attention and winemakers are doing their job to produce new unique wines. Until now, Chile made the point of putting our name in the topic and keeps surprising with interesting wines. Give us some more time! We have so much to show you that is coming out soon! Cheers! Maximiliano Morales!

  • Richard

    You write:
    ‘The set-up exploits the fact that many wine professionals are poor and/or inexperienced blind tasters…some very able tasters…may actually have poor taste (in terms of the sorts of wines that they prefer). They may be good at differentiating wines, and spotting good quality from poor quality, but fail to distinguish great wines from merely very good commercial wines.’

    Would these comments be the same if Bordeaux had ‘won’? Don’t think so.

  • Adam, the Dourthe Essence isn’t a cheap wine – it’s at least £50 a bottle, plus taxes, on wine searcher. And the 2000 Mouton isn’t a great wine. We’re comparing wines of the same region here, too.

    Max, quite agree with you – Chile’s fine wine dimension is steadily emerging. Lots of interesting new regions.

  • Adam Lee/Siduri Wines

    Jamie,

    The Sena is about the same at the Dourthe, right? So the price can’t be the determining factor. (And both are inexpensive compared to Mouton, but then again, most wines are).

    So is the difference simply that comparing one region to another blind is a problem if the answer isn’t what is acceptable? But it is okay to come up with what would be considered an unaccpetable answer if the regions are the same? Again, I don’t get it….and don’t get why you would call out other people for “getting it wrong” when you essentially did the same thing?

    IMO, blind tasting potentially makes us all come up with conclusions that we don’t expect….has happened to me many times….but that is a reason not to point it out when it happens to others.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  • The tasters simply got it wrong. They have poor taste (in terms of the sorts of wines that they prefer). Incredible to read that. Even more from a promoter of natural wine! Come on Jaimie! You are not the holder of the truth. You should know that with taste there is no truth.

    I am a lover of Chilean wines in general. The reds are aging beautifully. In their youth they are very distinctive and show clearly the place they come from. That is a quality. But that makes them relatively easy to spot in a blind tasting. So you need to put the prejudices aside and be open to a different aesthetic if you want to judge them fairly in a blind tasting. On the other hand, as they get older, these wines are losing their Chilean character and can easily be confused with wines from other places, especially Bordeaux.

    From what I read on Twitter, the last tasting in Chile was involving Sena 1995 and 1997. So I guess it was against top Bordeaux of a similar age. This go against another prejudice that Chilean reds cannot age gracefully.

  • @Adam,

    In the end, it’s all about personal preferences. If a MW tells me that a cheaper Chilean wine is better than a top Bordeaux, it’s his/her opinion. I don’t like ultra-ripe, sexy and bombastic wines, I prefer the old-school Bdx style. So, these kind of blind tastings are completely useless to me. And the “same region” factor does matter…a lot

  • Interesting. We had a tasting not long ago of four flights of four wines, one of which was always a bordeaux – and the others similar blends from France, Chile, South Africa, Australia and Lebanon (Musar). In each flight the wines had a similar price tag.

    For every flight, I was certain about which was the Bordeaux, and in every flight it was also the wine I preferred. I once mistook a South African for an Australian, but other than that I got it all pretty close.

    I’m no more than an average blind taster, and these wines ranged from reasonably priced to only moderately expensive (the most expensive was Domaine de Chevalier 2006). However, I am mystified by the kinds of tests reported here. The cool climate and defined aromatics shone through the bordeaux wines in every flight. The other wines were very good, from respected producers aiming for a bordeaux style and everything, but they were sweeter and had a more ‘fuzzy’ sensory profile.

  • Adam Lee/Siduri Wines

    Perhaps I am missing something, but from the blog it says that the tasters preferred that wine from Chile. Not that they mistook one for the other…but that they preferred it.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  • Alex lake

    I think I’m in Angela’s camp here. These top Bordeaux, when young, don’t show particularly well by and large. The only time I’ve had Sena, I didn’t much like it. But I’ve also had young first growths that I didn’t like….

  • The trouble with you Jamie, is that you are always sitting in the fence, never say what you mean.

    I don’t have a lot of time to write, but a couple of points. Firstly, I don’t know which vintages of Bordeaux were chosen for the tasting in Hong Kong, but I had a look at your write up of the one in London. If anyone told me to pick a Bordeaux vintage whose wines are going through a closed stage in the long evolution, it would be 2005 and they would inevitably be overwhelmed by the more approachable Chilean wines. Some Clarets are built to be aloof…thats what I like about them, so some of them will inevitably suffer by comparison.

    A more interesting comparison for me would be to take the same wines, perhaps for the Bordeaux pick something like 2004 or 2001, give the wines appropriate decanting and then serve them all blind over the course of simple dinner. Ask participants to not just grade the wines, but to comment upon how the wines evolved or deteriorated over the evening, then examine how much of each decanter was consumed. I would gladly participate in such a tasting but even if the Chilean wines triumphed, I would not use the chest-beating vernacular of “…beating Bordeaux into submission.”

    With respect to your comments about the tasting ability of MWs, I find those two letters completely irrelevant when it comes to their ability to taste wine. I know a couple of brilliant tasters who are MWs but then again, I know so-called “amateurs” whose palates I consider better than most MWs and whose opinions I respect highly. The probability is that the most gifted taster in the world might have no interest, nor have ever have tasted a single wine.

    Regards
    Neal

  • Paul

    I’m not sure that it was intended but this thread seems have become an argument about arguing about wine.

  • Julien Weiller

    Seems like everybody is chasing after the 76 tasting ‘Judgement of Paris’. Marketing was not born yesterday.
    Hey, a pound of feather still feels lighter than a pound of lead.
    Let’s stop judjing, let’s start enjoying. As the bumper-sticker says: bark less wag more.

  • Eduardo Chadwick has an interesting strategy about proving Seńa and his other wines to be on the level of top Bordeaux. He holds so many comparative blind tastings with different vintages, different setups and different juries that inevitably, Seńa does win a few rounds here and there, which is enough to get the message across.

  • Rod Smith

    Has the tasting in Chile been written up somewhere?
    I took part, and would be interested to see what has been said.
    There were two first growth Bordeaux wines in a dozen total, so the “worst” that one of Eduardo’s wines could have done was to come third. We were asked simply to rank the wines we liked/enjoyed the most, and to circumvent the inevitable discussion on absolute quality that tried to ensue, we all agreed just to interpret that how we wanted. Haut Brion 2000 was, and by some margin, the best wine for me, but I really didn’t like Latour 1988, although I pegged it as a Bordeaux, it just seemed dried out and no fun any more to me. I didn’t rate very highly any of the older wines in fact.
    I enjoyed the event, the Seña wines all showed well, I can’t see a problem. I have never tried to impose my taste on anyone, and I don’t much care what people think of others making, or trying to make, capital from collating my opinions with others. In many ways it’s a no-lose gamble by Eduardo, but I am surprised about the results on the whole. Clearly the wines are not rubbish.
    I am completely in agreement about the use of the word “icon”. Dreadful. Something does not become iconic simply because its creator decides it is going to be in advance. It is for history, and others, to determine. But semantics is not really the problem with the image of Chilean wine.
    We found some truly great wine discoveries on the trip. It’s been ten years since I was last in Chile and how so much has changed, and apart from the use of the word “icon”, pretty much all for the better.

  • Chris Williams

    Neal Martin beat me to the comment I wanted to make- While not wanting to comment on the specefic merits of the Chilean or Bordeaux wines, tasting 20ml of a wine, with a sniff, sip and spit does not constitute a comprehensive tasting in my view. The real quality and character comes out in the second half of the bottle, over time and preferably with simple, wholesome food. I have often been at tastings where afterwards, the bottles are put on the table to go with the food, still covered up. Almost always, the “winners” of the blind tastings are not finished, while the more elegant, restrained and balanced wines are. Time is an often-ignored factor in wine-growing, winemaking and wine appreciation.

  • Jamie, I don think you are sitting in the fence with your words. You clearly state you think the tasters got it wrong. Many will agree. Many will also agree you do a very good job of initiating discussion and challenging preconceptions. Keep it up.

  • Ben C

    Winerackd: The fence sitting words were just gentle sarcasm. ;-)

    Rod: I think you have put it so well and succinctly. Shows that the headline did not match the event.

  • Chris Williams is right on the money. Large tastings, and certainly blind tastings, do not do the wines justice. They are at best snapshots – and out of focus at that. Only by keeping the company of a wine over at least an hour, with food, can one do it any kind of justice. However, this is obviously unworkable for a journalist trying to cover anything like what is expected of him or her. However, this should be kept in mind by all who care about wines.

    That, as Neal Martin claims, the most gifted taster in the world may not have tasted a single wine, is something I’d like him to justify. What is the gift of this taster? How does it manifest itself? Why is this person a taster if she or he has never tasted a single wine?

  • Alex lake

    If you consider that there are 7bn people in the world, probably only 1% of them have tasted wine with any sense of qualitative assessment. It seems likely that the person with the most refined senses of smell and taste is not among them…

    Not sure what the significance of that is, though!

  • People will always have differences in their assessment of wines even when they are experienced tasters. And that applies whether served as a blind sip or over dinner. We all have different noses and palates and bring our individual history and cultural experience to the table too. I offer no comment on the relative merits of the wines tasted here but it seems arrogant or snobish or elitist and almost fascistic to dismiss someone or a group as ‘wrong’ or ‘having poor taste’ if it differs from your own. Is there not room for more than one opinion?

  • Andrew Halliwell

    I like the controversy.

    But this point about the person with the most refined senses of smell and taste not being a wine taster is a bit of a red herring. Probably the potential world’s best cyclist hasn’t got a bike and maybe the world’s best violinist never got a violin. So what? It’s not just raw ability, it’s practice and dedication that make true professionals. That’s why I personally have enormous respect for any MW, just because it’s so damn hard to get and involves so much dedication and effort. I take the point that there are technical tasters around and also many excellent tasters who aren’t MWs….but I can’t help feeling that anyone who spends years of their life surrounded by wine and enjoying the minutiae of Burgundy classifications etc. is also going to love wine and therefore is likely to enjoy good wine and be able to “distinguish great wines from merely very good commercial wines”.

    As for these tastings, I don’t really think they matter. It’s good for Chadwick and Chile to put his wine on the same table as the recognised elite. But as many people have commented, the whole concept of “proving” that Wine A is better than Wine B for me is flawed, as it depends on vintage, ageability, context, durability over a meal, value etc etc. not snapshots in some lab.

    Max also makes a good point that it’s time to stop being hung up on Bordeaux and also celebrate what’s uniquely good about Chile and her exciting wines.

    Bordeaux is still often regarded as the best at Bordeaux style wines, but how many people actually pay £500+ a bottle on a regular basis? I’m happy enough drinking Colchagua or Maipo Cabs or Rhone reds or Kiwi Pinots or whatever for £10-£20 without really worrying whether one day some experts preferred one wine to another.

  • Last May Helsinki crowd chose Château Latour and Château Mouton Rothschild as number one and two, so there still is hope left. Mind you, Chile is number one wine producing country here where Santa lives.

  • Adam Siduri makes the point that the tasters were asked what they preferred, not to identify the place of origin. Chris Williams and Ole Martin point out that a “tasting” is not the ideal circumstance for making a judgment about a wine. Put those two statements together, and Mr. Chadwick begins to look very clever: His wines show well without food, so they do well in these kinds of tastings. It is also possible–perish the thought!–that even a highly credentialed taster may actually prefer the more approachable style of his wines.

  • “many wine professionals are poor and/or inexperienced blind tasters” – you heretic!

    “…may actually have poor taste (in terms of the sorts of wines that they prefer)” – how DARE you?!? Don’t you know who these people think they are?

    “fail to distinguish great wines from merely very good commercial wines” – maybe this goes back to the previous statement: the respond with enjoyment, but are not able to articulate what makes one wine great (in terms of its sensory attributes) vis-a-vis another wine…

    Then… there is that pesky contrast error thing…. where, in a line up of a dozen or more wines, those “made in quite a ripe, international style” will generally trump the less boisterous and flamboyant ones.

    “We have to recognize that critics disagree about wines. The assumption that if critics are all equally experienced and competent, they will come to the same conclusion. That’s not how it is. ” – so the only logical conclusion from that is that critics are NOT all “equally experienced and competent”.
    What next? The Pope wears red shoes?….

  • Great article Jamie. Even better to see you still on top form and at your most ‘controversial’ and thought-provoking best.

  • Chris Losh

    Jamie – I may have misread your intentions here, but are you saying that ‘critics get it wrong’ unless they come to a conclusion that you find acceptable?
    That they have ‘poor taste’ by thinking that a Chilean wine can trump a classed growth claret (bearing in mind they were judging on taste at the time, not pedigree in 15 years time)?
    Of course Chadwick’s wines are cheaper than 1st growth claret. Hundreds of years of proven excellence, limited supply and inherent cachet will do that.
    But market price doesn’t automatically validate a wine’s taste. Nor does it mean a cheaper wine has no right to beat it in a tasting.
    And if you accept that, it makes your comments about the judges’ abilities not just controversial, but atypically arrogant.
    No-one has a monopoly on taste, Jamie. Even RP has never claimed to be the oracle.
    The judges who came to the conclusion that they preferred Sena over other wines might make them ‘critics you choose not to follow’. It doesn’t, however, make them wrong.

  • Lee Newby

    All wine is a Quality:Value equation, if the much less expensive Chilean wines show very good to outstanding quality and unknown to the tasters are of very good value, doesn’t that put them very high on the Quality:Value scale???

    I would also note that the many top Bordeaux wines have moved to the “International Style” everyone loves to disparage. With global warming they are getting riper and richer and will continue to do so for the next 2 decades until they lose their water table. I don’t see the Chateaux harvesting earlier to lower the alcohol and other very ripe characters in their wines, they just RO the alcohol out after fermentation to get it down. I think the taste masters set the style and most follow. This may not be right but it surly isn’t wrong.

  • Greg Sherwood MW

    Well done Jamie. You are like a News of the World reporter who always manages to revive the controversial stories some how. I guess it takes balls to shake a hornets nest when there in no honey inside and no reward for being stung! All I will say is that these tastings are not about picking which was the Bordeaux and which the Chilean. That is very simple and even modest tasters can pick the different wines blind. I attended the London – Berlin rerun in 2009 and picked all 5 chileans easily and then set about deciding which was Don Max, which Sena and which a Vina Chadwick. You don’t need to be an MW to do that. The harder task was picking the Mouton over the Lafite over the Margaux. Eduardo knows any publicity in this arena is good publicity and he makes great wines. But for longevity, classism and complexity, Sena can’t compete in real terms. I would still prefer the tired 1988 Latour with my supper over a Sena. On it’s own, for quaffing, perhaps not!

  • “…The set-up exploits the fact that many wine professionals are poor and/or inexperienced blind tasters. Aside from this, some very able tasters (in terms of recognizing wines blind, as in the sort of tasting exam you have to take to get the MW qualification)” – – You should definetley steer clear of those blind tasting by panels that then proclaim which rank wines on quality…….bit like the IWC I guess. Please be more consistent in your support/opposition to competitions/tasting such as these. Good to see the panel didn’t “get it wrong” when you were a panel member.

  • Jamie, I think you are missing the point here and adding more than a little arrogance! I know some of the people on the Chile trip and many of them are great tasters who most certainly knew whether the wines they were tasting we’re Bordeaux or not, but also saw inherent quality in the Seña and Vinedo Chadwick. Disagree with them by all means, but to tick them off like naughty children. They reached a different conclusion from you, but many of them, including my friends are really great, skilled and experienced tasters – amongst the best in the business. They think differently from you, get over it. An explosion of righteous anger about them being inexperienced is totally inappropriate. We are all different and the whole point of wine is different. I assume you are seeking to be controversial and get talked about, well enjoy!

  • I attended one of these “berlin” challenged in NY a couple of years back. And while a Chilean wine did win the blind tasting, it was the Syrah that did so, as I recall. The other Chilean wines all did horribly in the voting, as I recall.

    On any given Sunday (Do you English blokes know what that means?) ;)

    Adam Lee, great commentary…keep it coming.

    The bottom line (for me) is that blind tasting is very revealing and I welcome it.

    The Berlin event in NY was very revealing in that I disliked nearly every Chilean wine. I found the Sena undrinkable.

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