There’s been a lot of chat, of late, on whether or not wine expertise is illusory.
The media loves the idea that the wine trade is an elaborate fraud, perpetuated by people who are more-or-less making it up when they taste wine. People outside the wine trade find the idea that experts can’t tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines quite hilarious.
…and somewhat reassuring: if the experts can’t tell the difference, then neither can we, they think, and this means that there’s no need to be spending lots of money on expensive bottles.
The emporer has no clothes.
The evidence does lend some support to this idea. I don’t want to bore you with too many details, but Robert Hodgson’s statistical analysis of the judging in the California State Wine Show was pretty damning. The judges were performing pretty randomly, it seems.
And then there were Frederic Brochet’s experiments a few years back where he gave wine professionals a white wine and then a few weeks a white wine coloured red. They described the wine completely differently, even though it would have smelled and tasted the same.
People seem highly suggestible when tasting wine. If they are told it is more expensive, not only do they report enjoying it more, their brains seem to show activity suggesting that at a subconscious level they DO enjoy it more.
I dread to mention it, but there was also Richard Wiseman’s study (stunt, rather), where people couldn’t tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines in the absence of any other information.
More recently, it seems that professionals do badly tasting Champagne blind, being unable to spot the grape varieties.
What does this all mean? I would argue that for those of us involved professionally with wine, we need to show a little humility. If we don’t, there’s a good choice humility will be forced on us when we taste blind.
But, I would argue that the poor performance of a large number of tasters, doesn’t call the whole basis of wine tasting into question. It only takes a few tasters – actually, just one – who can taste accurately blind in any one situation to make it matter.
Say for instance we are talking about the terroir, expressed in the wine, that comes from two neighbouring vineyards. The fact that almost everyone, when tasting blind, couldn’t recognize the vineyard from the wine doesn’t matter. If just one taster can, it is real, and therefore it matters.
Or let’s think about another scenario. A punter buys a bottle of fine Bordeaux from a good vintage. Just before she or he uncorks it, the shop owner lets them taste blind this wine, plus a much less expensive one. They can’t tell the difference, but still they buy the expensive wine. Have they wasted their money?
I’d argue, no. As long as there exist differences between the wines, and experts who can identify these differences, then the wine drinker buys the wine in faith. In time, they may develop their palate such that they can appreciate these differences. For now, what they have purchased is an authentic product.
We can have an interesting discussion about what it is that makes one wine higher quality than another, and who gets to decide what ‘fine’ wine is, but for now it is safe to say that wine expertise is not illusory, even though it is complicated and difficult, and very few if any get it right all the time.