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Taste blind and save money

What’s the story behind the rather odd title? It’s an idea prompted by a recent ‘offline’ dinner, where a group of internet wine geeks got together to taste a range of wines blind, loosely gathered around the theme of Rhône wines and Rhône grape varieties.

Not knowing a wine’s identity when you taste removes any subtle preconceptions that a glance at the label brings. It’s a fascinating experience. If you are trying to guess the wine, then to have any measure of success you need a lot of experience and even more luck.

From this particular tasting I came away with a few thoughts, first of which is that this could be a way for wine drinkers to save a lot of money. One of the wines tasted was a Cornas Reynard from Thierry Allemand from the late 1990s. Blind, the rather austere, high acid raspberry fruit palate put this firmly in the Northern Rhone, but I guessed that it was a Crozes Hermitage or St Joseph. Allemand’s two Cornas cuvées are wines I often buy, but on this showing I won’t be buying any before tasting. At £25 a pop I can get these flavours for £10–12 elsewhere.

Another of the wines was a 1990 Alsace Riesling from Sipp, which I spotted as Riesling but beyond this there was no real complexity or class. A wine cellared for more than a decade whose flavours could be replicated by a middling new world effort?

This reminds me of a Harpers (UK wine trade magazine) blind tasting of Chardonnays from around the world, held a few years back. Trade and press alike performed like donkeys when it came to distinguishing among a disparate bunch of wines. If experienced professionals can’t spot a £5 new world Chardonnay from one costing four times this amount, then why does anyone buy the more expensive wine?

Another thought was that age is a leveller, bringing wines together. New world wines tend to taste a bit more like old world wines with several years’ bottle age. As wines begin to senesce, they all begin to taste a little similar – with a characteristic ‘old wine’ bouquet. This makes blind tasting challenging, but it also makes me question spending a lot on a bottle if you are aren’t going to drink it till it’s on its down slope.

These are just a few examples, and from other experiences I could come up with many more. Taste the sorts of fine wines you normally buy blind, and then see whether they stand up to scrutiny without sight of the labels and without their reputations preceding them. If you can’t tell the difference between certain posh bottles and cheaper alternatives, then you could save yourself a lot of money.

Ignore what the critics say in this case. Either they are seeing complexity that isn’t there, the particular region in question offers poor value for money, or your palate isn’t yet finely tuned enough to dissect out the subtleties that you are paying so much extra for.

I made several duff guesses at this blind tasting. In my defence, I’d argue that I was drinking the wines in a restaurant setting, and several bottles were open at once. Tasting in more clinical surroundings at a slower pace, these mistakes might not have been made. However, few if any of us drink wine in clinical conditions. We have to question whether it is worth paying a lot extra for subtleties and complexities that either don’t exist or that we can’t pick up. So try some blind tasting, and work out which wines you really want to pay more for.

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