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
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.