31st May 2020

My friends and I enjoy playing an options game, in which we serve wine to each other blinded, that is with all identifying information about the wine hidden, and then provide options for the taster to guess what the wine is. We might ask about the vintage, the producer, the origin, or the variety, for example. It is important for us that the tasters are totally blinded to the wines – sometimes even hints like the bottle shape and the capsule can offer clues. We have been known to decant bottles under cork into screwcap bottles, and vice versa, just to confuse matters!

Blind tasting is, for me, the ultimate leveller. A good friend jokes that whenever he attends a blind tasting, he brings along an extra tea towel – to wipe the egg off his face! There is no better way to assess a wine than to be free of any preconceptions about it. In fact, I believe that wine scores from critics who do not taste wines “blind” should not be taken as seriously as scores rated by critics who do not know the identity of the wines. Such information, I confess, impacts my own purchasing decisions.

There are some well-known psychological experiments in the area of business and marketing illustrating the perils of being tricked by visual cues. One of the best known is where a white wine is coloured with flavourless colouring and both the “white” and “red” version are presented to unwitting participants. The visual cue leads the taster to describe the white version in typically white wine terms, and likewise the red. So, for example, tannins magically materialise in the red wine!

Blind tasting forms the basis of assessments of candidates in WSET, Institute of Masters of Wine, and the Court of Master Sommeliers examinations. A glass can be filled with wine costing $5 or $5000 – not that price is always an indicator of quality or an individual’s preference – and the wine has to be dissected according to its merits. Of course, at times a context or scope is provided – the wines might all be of the same variety or from the same country – but no other clues are provided.

In the case of assessing wines commercially, knowing what is on the label, I believe, heavily influences the taster about how the wine should taste. Some wines come with fabled back stories, all with very marketable intrigue. In tasting panels I have been on (with wines tasted blind) we have had a few amazing – and amusing – surprises, both with super quality and value of unheralded wines, and (sometimes) disappointing scores for iconic or “well-regarded” wines.

Of course, for a wine writer whose income and standing relies in part upon industry sponsorship, blind tasting carries its risks. What if a wine is rated lower than by other critics? What if a low score places you out of favour with a producer, potentially affecting future samples or even invitations? I think these problems are surmountable. I believe a wine critic who maintains his or her integrity by tasting blind should be accorded the respect deserved.

By way of brief diversion, it is not to say that labels are unimportant in wine. In the commercial spaces of wine store shelves and catalogues, the visual impact that a label can have can be key. Packaging is, of course, important. But a fancy package without quality and price reflected in the product surely does less well, whatever the back story, or story on the back label….

There are some circumstances in which tasting wines unblinded or “open” is, I think, acceptable, even desirable. This would be the case in vertical tastings (that is, looking at multiple vintages of the same wine), or horizontal tastings (that is, where wines from the same variety, same area, same vintage but different producer, are presented). In these situations, the discriminating focus is much narrower, and much can be learned about vintage influences, winemaking influences, and subtle variations in geography.

Another acceptable circumstance is, I believe, “semi-blinded” tastings. By semi-blind tasting I mean where the overall theme might be known (for example, “aromatic whites”, or “Bordeaux varietal reds”), but other details withheld. Here again, the taster can focus on a particular wine style to look for what might be exemplified in each. However, even in these cases, comments such as “goes well with Thai food” or “has the structure to allow long bottle aging” can, I believe, be applied even when wines are tasted completely blind.

Of course we all like to sit down with a bottle of wine that we know and enjoy, and that is, after all, what it is about ultimately!

Enough musings for now. Thoughts, anyone?

Brendan Jansen MW