To blind taste or not to blind taste?
Author: Anne McHale MW
Blind tasting is very difficult. I am well-qualified to make this statement, having experienced the challenges of the Master of Wine course over the past few years. I have sat through numerous 12-wine mock exam sessions, during which I sometimes got the wines spot-on, and sometimes so drastically wrong that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry! I have also seen fellow students who are top winemakers or industry specialists get the wines as spectacularly wrong as I did. Clearly, blind tasting is a really tricky business. So what’s the point of it? I would like to argue that it’s absolutely crucial when you’re learning about wine….but equally it is NOT the be-all and end-all.
In our Berrys’ Wine School, blind tasting plays a very important role. We want our students to focus on the liquid in the glass, rather than be swayed by the price or brand. This allows them to focus on what they really like, rather than thinking ‘oooh, that’s the posh one, it’ll be much nicer’ or ‘I hate Chardonnay so I definitely won’t like that one’. It encourages them to broaden their horizons and move beyond their usual favourites. Without this it is impossible to take advantage of the glorious diversity of wine, which for me is what makes it so utterly fascinating. One of our most interesting experiments takes place in our Champagne Wine School, where guests are given the chance to taste blind a range of Champagnes from famous houses alongside each other. Without fail, there are always people who prefer a different brand to the one which they would normally choose – and they may even find that they don’t like their favourite as much as they thought. This suggests that they are more influenced by the brand, the prestige and the image than the liquid itself.
This comes as no surprise to me at all and is certainly not something which indicates that you aren’t a very good wine taster. It is well-documented that, even for experts, sensory perceptions when it comes to wine are very, very difficult to separate from other layers of understanding about that wine. Prestige, history, a great story – all of these have been shown to improve our perception of the actual taste of the liquid. That’s not to say that the liquid in many expensive wines ISN’T superior to cheaper wines – in blind tastings I do usually manage to pick out those which really stand head and shoulders above the others, without any clue about the label – but not always. I find this fascinating.
I am immensely privileged to work here in the historic heart of Berry Bros. & Rudd, and to have the opportunity to taste the world’s finest wines. Doing it as part of a job, though, means that you rarely get the chance to savour the wines as you would at home – but unfortunately drinking the same wines at home is much too expensive! Imagine my excitement, then, when a few years ago I was able to take the remains of a bottle of 1990 Château Margaux to share with my brother. We looked upon it with awe and wonder, relished every single drop and still have the empty bottle enshrined on top of a kitchen cupboard. The question I would like to ask is this: if someone had sneakily replaced the liquid in the bottle with Berrys’ Good Ordinary Claret, would we have enjoyed the experience any less? Possibly, since there’s no doubt that 1990 Château Margaux is a sensational wine – but then again, possibly not; I remember less about the actual taste of that wine than I do about the ritual of drinking it and the reverence with which we treated it. This may lead you to think, well, what on earth is the point of paying a huge amount for a Cru Classé Bordeaux if you could just stick a fancy label on an everyday drinking claret?
Sometimes, after blind tasting, this thought does indeed cross your mind. But so what if our sensory perception is enhanced by other elements of a wine’s story? We are human, and our sensory perception is only one element of the totality of the experience of being alive. So what if the knowledge that we are drinking a First Growth enhances our enjoyment of the liquid? So what if that fruity but ultimately bland Provence rosé only tastes amazing because we are drinking it on holiday by the sea in Nice, and if we bring a bottle home we wonder what on earth we liked about it? Bring it on!! It’s all part of being alive and all part of the multi-faceted wonder of wine.
A colleague of mine once mused that perhaps, in decades to come, understanding of wine chemistry will have advanced to such a degree that a rare gem like 1961 Château Latour could be chemically synthesised. This leads us to ask a philosophical question: would this wine give us the same degree of pleasure? The answer is, NO, of course not! No matter how good it tasted, it would have lost layers upon layers of rarity, history and prestige, which are all part of this wine’s ability to give us pleasure.
So, whilst I maintain that blind tasting is very important when you are learning about wine, and whilst it will always remain a cornerstone of the Berrys’ Wine School approach to education, I would also like to say this: enjoying wine is about much, much more than tasting fermented grape juice. Revel in every single aspect of it.