The Secrets of Blind Wine Judging
Published by Keith Kirkpatrick on 24/11/2020
Our wine buyer Keith gives an inside look at the world of blind wine judging.
Judging wine is a curious activity, especially when it is a ‘blind’ tasting. Repeatedly assessing the appearance and taste, of up to 100 different wines in a session. Then attaching a tasting note and score to each in turn. It’s a process filled with potential pit falls, and more than a few inconvenient traditions, ‘it’s how we’ve always done it’.
Firstly, the ‘blind’ part. This form of tasting is supposed to force the taster to assess overall quality without being swayed by prior knowledge of the wine in question. It could be a famous chateau with a string of perfect scores in recent vintages and stratospheric market prices, or perhaps a £5.99 glugger from your local discount supermarket. Every wine professional invited to take part in a blind tasting will tell you this will never happen, they are capable of viewing every tasting measure poured objectively.
If this were the case, then why are many of the world’s most famous and expensive wines routinely excluded from ‘blind’ assessment, even by experienced professionals? It is because this is an environment that throws up surprises and can trick the mind. It’s much safer for the precious liquid to be presented in person with the assessor in full knowledge of what they are about to taste. Even if not mind-blowingly great, the wines pedigree will ensure a certain level of ‘benefit of the doubt’ and will still come highly recommended.
The large number of wines in the tasting can be problematic too. Palate fatigue is very real. When tasting wines in my work environment, either to check the quality of a new vintages, or to assess potential new listings from a new producers, I would limit the number of wines being tasted to no more than 8 or 10. This is to ensure that every wine gets a fair chance to shine. If faced with 30 different Cabernet Sauvignons or Chardonnays, it is very possible that the last one tasted will not get the attention it deserves, your concentration has wavered, your sense of smell and taste has been muted by the 15 or so fruit bombs that proceeded it, if the last wine is elegant and perfumed you will not pick it up.
So how can these potential pitfalls be countered? One solution is having a varied panel of tasters doing the work. My most recent tasting took place in the company of a wine writer from the national press and a sommelier from a high-end fine dining restaurant.
A mainstream journalist will always have the high street consumer in mind, armed with a dictionary of eye catching and appetising flavour descriptors. They seek out the characteristics that will give instant pleasure over a Sunday dinner with the family, for example, often with a keen eye for the styles that would offer great value in the weekly shop. A sommelier will use their experience of the fine dining environment to search for wines of quality that will pair well with food. How can this wine be recommended to a customer paying a significant sum for a special evening out? They often seek out wines that have some age, and therefore are a little more intellectual in their composition, a unique talking point that shows work has been done to find something special just for you.
For myself, I take both approaches to the same wine. As a business we sell direct to consumers, as well as to restaurants and independent retailers. Having studied winemaking I find myself taking a rather technical and practical approach first, before letting myself get carried away with the more pleasurable elements. Is it correct? Are there faults? Does it taste like the variety on the label? Does it taste of its place of origin? Is everything I balance – acidity, fruit, weight, length, wood? If one dominates the others will it all come together at some point in the future to become complete? Only then do I start thinking of the flavour descriptors or food pairings, we all do it with different priorities and in a different order.
What is telling, is that after tasting 100 different wines, for example, all of us will agree on the dozen or so really good or great wines. Similarly we will also agree on the dozen or so really sub standard efforts. Where it gets complicated is with the 70 or so in the middle, there is often significant disagreement; disappointment for me could bring a simple pleasure to another. This is when the variety of approaches, experience and priorities allows us to debate and meet somewhere in the middle. We can agree that although it may not be to personal taste|, there is very much a market for the wine, and perhaps you had not picked up on certain nuances or aspects that will make it a good recommendation. Re-taste it, approach it from a different perspective and you’ll often find yourself scoring it up or down a little.
To finish, you average the scores in the hope that it gives a fair and critiqued appraisal of each wine. This is a score that not all will agree with, but should not be too far from the end users own assessment. One last, critical piece of the puzzle is price, and whether this wine with this score is a recommended buy or not. This is really the one part of blind tasting that I have a problem with.
Imagine wine number 50 in the tasting ticked a lot of boxes, but there where 2 maybe 3 areas where I would like a little more. Now if that wine retails for £7.99 it is overperforming and I would highly recommend it, but if it is £45 I would be disappointed that the producer could not find the means at that price point to tick those other boxes, so I may not recommend it on the basis that you could find equal quality at a lower price, or better quality at the same.
Knowing the price before blind tasting will just lead to the same fears that a taster will be swayed by the price, even though you don’t know the actual wine, if it is expensive you search for the positives, if it cheap you search for what is missing. A simple solution for me, is that you go through your process of assessing, tasting, writing your notes, and scoring. Then, before stating any recommendation, you are told the price. This final step is the most important for me, a lot of what goes before is, whether you like it or not, influenced by some degree by personal preference and opinion.
In the end it is you and your business’ reputation that is on the line if you are going to recommend a wine. A note, score and recommendation that are all in harmony leaves little room for indecision with a customer, whether it is the Sunday supplement reader, online shopper or restaurant buyer. This fosters a degree of confidence and loyalty from your customers, a priceless privilege and something that is at the forefront of our minds every time we choose a wine at Roberson.
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