Jefford on Monday: Thinking about Tasting

What’s the best way to taste wine? It’s a simple question – but the answer is as tangled as the root system in a mangrove swamp.

Most tastings are sighted: you know a wine’s origins as you assess it. With blind tasting, by contrast, those origins are concealed.  

Or are they? Blind tastings are generally conducted by bracketing together some kind of peer group, so a segment of the wine’s origin is known or intuited. (There are, in fact, many levels of half-sightedness in ‘blind’ wine tasting.  Scientific experimental standards for single-blind trials, let alone double-blind, are rarely met in the wine world.)

The third way to taste wine, of course, is to drink it. For me, no wine is ever assessed until it is drunk – in other words, until it has passed through the back of the mouth, down the oesophagus, and into the digestive system. Digestibility is as much a hallmark of truly fine wine as is sensorial intricacy and harmony. In the ‘real’ world, remember, everyone drinks. No one tastes and spits.  

Twenty-five years of reading wine assessments, as well as providing assessments of my own, have convinced me that tasting without drinking is, in fact, a monstrous (if inevitable) flaw in all wine criticism. I’d like to see wine critics append a ‘D’ or a ‘*’ to any numeric score or tasting note for a wine which has been drunk rather than merely assessed by tasting. Any critic who claims that they have never had to adjust, after drinking, an initial assessment based on tasting alone is lying.  

A tasting note or a score is a hypothesis. Drinking is the proof. Hypotheses aren’t always correct.

If you have to rely on tasting alone, though, which is better: blind tasting or sighted tasting?  

In theory, blind tasting has to be best. The less you know, the less your judgement will be clouded, and the freer you will be to speak your mind.  Your can concentrate on the naked wine itself. There is a well-established tradition of blind tasting assessment within the pragmatic and sceptical traditions of English-speaking cultures. In the UK, at any rate, it’s common for wine enthusiasts to serve their friends wines blind around the dinner table. It’s often humiliating, but always instructive. I’m sure it’s common in other cultures, too, though perhaps not yet around Chinese dinner tables: the process may entail chronic loss of face for both host (if an expensive wine is derided by all) and guest (if you decide that Lafite 2005 is a Vins de Pays d’Oc Cabernet – or vice versa).  

The problem with blind tasting is that even panels of highly skilled tasters don’t always come up with the ‘right’ results. Wines whose charms later prove ephemeral regularly triumph over wines of enduring greatness. Why?

Tasters are of course subjective; they are also fallible. Not every tasting is run in an exemplary manner. Committee verdicts conflate the findings of the most skilled tasters in a panel with those of the least skilled. An extravagant scorer can swing a verdict against half a dozen cautious scorers. And it’s still only tasting, not drinking.  

I’m a big fan of the ‘hard talk’ involved in blind tasting, but I have to accept that sighted tasting has its merits, too.  Yes, tasters can be influenced by label and reputation – yet reputation, after all, is in a sense the communal verdict of thousands of drinkers through history. Reputation, too, is always founded on drinking.  

A courageous critic should always make a call against reputation if he or she feels that it’s not justified by the evidence in the glass, but in a sighted tasting, the taster is aware of the cultural implications of that decision. If you back a rank outsider with the highest score in the tasting, it’s done knowingly: statement intended.

In truth, we need both sorts of tasting: they correct each other. Blind tasting scythes inflated reputations; sighted tasting provides continuously re-scrutinized benchmarks.

And since, in the real world, assessment by drinking reigns supreme, the wine market itself can be regarded as a kind of super-taster, winnowing the good from the better, and the best from the worse. Irrational exuberance on the part of a critic will, sooner or later, be found out -- because over-priced wines don’t sell. Especially in a financial crisis …

Related wine tasting content:

- What is wine tasting? - follow our guide to smelling, tasting, spitting and examining wine
- Blind tasting - an insiders guide
- Video: How to taste wine - watch Decanter's consultant editor Steven Spurrier give a tasting tutorial
- How to read wine tasting notes - examples of wine tasting notes and how to read them

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com