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Blind tasting

1874 issue 3, page 7 ‘Last Word’: Bravo Sebastian Payne MW for revealing that even the experts aren’t infallible. Reassuring to the rest of us who struggle to identify wine types (particularly red in my case). Refreshingly honest. Thanks.

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Having just done Diploma exams for Wines of the World, sparkling and fortified, my views on blind tasting are:

  1. If it has any purpose at all it should really be about quality assessment. So blind tasting is better if you discuss fruit complexity, acidity, tannin, intensity, length of finish.
  2. Identifying the wine is all very impressive but ultimately meaningless. All you are doing is reconstructing the name on the label.
    3 sticking to quality assessment, via characteristics is more interesting and constructive. Friends who ask for help when choosing a wine will find it more helpful if you can broadly describle the wine and its quality, and style. At least they then have a reasonable opportunity at making an informed choice, and less chance of wasting money.
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Totally agree

Also agree, but it is still fun and difficult trying to work out what is in your glass (to a point). Tbh, I struggle to identify the grape variety normally, let alone country, region or age.

@JamesE and I have been exchanging a glass bottle with mystery contents (basically whatever we had open) since the start of lockdown. The last bottle exchanged was #160

All it has taught us about blind tasting is how little we know and how easy it is to go down the wrong path. That’s not to say I haven’t learned a lot - effectively tasting double the number of wines I would ordinarily enjoyed - and have become a bit more thoughtful about what’s in my glass (and what a sneaky bastard he is sometimes).

It has, however, been a awful lot of fun and a way to partake in the sharing of wine, that has otherwise been mostly lacking over the last 15 months or so.

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I remember when I studied WSET level 3 years ago the tutor said identifying the wine was only worth a couple of marks and not to get too hung up about it. Whether by good luck or a superb tasting palate I managed to identify the wines I blind tasted :grinning:

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A bind tasting with a view to identifying grape variety presents several different issues

Some grapes have strong characteristics and often have specific ones that help you making a judgment. Sauvignon blanc has very high acidity, those gooseberry, elderflower aromas and is nearly always unoaked. Gewurtz., also has a precise profile, low acidity, strong tropical lychees aromas and flavours. But Pinot grigio can be made in a variety of styles that makes identifying it quite hard.

Red grapes have tannins, so tannin levels can sometimes help. Pinot Noir generally has low/medium very fine tannins, that red fruit profile, which does often mark it out from other red grapes.

My experience is that as a basic generality it is easier to identify grapes varieties in under £10 wines. Once growers start raising fermentation temperatures, longer maceration, and skin contact with whites, plus MLF, using oak barrels, adding stems then that is when I find difficulties.

When tasting there is always the argument that you should go with immediate impact. I did that in the first flight of the WSET wines of world exam. The wines were all white and pale lemon. First wine up I immediately thought SB, but the next two showed oak on the palate so I thought they were Chardonnay, so I crossed out SB and put Chardonnay… and they were SB!

So going down the wrong path happens as you say very easily, and perhaps over thinking.

Also dealing with blends makes life difficult. PN is hardly ever in a blend, and Cabernet Sauvignon nearly always has some Merlot in it, even if the label only states CS.

There are some wines that are unmistakeable. Barolo is always a banker in an exam. Generally I find Cabernet Franc easier to identify. I get in a muddle with Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Carignan,

Varieties with age, can change quite dramatically.

So when it comes to grape varieties, some I get right but for every one I get right I make about 10 howlers…

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Sadly I’ve been there and done that repeatedly. I’m pretty sure that my colleagues, who were far more experienced and expert, were better able than I was at making judgement purely on what was in front of them. In my case I found it very difficult to not fixate in one factor and then push fit my arguments around that. The only saving grace in examination terms is that marking schemes if well constructed will give more weight to identifying individual elements correctly rather than giving too much credit to identification.

I really actively dislike blind tasting in any other context than in examinations - where it is a necessary evil.

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Blind tasting in itself is pointless (though can be fun to an extent). However, the skills involved are the same as those required to assess typicity, which is a component of quality.

I can’t say that typicity is a huge issue for me, but even I will accept that the features of a high quality Burgundy should have little in common with a California Cab Sauv. That’s an extreme example, but I guess the same principle also applies to more subtle differences.

I disagree a little with the views on blind tasting as I think it does have a value. Primarily because wines tasted blind removes the subjectivity of the process, and introduces an objectivity to the process that isn’t there unless the wine is tasted blind.

There are lots of research articles that show that if someone knows a wine is expensive for example, that it changes their perceptions and judgements accordingly.

I’d love to see much more blind tasting occurring to bring an objectivity solely based on the quality of the wine in the glass - rather than the label or price tag on the bottle. I think the TWS Wine Champions tries to achieve this, albeit from a pre-selected pool.

I’ve been through the WSET process too, and the blind tasting exam really does show how hard it is to differentiate even grape variety. Imagine the challenge if faced with 6 Pomerol’s - in some respects it would be easier as the comparative nature would help identify quality traits and typicity, but even then individual properties have different approaches.

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Very true but isn’t that all part of the pleasure of wine? I don’t think I’ve ever had more pleasure from drinking a wine blind than I think I would have had with the same wine in the full knowledge of what it was.

I concede that in a professional context it’s a valid approach. I just think for an amateur it’s a bit unnecessary.

As a stand-alone skill it’s not much more than a parlour game, but it does make sense as part of a curriculum. It’s essentially the same as the ‘drop the needle’ test in music degrees, and is more a means to an end than a skill to be acquired per se.

As students prepare for these tests, two things happen:

  1. they practice / hone their critical tasting skills
  2. they broaden their experience by tasting many, many more wines than they normally would do in the same period

Both of these are valuable in the wine profession, do you know what a wide variety of wines taste like and can you intelligently describe what you taste to someone else and put it into context.

To take an extreme example, I saw a clip of a blind tasting where the sommelier correctly identified both the wine and the year (I’m sure it was classed growth Bordeaux). Amazing skill to watch, but what that really means is he had enough skill in tasting and experience with those sorts of wines from various years, so in buying/selling across a range he would be able to pick from vintages that best suited the requirements.

To go back to the music analogy, hearing an excerpt of music and being able to have an accurate guess of Bach or Beethoven (or more difficult Haydn or Mozart) isn’t really a skill to trade on, but someone who is able to do that more often is also more likely to play various pieces of music in a more stylistically appropriate way.

The other small point not to be overlooked- all these schools are essentially businesses, and they are training people in what is mostly a subjective subject (is that valid grammar?) Blind tasting is something most go in not being good at and come out being better at. It is a skill that can be graded, measured and give sense of accomplishment … and value for money. The written tests are theory, the tasting is the practical element to the qualification.

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Fully agree :+1:

However, blind tasting is not a skill required for attaining pleasure. In the context of assessing the quality of a panel of wines as a buyer or judge then removing subjectivity would be great for levelling the playing field.

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It should also be recognised that blindness of tasting is not a binary choice. In winetasting circles single-blind means you know the variety/region under consideration, and double-blind that the wines could come from anywhere.

But the range in a single-blind tasting coud be very narrow or broad.

Even when double-blind, there are usually cues from the context, from the source of the wines for example. Who is leading the tasting? And if the tasting is in the UK, you are likely only to be given wines readily available here.

Total removal of bias is practically impossible, and if it were I am not sure what it would teach us if wines were truly randomly delected from around the world - probably that there is huge variation in what wine tastes like and most of it is crap?

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I’m pretty sure I’ve met a Frenchman (or two) who would argue it’s all a waste of effort unless you can reconstruct the GPS coordinates of the field the grapes were grown in (not that they themselves would actually do such a thing). :rofl: