Wine tast­ing de­moc­ra­tizes the world of wine

The China Post - - ARTS -

Last month a group of col­leagues un­der­took a blind tast­ing in­volv­ing three dif­fer­ent bot­tles of Caber­net Sauvi­gnon at three dif­fer­ent price points: US$43, US$14 and US$8. Dur­ing the tast­ing, about half of the group were able to iden­tify the most ex­pen­sive. But they did not nec­es­sar­ily like it the most, and did not con­sider it five times bet­ter than the cheap­est wine. In fact, group rat­ings were ex­actly the same for these two bot­tles.

Con­clu­sion? There’s an aw­ful lot of wine elitism out there, isn’t there? Even though ev­ery wine critic and som­me­lier de­lights in find­ing a wine which of­fers a great price-qual­ity ra­tio, the cost fac­tor re­mains com­pelling.

David Bird MW, con­fess­ing that he rarely drinks Bordeaux (partly be­cause too much of it is too or­di­nary), points out that he would never, for ex­am­ple, rec­om­mend a Barolo to a novice drinker. In­deed the same ap­plies for an ex­pe­ri­enced con­sumer, be­cause find­ing the pre­cise drink­ing win­dow is im­por­tant for a Barolo.

Much more ac­ces­si­ble would be a round and fruity Valpo­li­cella, he says. The gen­eral public’s love of easy (to al­most the point of char­ac­ter­less) Prosecco and Pinot Gri­gio, both of which are al­most al­ways avail­able by the glass, takes the point fur­ther. Tan­nins and acid­ity can be too de­mand­ing when all the con­sumer seeks is a so­cial drink with friends.

Another tast­ing experiment, this time in Aus­tralia, ad­dressed the idea that a higher price brings with it an ex­pec­ta­tion of qual­ity. Ap­par­ently we tend to rate a wine more gen­er­ously when we think it ex­pen­sive. But it may not all be in the mind. When we taste a wine that we are told is ex­pen­sive, there is more com­mu­ni­ca­ble ac­tiv­ity in the brain area as­so­ci­ated with taste.

Let’s think in food terms. Would we au­to­mat­i­cally fa­vor Kobe beef over An­gus, or lob­ster over crab, if we were un­aware of where they sat on the price spec­trum? Fur­ther, plenty of peo­ple might not like beef, lob­ster or crab in the first place, and they wouldn’t be sent to the bot­tom of the culi­nary class for pre­fer­ring Chi­nese cab­bage over French as­para­gus.

So it is OK to drink rose from a jug when hol­i­day­ing in Provence. That’s what the lo­cals will be hav­ing, any­way. Maybe the Devil does ac­tu­ally wear Zara as well as Prada.

Even among wine pro­fes­sion­als, there may rarely be con­sent. The same wine voted the best of a flight of 12 by one judge may come in near the bot­tom for another. That is why blind tast­ing is ideally done in large groups to even out the scores.

Give a group of judges the same wine in three dif­fer­ent glasses, and it is es­ti­mated that only one in 10 would no­tice that they are the same. Note, though, that this may be less to do with “ig­no­rance” and more to do with the ex­pec­ta­tion that they are dif­fer­ent — given the un­der­stand­ing of what a con­ven­tional wine tast­ing rep­re­sents.

The wine judg­ing process is cer­tainly fraught. Even Jan­cis Robin­son MW has con­fessed that, if you’re try­ing to catch some­one out and tast­ing from black glass­ware, it can even be dif­fi­cult to distin- guish be­tween red and white (with rose pre­sum­ably be­ing even more com­pli­cated to as­sess). Robin­son’s cross-At­lantic spat with Robert Parker over Chateau Pavie 2003 (he said yes please, she said it was barely rec­og­niz­able as a Bordeaux) in­fa­mously showed up the thin line be­tween ob­jec­tiv­ity and sub­jec­tiv­ity.

We should then ask the ques­tion as to whether it is pos­si­ble to praise a wine highly for its in­her­ent qual­ity, even though we would not choose to open a bot­tle with din­ner tonight (or din­ner, any­time).

The 2004 movie Side­ways, set in Cal­i­for­nia’s Napa Val­ley, was be­lieved to be re­spon­si­ble for a surge in pop­u­lar­ity of Pinot Noir (and a cor­re­spond­ing drop in the pop­u­lar­ity of Mer­lot) be­cause the chatty, demo­cratic script gave con­sumers the con­fi­dence to be around some­thing new — as op­posed to feel­ing a bit lost.

Wine judg­ing, or wine tast­ings, in a not dis­sim­i­lar vein, helps pro­vide a ver­nac­u­lar through which to un­der­stand a bev­er­age at least as com­plex as tea, if not more so. Try­ing two or three sim­i­lar wines at the same time, and yet be­ing able to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween them, helps to re­move some of the fear and elitism. Stephen Quinn writes about wine for a va­ri­ety of publi­ca­tions in the re­gion. From 1975 he was a jour­nal­ist for two decades with the Bangkok Post; BBC-TV, The Guardian, ITN, the UK Press As­so­ci­a­tion; TVNZ; the Mid­dle East Broad­cast­ing Cen­ter in Dubai and a range of re­gional news­pa­pers in Aus­tralia. Dr. Quinn be­came a jour­nal­ism ed­u­ca­tor in 1996, but re­turned to jour­nal­ism full time in 2011. He is based in Hong Kong and is the au­thor of 17 books.

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