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To taste blind or not blind, that is the question | New Brief out, #178 | The Wine Newsletter

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Per Karlsson portrait Britt Karlsson portraitTo taste blind or not blind, that is the question. The answer is simple!

Is it better to taste wines blind, semi-blind or open? That question has popped up several times lately. In recent months, I have been to wine tastings, wine seminars and in the jury of wine competitions, where that question has been more than a peripheral curiosity.

When I say “taste blind” here I mean that you know absolutely nothing about the wines you taste. “Half-blind” often means that you know which wines it is, but not in which order they are served. Here, however, I mean something different: to taste a series of wines where you have been given information about what kind of wines it is, for example, “white bordeaux”. “Open” requires no explanation.

My answer is simple: If you want to evaluate the quality of a wine as objectively as possible, you should taste it completely blindly. (However, read here about judging “objectively.”)

This is perhaps most relevant when it is some kind of “judging” situation, like in the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (where I was judging earlier this spring), the International Wine Challenge and such events, or, why not, trade tastings. Then the purpose is to provide some kind of quality assessment. In such cases, if possible, taste completely blind.

If you know something, just anything, about the wines then you are immediately influenced by your own expectations for that type of wine, and then you will inevitably introduce a discriminatory factor in the assessment of the wine.

Some people think it is best to know what “kind” of wine it is. For example, they do this at the Decanter competition. The wines are divided into groups, often based on appellation and possibly price, and the information is given to the tasters. The advantage of it, some believe, is that you can then judge the wines based on what they “should” be like or on “typicity”. But then, in my opinion, you miss the point. If you need to know what kind of wine it is to appreciate its quality, then maybe it’s not as good as the seller wants the consumer to believe.

Two examples from the Concours Mondial. We had a series of twenty red wines that were quite light and also light in colour; they had high acidity and lots of rough tannins. Overall, we gave them quite low points; unbalanced, unripe and edgy, on average. It turned out (afterwards) to be a series of nebbiolo from Piedmont. A wine type that today is super-trendy and very highly praised. Had we initially known what it was, then I am certain that we would have – Pavlovian -given the wines better points than we did now.

Another example: A series of twenty white wines, overall powerful, complex, nuanced, balanced, many with excellent acidity and minerality. High points. It turned out to be pinot gris / blanc from the Czech Republic. Surely they do not make great wines in CZ? … is probably what most of us in the jury had as a pre-conceived idea. But yes, they do! Knowing in advance that we were tasting Czech wines, the scores would most likely have slipped.

In other words, if you want to evaluate the quality to the best of your ability, then taste blind. Completely blind. (With a small additional note: you should also avoid guessing games, trying to figure out what it is that you are tasting. Inevitably, this will destroy one’s own neutrality.)

This is not a criticism of wine judges or wine critics, or of anyone tasting wine. It is just a description of the weakness of man, or the subjectivity and psychology of assessing wines.

There are countless examples that one’s expectations directly affect one’s appreciation and assessment of a wine.

Conclusions:

First: Taste blind if you want to evaluate the quality of the wines.

And then: If you have a very exclusive or expensive wine, do not serve it blind. To appreciate such a wine to its fullest, one needs to know that it is expensive, unusual or exclusive. Hence the importance of marketing for expensive wines. If one does not know that it’s expensive, one does not appreciate it as much…

Britt & Per

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3 Responses to To taste blind or not blind, that is the question | New Brief out, #178 | The Wine Newsletter

  1. Per Karlsson July 2, 2018 at 12:22 #

    HERE’S A COMMENT THAT WE RECEIVED BY EMAIL, BUT THAT RAISES INTERESTING QUESTIONS, SO I WANTED TO SHARE IT HERE (ANONYMOUSLY):

    While I agree there is a lot of usefulness in tasting wines blind, I question your conclusion on the basis of a few points:

    1. The example you gave of the nebbiolo flight wasn’t as blind as you say. That is, all the wines came from the same place – though you didn’t know what that was. If you really want to do a fully objective comparison of better and worse wines, the flight should include wines from different places as well as possibly different grape varieties. You’re going for an absolute, after all, right? Also, each wine should be tasted separately, not in flights. After all, inevitable comparisons will be made between one and another – something that in most wine competitions judges are told not to do – but we know how things really go.

    2. Wine has a purpose that has being overlooked by your example. Wines made from nebbiolo grapes are almost never to consumed without food (nor are many others, for that matter). Their acidity is too elevated and tannin, too pronounced to be enjoyed alone. So, the wines, judged blind, are at an inherent disadvantage to those driven by appealing fruit. What’s objective about that? Do medals or scores come with asterisk that says, “tasted alone, blind. Experience might be different with food?” Of course not.

    3. I realize that the Czech example is used only to be illustrative, but please be aware that in a lot of wine circles, especially in certain professional tasting panels in New York, judges would be thrilled to come across beautifully made Czech wines, and indeed, the problem might be the opposite. Namely, that they’d receive them more enthusiastically, perhaps, than a similar, theoretic wine from Alsace, which ‘should be better.’ Indeed, perceptions cut both ways.

    The point is, up until the present, there is no ideal way to judge wines in a competition. (And, I am saying nothing about the irregular quality of judges. Even in prestigious competitions, there are judges unable to detect all sorts of flaws.). I’m pretty sure, though, that blind tasting isn’t better.

    [SUBMITTED BY EMAIL AND POSTED HERE BY ADMIN]

  2. Per Karlsson July 2, 2018 at 12:23 #

    Hi,

    Thanks for your comments. Since I wrote the text I’ll respond to your remarks.

    #1 I’m not sure mixing wildly is helpful, since one may get rather confused, but perhaps that would be an interesting thing to try. If it is better or not, I don’t know. Not sure what you mean by “separately”. In the example I cite the wines are presented in “flights” (with ~12-25 wines in each) but usually each wine is tasted individually, sequentially one after the other, and not in comparison with other “neighbouring” wines. There’s only three glasses and I prefer using just two.

    #2 Well, this is of course true, but an experienced taster should be able to understand that, and “calibrate” for it, so it should not be an issue.

    #3 Which then emphasises my point that “blind is better” if I understand you right.

    Agreed, there is no ideal way to judge in a competition, just like there is no ideal or perfect wine. But there are ways to try and eliminate bias. One of the objectives of most wine competitions is to find wines, give medals to wines, that are perhaps lesser-known, or don’t have the reputation they merit, or to put it in another way, to try to give merit to wines without taking into account previous fame and reputation, and there are better and worse ways to do that. I think that’s what we’re really discussing here. (The primeur tastings must be one of the worst.)

    On your final conclusion, though, I wonder if you have not put in one negation too many? If you want to evaluate “quality” I’m convinced blind tasting is better.

  3. Per Karlsson July 17, 2018 at 10:53 #

    Another thought:

    I read recently in Decanter a “tasting panel” article about New Zeeland chardonnays. In the article they said (approximately) “we agreed to not award more than 89 points to any wine however good it was, because we thought that they did not express the chardonnay typicity we wanted”.

    That is another example of why I think you should taste blind.

    The reasoning just does not make sense to me. “I think this is really, really good. It’s a 95 point wine. But since it does not taste the way I think it SHOULD taste I will only give it 89”. To me, that is plainly wrong.

    If the taste merist 95 points then it should have 95 points (you can argue about the relevance of points but that’s another debate).

    It became even worse. At one point in the article there was a comment something like “finally this was a wine with great character, there were flavours reminding me of chassagne-montrachet in this wine”. So you rate New Zeeland chardonnays after how well they replicate burgundy.

    You should not rate a wine after how you think it SHOULD taste. You should rate a wine after how it DOES taste and after how much PLEASURE it gives you as such.

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