Last month a group of Vox.com colleagues undertook a blind tasting involving three different bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon at three different price points: US$43, $14 and $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 favour 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 distinguish 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 recognisable 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.
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