Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 26 September 2013

To blind taste or not to blind taste

In horse-racing terms, you can’t be expected to invest in a yearling unless you know the bloodline. This logic extends to the arguments against blind tasting of wines, but the counter argument – the positive sway of a known label – is compelling. In a wine industry such as South Africa’s, leaving room for blind judging means more good wines from unknown producers get “discovered”.

In the arcane world of wine judging, the debate about whether or not to taste blind rages on with the vehemence reserved for reformist priests circling a fiery stake in the mid-16th century. Clearly for some this is a cause worth dying for, since martyrdom will bring infinite supplies of 100-point wines (and perhaps bed partners vastly more skilled in the arts of love than the rough-and-ready virgins on standby for the teetotalling faithful).

On the one hand, those who prefer the sighted route to their own perdition argue that how can you know the prospects of a bottle unless you know everything about its provenance. Even in Australia, the Mecca of blind judging, the current wisdom is that show judges need to be told everything except the actual name of the wine so that they can arrive at an informed opinion. In horseracing terms, you can’t be expected to invest in a yearling unless you know the bloodline.

The case against this relates to the wilful self-deception of those who trust their opinions ahead of their sensory judgement. You never rate a known wine on its merits alone. A sight of the label (as Michael Broadbent once remarked about the guessing games which wine buffs like to play with each other) is worth fifty years of experience. The unfortunate corollary is that once you’ve seen the label, you think you “know” everything that is worth knowing about the wine. Pour an indifferent red into a Chateau Mouton Rothschild bottle and ask any group (including wine industry professionals) what they think of the wine. Then, a little later, serve them the same wine from its original bottle. Chances are that coming from the Mouton bottle it will score significantly better – the brand value of the Rothschilds will see to that.

There’s no doubt that once you have the full low-down on a wine’s provenance you are in a better position to pass judgement on its potential. Mouton Rothschild is likely to produce a more complex and longer-lived wine than a lesser property in Bordeaux. And although this may not be evident when you taste a two-year-old sample, you could safely draw that conclusion if you knew in advance what was printed on the label.

In South Africa, things are much less certain. We have very few producers with anything like a comparable track record. Even our best-known “estates” are not necessarily selling estate wine (that is to say, wine produced solely from grapes grown on the property). Many buy fruit from other regions. Consult the labels of your favourite brands and you might discover that although the winery is in Stellenbosch or Paarl, the area of origin says “Coastal Region” or even “Wine of Western Cape”, evidence of grapes sourced from many appellations.

Under these circumstances it would be shortsighted to rely upon the illusion of pedigree that comes with the cellar’s brand name. Even where only estate fruit has been used in producing a particular wine, changes in vineyard management, massive replanting programmes and the fact that our wine industry is evolving (whereas the top European estates are merely fine-tuning their offerings) all make it impossible to predict with any certainty the full potential of a newly released Cape red.

To further complicate things, our producers tend to offer a wider range of products than their international counterparts. The top Bordeaux estates are really about a single wine. True, there is now a fashion to declassify all but the best grapes and barrels, so that in addition to the estate wine, there is a second label into which has been blended anything which did not make the cut as Grand vin. Very occasionally there may also be a small parcel of white wine. Cape estates are likely to offer a Grand vin equivalent and a range of different varieties, red and white. Vergelegen, for example, has its Grand vin in its top Bordeaux blend (sold simply as “V”) and at least two other similar blends at lower price points. It also offers a Merlot, a Shiraz, a white Bordeaux blend, a couple of Chardonnays and a few Sauvignon Blancs. It would be unlikely that every one of these wines comes to market with equal potential. Since the Vergelegen brand name is very strong, and carries great credibility, it is probable that the cellar’s weakest wine will enjoy a more charitable response tasted sighted than it might tasted blind, and a more generous assessment than if it had been presented under the label of a less well-known producer.

The other side of the same coin is that blind tasting can prove a remarkable talent-scouting tool. Free of the influence of a label, the judge enjoys an unmediated encounter with the contents of the bottle. He cannot rely on pedigree to assist him; there’s just the wine, and his appreciation of it.

All my tastings for Wine Wizard (except the samples lined up for producer verticals and events like the Nederburg and Cape Winemakers Guild sales) are done blind. Sometimes my first encounter with products and ranges is at the Wine Wizard tasting bench. When I find myself giving scores over 75 (the threshold for really good wine) to what turns out to be an utterly unknown cellar, I see the process as a voyage of discovery. When several wines in the range do well, I know the scores aren’t flukes. By the same token, when one wine from a well-known cellar does badly (in some cases, consistently so), I know that it has been slipstreaming behind the better products in the range.

In the end, how much does this matter? Do we really expect that every wine from a reputable producer will be of the same standard? Do we not try new wines expressly because we are hoping to stumble upon a seam of gold? Don’t we rely upon third parties – wine writers, wine competitions, wine guides, sites like Wine Wizard – to refine the information of what is available?

Unless you want to spend the rest of your life under the illusion that you are only drinking the very best wines in the world, you’d probably be happy with a lifetime free of vinous disappointments. It’s not possible to assemble a cellar made up solely of legendary wines. Not all 100-point scores are equal. Even if they were, the potential remains limitless. As the Irish have it, there are more fish in the sea than have ever been caught. DM

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