Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Placing Wine Reviewing In Context

I was looking forward to a tasting of 2003 Bordeaux reds a few weeks ago. As usual the tasting was accompanied by tasting notes from several noted critics and as always happens some of the people in attendance placed great emphasis on the content of the notes and/or the scores for the individual wines. Because the tasting was done single blind the inevitable happens, people taste the wines and then try to identify them based on how their tasting notes compare with the provided tasting notes. It never works; at least I’ve never seen anyone successfully identify the wines using that approach.

One thing that does not happen at these tastings is complaints about the use of single blind as the method of assessing the wines. True, some individuals are clearly quite new to wine tasting and require an explanation of how the evening will progress but I’ve never heard any raised voices complaining that the identity of the wines is not laid out before them. This is in contrast to many professional critics, including Robert Parker, Jr and James Halliday, who taste many wines unblinded. The argument used is that a wine label should not influence the true professional, although I challenge them to prove that point, or at the very least to point to peer reviewed scientific literature that proves that visual clues do not influence decision making.

Another argument that is used in support of non-blinded wine reviewing is that its important to know the identity of the wine so that you can more easily place the wine in context. In other words by knowing the identity of the wine (e.g. variety, vintage, producer, region) you are better able to judge it. I always have a difficult time with this idea of drinking and/or reviewing wines "in context", particularly if you are blinded to the identity of the wines and then when you learn of the identity you reassess the wines to put them "in context", and especially if that reassessment means that wines are re-graded. Let's put this in perspective! What "in context" means to me is drinking/reviewing wine within your own field of reference/experience. The problem with this is that is exactly where bias comes in. I appreciate that it is difficult to avoid bias. Simply looking at a row of wine glasses and seeing that the wines are red as opposed to white has already begun a thought process that could include bias, and the influence of bias can increase as more information is gathered (e.g. smell, taste etc). But the serious bias comes in when notes and scores/grades/stars are added after a wine has been identified following a blind tasting. I believe serious basis is there from the beginning if the identity of the wine is known during the tasting (if you don't believe the latter I'd love to see the data that proves me wrong.)

To make this short just a couple of examples of why I believe "in context" creates problems.

1) Placing a young wine in the context of previous vintages: Essentially vintage comparison and its done all the time. The most recent vintage of wine X is compared to some previous vintage with regard to some characteristic. To do this properly requires an extraordinary knowledge of the wine in question and previous vintages and all the relevant parameters involved in the making of those wines. I see vintage comparisons made all the time but I've yet to see a really rigorous affirmation that wines from different years are so similar as to be as identical as some of the predictions try to make them. It always sounds good, the wines from vintage X are so similar to vintage Y that you can be certain they will be (fill in whatever attribute you prefer). But over time the making of wine has not been a static process, and can be influenced by many variables from vintage to vintage. I’m not saying that its not impossible for an astute and highly talented wine critic to compare vintages, I simply think he/she should be honest when comparing vintages and state just how limited their comparison of the aspects of the vintages really are (e.g. if its just a comparison of tasting notes, then say so). Don’t make statements like “Reminiscent of a hypothetical blend of the 1982 and the 1975…..” because its just rubbish. How much of a blend? What percentages? And when did you actually make the blend?

2) Putting a wine from a new winery/vineyard "in context": There are different approaches taken here. One is to simply ignore placing the wine in any context, even though very similar wines with longer histories get reassessed (i.e. put in context). The only reason that context is used here is because one wine has a history, but should that be the only feature that distinguishes two wines? The other approach is to place some context on the wine that may or may not be relevant (e.g Kalleske's Johann Georg Shiraz from the Barossa Valley comes from a vineyard that once went to Penfold's for Grange. What this actually say's about the Kalleske wine or about Grange is not really clear; I'm guilty of this confusion myself).

3) Placing wines in context when you are completely unfamiliar with them: This for me is where the real problem with putting a wine in context comes in. This is something that I come up against on a regular basis because I try to taste across as broad a range of wines as I can. So its possible that I could be tasting a flight of wines that includes wines I've had before, wines I've heard of but not tasted before and wines I've never heard of before. Its simply not possible to put all those wines in complete context. OK, if they are all the same varietal, or from the same region or country then you can fudge it. But the "in context" should really be thrown out the window and the "learning experience" aspect of wine drinking should be brought into play.

And that is what happened with the 2003 Bordeaux, but that’s for another time.

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