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Judgment days by Neil Beckett, reporting on fine wine

Published:  18 January, 2007

Are angels male or female? Should wines be tasted blind or open?

One of France's most respected wine writers, Michel Bettane, recently cited the first question, as discussed by Byzantines during the fall of their famous city in 1453, to highlight the absurdity of the second (In the Kingdom of the One-Eyed, Are the Blind King?' The World of Fine Wine 13). But as the rest of his article showed, there are still arguments on this subject well worth rehearsing.

Among Bettane's evidence was his candid admission that at the blind (or semi-blind) Bordeaux versus California Judgment of Paris commemoration in July he awarded an extra point to what he identified as a Bordeaux wine, telling myself that this wine's discreet character would count against it in the minds of the other tasters. If that isn't the height of prejudice, I don't know what is! My only consolation remains that I was definitely not the only one.'

We will never know the extent to which the same adjustments were made at another more recent blind comparative tasting dubbed the Judgment of Sauternes. But it again raised this and many other questions.

The tasting was organised by Franois Mauss as part of the most recent session of the Grand Jury Europen (GJE). The session began with a semi-blind tasting of 20 top Bordeaux and 20 top California wines, all from the 2005 vintage. As well as 20 members of the GJE, there were 13 guest tasters - two from the UK and seven from the US. The 12 pages of published results ( do far more than reveal the winners, thanks to the analysis by GJE member Bernard Burtschy. Burtschy and Mauss concentrate first on the recognition of origin, which each taster was required to specify. Only one taster (a US amateur') identified the origin of more than 90% of the wines. On the other hand, only five wines were incorrectly located by more than half of the tasters. Among these were the more Bordeaux-styled Californians, like Diamond Creek's Volcanic Hill, and the more new-wave Mdoc, Haut-Condissas.

The most easily identified Bordeaux was La Mission Haut-Brion (by 88% of tasters), while the most readily recognised Californians were Pride Reserve and Shafer Hillside Select (also by 88%). As for the rest, whether you prefer to say that almost half the wines (18 of 40) were correctly sourced by more than three-quarters of the tasters or that more than half the wines (22 of 40) were correctly sourced by fewer than three-quarters, depends on whether you think the terroir or the winemaker speaks more strongly.

As for the overall rankings and scores, the top three wines were from California (Abreu, Beringer Private Reserve and Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red), as were three others in the top 10 (Shafer Hillside Select, Arrowood Special Reserve and Phelps Insignia). The top four Bordeaux were Valandraud, Latour, Ausone and Loville-Las-Cases, seeming to confirm the tendency (readily recognised by Mauss) for richer, stronger wines to show well in such tastings.

One of the great surprises, though, was the difference between the GJE and the guest tasters, and the realisation that it was the GJE who sent so many California wines into the top 10. Eight of the GJE's top 10 wines, including the top seven, were Californian, whereas only four of the guests' top 10 were. One explanation offered by Chteau Guiraud's co-owner and rgisseur, Xavier Planty, was that when tasting more familiar wines we use the more analytical part of our brain, but when tasting less familiar wines we use the more emotional part.

Whatever the reason, the overall result was startling, as was the showing of several individual wines. The strongest vindication of this type of tasting is surely the success of less celebrated wines, including Spring Mountain and Haut-Condissas, respectively third and ninth among guest tasters.

Conversely, it is interesting that many of the most famous names in Bordeaux - Ptrus, Lafite, Margaux, Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion - were in the bottom half of the overall rankings, while two of the most recherch wines from California - Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate - were 37th and 38th. When an attempt is made to calculate quality-price ratio', by looking at the cost of every point scored by every wine, the results are again striking: in these crude terms, Rollan de By (0.0099 per point) is 45 times better value than Screaming Eagle (0.4449 per point).

And yet, and yet many of us believe it's not quite as simple as that. As Bettane writes, When you spend five minutes tasting 5cl of a Chteau Lafite, included among 30 other nameless samples, you are missing the point entirely. Because the main thing about a Lafite is that it is a Lafite, with a particular structure, taste, complexity and way of developing in the glass. All of this is lost (or overlooked) in the process of blind tasting.'

As the Judgments of Paris and Sauternes both confirmed, blind tastings have valuable lessons to teach (humility among them). But so too do open tastings. We should no more always do one or the other than we should always drink sparkling rather than still, red rather than white, or suppose the angel at the table to be a Gabriel.