Wine Tasting – Be Your Own Expert

My son recently pointed me in the direction of an article he had read in The Guardian last June: Wine-Tasting: It’s Junk Science. He thought he agreed with a lot of it – and so do I.

Personally I believe that a ‘good’ wine is a wine you like and a ‘bad’ wine is one you don’t.

The basis of the article was that experiments have shown that people can’t tell plonk from grand cru and highlighted the findings of Robert Hodgson, a winemaker in the US who claims that even experts can’t judge wine accurately.

Robert Hodgson, from the Fieldbrook Winery in Humboldt County, regularly sent his finest wines from his small California winery and entered them into competitions around the state.

He found that in most years the results were surprisingly inconsistent: some whites rated as gold medallists in one contest did badly in another. Drawing on his background in statistics, Hodgson approached the organisers of the California State Fair Wine competition and proposed an experiment for their annual June tasting sessions.

The idea was that some wines would be presented to the panel of 4 judges three times, poured from the same bottle each time – without the judges knowing. The results would be compiled and analysed. The first experiment took place in 2005. The last was in Sacramento in June 2013. Hodgson’s findings showed that only 10% of judges were consistent.

Results from the first four years of the experiment, published in the Journal of Wine Economics, showed a typical judge’s scores varied by plus or minus 4 points over the three blind tastings. A wine deemed to be a good 90 would be rated as an acceptable 86 by the same judge minutes later and then an excellent 94.

Hodgson said that:

“I think there are individual expert tasters with exceptional abilities sitting alone who have a good sense, but when you sit 100 wines in front of them the task is beyond human ability,” he says. “We have won our fair share of gold medals but now I have to say we were lucky.”

The article goes on to look at other studies and factors that can affect wine tasting. Dr James Hutchinson, a wine expert at the Royal Society of Chemistry discussed the aroma compounds in wine and its chemistry. But when it comes to ranking wines, Dr Hutchinson shares Robert Hodgson’s concerns.

“There’s a lot of nonsense and emperor’s new clothes in the wine world. I have had a number of wines costing hundreds of pounds that have disappointed me – and a number costing between £5 and £10 which have been absolutely surprising.”

I do think that wine tasters, critics, judges and writers are useful as they identify wines that they believe are good to drink and they widen people’s horizons. The trick is finding a critic/writer whose palette is in tune with yours. Either that or trust your own judgement – if you don’t like it, don’t buy it again and if you do like it, buy more!

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