Is good wine a matter of taste?

03 October, 2008

One of the first things people learn about wine is that taste is subjective. Your knackered bottle of claret could be my sublime, mature red; your elegant Riesling kabinett my sugary, acidic white. That's why it's perfectly possible for two experts - the well-publicised contretemps between Jancis Robinson MW and Robert Parker over Château Pavie springs to mind - to disagree about a given wine and both be right. The same is true of any branch of criticism. Just read half a dozen film critics' (or bloggers') views on the same movie. It's surprising how often they disagree.

Where does this leave experience and expertise? Are all opinions equally valid, or are some, to paraphrase George Orwell, more equal than others? I don't know about you, but I'm more likely to trust the verdict of a Philip French or Derek Malcolm (both of whom have been reviewing films for years) than those of someone who has just graduated with a degree in media studies. There is room for new perspectives - and even iconoclasm - but I tend to turn to people who have earned my trust as a filmgoer.

The same is true of wine criticism. The hacks whose opinions I respect (Anthony Rose, Joanna Simon, Oz Clarke, Andrew Jefford and Jancis Robinson for instance) tend to be people who have been tasting the stuff professionally for a long time and, once again, have performed reliably, at least as far as I'm concerned. Length of service isn't always a guarantee of reliability - one vainglorious former national newspaper columnist is widely regarded as a joke by his colleagues - but it generally means you deserve to be heard.

Do we wine writers taste wine in the same way as the man, or more likely woman, in the supermarket aisle? If you believe the recently published The Wine Trials by Robin Goldstein, a self-styled "fearless critic", we do not. Or at least we don't much of the time. Goldstein did a series of blind tastings with punters and found that 41 out of 62 tasters preferred a bottle of Domaine Ste Michelle Cuvée Brut (retailing at $12) to an unspecified vintage of Dom Pérignon at $150. His non-professionals generally preferred cheap wines to expensive ones when they tasted them blind.

The same thing happened in the disjointed "investigative" documentary about wine on Channel 4 recently. The Sun journalist Jane Moore, who presented the programme, discovered that 10 out of 20 members of the public preferred a bottle of £6.99 sparkling wine to Moët non-vintage when bearded in the street. Moore's no-shit-Sherlock conclusion about Champagne was that "people don't always buy it because they prefer the taste".

Goldstein, whose take on the world of wine is considerably more interesting and informed, calls this the "placebo effect", adding that "the experience of sipping a wine you know to be expensive ... is a real taste experience. It is the taste of money." This is not a novel point of view. Goldstein quotes from Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation published in 1976 by two American academics from UC Davis, Maynard Amerine and Edward Roessler. "It is surprising," they wrote at the time, "how many so-called wine experts are label drinkers. Their sensory judgement is based on the source or reputation of the wine, or its producer, or the year of production." They added that "some famous vineyards, secure in the knowledge that they have an established market, often charge whatever the market will bear".

I don't have a problem with the second part of this statement. If an offer of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

is over-subscribed 20-fold, the owner (and importer) is justified in pricing the wines accordingly. But I tentatively disagree with the first. It suits some members of the

public - and even academics - to suggest that wine writers don't judge what's in the bottle. But I think we do, most of the time. I do my best to bring the same critical faculties to bear on a bottle of Château Lafite as on one of Blossom Hill.

Nevertheless, Goldstein is right to say that, in order to be sure you have taken personal bias out of the equation, you have to taste blind. People whose judgement is hopelessly erratic hate blind tastings because they reveal as much about the taster as they do about the wines in question. I am more than happy to put my palate to the test as it forces me to reassess my own prejudices and confront my own weak spots.

I like Goldstein's book, but for all its merits it encourages an element of inverse snobbery: a chippy reluctance to acknowledge that you usually get what you pay for. Yes, some wines are over-priced. Yes, some wines are over-hyped. Yes, some regions offer better bargains than others. Yes, some people view wine as a form of "conspicuous consumption". But wines that are considered great, and are priced accordingly, are considered great for a reason. Over time, they have demonstrated that

they offer something

special. If the wine didn't taste good, we wine critics wouldn't recommend it. Honest ...

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