Andrew Polmear writes for the love of wine…
There’s a saying in the wine trade: “a glimpse of the label is worth 20 years of tasting experience”. That’s true if you are trying to impress. But for those of us who just want to enjoy wine I think the opposite is more true: “blind tasting will show you what you really like and save you money”.
This was brought home to me recently at a tasting organised by The Wine Society in Lewes. Two hundred members gathered in the Assembly Rooms, where we found ten tables, each with two bottles, whose labels were masked. We were given a booklet of questions in which to write our answers. For instance, the first table had two bottles of bubbly and the question was: which one of these is champagne and which is a New World sparkling wine at less than half the price? Not all the pairs were wines of different price. Table 9 had a Pauillac (Bordeaux’s ‘best’ village) matched against a New Zealand Cabernet-Merlot at the same price. At the end of the session the organiser asked us to vote for the alternatives before revealing the answers.
The voting was fascinating. Many of the answers were split about 50:50. Half preferred the cheaper New Zealand bubbly to the champagne – that would save them £17 a bottle and give them something they liked more. About half of us preferred the almost half price Alsace chardonnay to the premier cru Chablis (me included). A lot of people liked the young unoaked Rioja more than the Gran Reserva that had spent two years in American oak (and sold at three times the price). I myself thought I was doing really well until asked at Table 6: which of these wines is more expensive? I plumped for the second and wrote “complex, exquisite, perfect balance. Burgundy?” It turned out to be a 2011 Bulgarian Pinot Noir at £9.95 that I was preferring to real Burgundy, a Gevrey-Chambertin 2008 selling at £30.
What’s the lesson from all this? For an individual drinker there is no right or wrong, just individual taste. So buy what you like not what the label says you should like. This doesn’t mean the wine trade is a con; it’s very likely that the more you drink the more your taste will move towards the more expensive wines. But you will still have your individual tastes. As for me, I came straight home and ordered a case of the Bulgarian Pinot Noir with no sense of shame.What can I say about The Wine Society to encourage those who aren’t members to join? It’s a not-for-profit co-operative that has an extraordinary record of having on sale excellent wines in all price ranges. When they find a superb wine that’s cheap they sell it to the members with no more than their ordinary mark-up. Their Society’s Fino Sherry was judged top in a Decanter tasting of 70 sherries. It was joint cheapest and is still available at £6.25. There’s no compulsion to buy – but you will. Not to join is like visiting the Great Houses of England and not joining the National Trust.