Wine Ratings: Legit or Codswallop?

Grapes are an iconic Mediterranean fruit

Grapes are an iconic Mediterranean fruit

A couple years ago, someone gave me an expensive bottle of champagne that I’d never had before. I won’t mention the brand because I’m not looking for trouble. The brand is iconic and a bottle costs $150-200 (USD). The more you pay, the better it should be, right?

I’m no expert on champagne, but this stuff was awful. Had the bottle simply gone bad? Too old? My wife had drunk this champagne several times before in business settings, and said this flavor was typical. It was a real eye-opener for me.

Robert T. Gonzalez has an article on wine-tasting at IO9. A quote:

 In 2001, researcher Frédéric Brochet invited 54 wine experts to give their opinions on what were ostensibly two glasses of different wine: one red, and one white. In actuality, the two wines were identical, with one exception: the “red” wine had been dyed with food coloring.

The experts described the “red” wine in language typically reserved for characterizing reds. They called it “jammy,” for example, and noted the flavors imparted by its “crushed red fruit.” Not one of the 54 experts surveyed noticed that it was, in fact a white wine.

David McRaney has a more nuanced article on the same issue at The Atlantic. For instance:

In blind taste tests, long-time smokers can’t tell their brand from any of the competitors and wine connoisseurs have a hard time telling $200 bottles from $20 ones. When presented microwaved food from the frozen food section in the setting of a fine restaurant, most people never notice. Taste is subjective, which is another way of saying you are not so smart when it comes to choosing one product over another. All things equal, you refer back to the advertising or the packaging or conformity with your friends and family. Presentation is everything.

If you have more time, check out Calvin Trillin’s article on white-red differentiation in The New Yorker. His suspicion is that “…experienced wine drinkers can tell red from white by taste about seventy per cent of the time, as long as the test is being administered by someone who isn’t interested in trying to fool them.”

The take-home points for me after reading all these are:

  • the more expensive wines are by no means better tasting; I’m sticking with cheaper
  • when you hear someone waxing eloquent about the various flavors in a particular wine, they’re most likely full-of-it (FOS); in other words, it’s malarkey
  • you’re as good a wine judge as anyone else; satisfy your own palate

Steve Parker, M.D.

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