Primeurs Blind Tasting: Who Ends up Blind?
As I noted in yesterday’s blog post, this week I have been judging in the 2015 Decanter World Wine Awards. This is a huge tasting open to all-comers, with – if memory serves me correctly – 16,000 wines submitted this year. Each wine is submitted to a blind tasting by a panel, is retasted by a ‘super-judge’ if there is any dissent, and is also retasted if up for a gold medal or a trophy. The whole process is blinded of course, from start to finish; none of the judges involved know what the wines are when they taste, only basic information (appellation, price bracket, grape varieties, etc.) is provided.
In-between flights, however, I’ve also had one eye on Bordeaux this week, looking for any interesting 2014 releases, so 2014 Bordeaux and the primeurs are still very much on my mind. Is it really already four weeks since I returned from the 2014 primeurs? Time flies so fast (I guess I must be having fun).
The process of judging wine in the Decanter World Wine Awards and at the Bordeaux primeurs is very different. The obvious difference is that by definition the Decanter wines are finished, in bottle, whereas by definition the primeurs samples are unfinished wines. Judging barrel samples requires a very different mindset than judging finished wines, and so I think the two tasks require a very different approach. The use of blind tasting is one aspect of the approach that differs.
In a wine competition, rigorous blind tasting in order to remove bias is an absolute must, as I already noted in my recent Sabre Rattling post. When you have the finished wines in front of you, and buyers will be getting exactly what is tasted, and all wines are subjected to the same blinded process, this is the fairest and most appropriate way to assess the wines. I don’t, however, think this is true of the primeurs. I know others feel the same way; I was chatting to Neal Martin at the Grand Cru Classé tasting this week and he and I are in agreement on this. I believe he has made some comments on this in his Wine Advocate primeurs report. Others, however, feel that the tastings should be blind, but here are a few reasons why I think that’s the wrong approach.
Primarily, the primeurs shouldn’t just be about fruit flavours and scores, it is about understanding the wines and understanding the vintage. Take, for example, a 2014 petit vin from Pauillac. The blinded critic tastes what he tastes, and reports that, with no context. Magically, without any external knowledge, he has assessed the barrel sample, how it came to be where it is, and where it will go in the future. Job done, next sample please.
Then I come along. I’m not tasting blind, I’m at the château with the managing director and winemaker. I have some information on the barrel sample, which I taste every year. Tasting the wine, it seems much more plodding than usual; I have the context of other vintages tasted, which the blind taster doesn’t. I know quality has been on the up here, with more and more Cabernet in the blend, and it is usually a 50-50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in recent vintages (previously it was mostly Merlot). This trend has been for the better. I ask about the blend this year, and learn it is now back to 70% Merlot. That’s informative, and correlates with my thoughts on tasting, as 2014 was good for the Cabernets, not so good for Merlot. So I ask the question; why 70%? I learn there was hail on the vineyard which took out much of the Cabernet Sauvignon. Another hit. The tasting experience becomes more informed, with a greater depth of knowledge on the wine, better foundations upon which to build the tasting note. The winemaker then informs me that maybe the élevage will be shorter this year, a reflection of the lesser nature of the wine. More useful information that guides critic and therefore also the consumer. The blind taster, meanwhile, is already onto blind sample number 5, churning out another tasting note and score.
There are other reasons blind tasting doesn’t work. The above vignette encapsulates most of them (no knowledge of vineyard during the season, no knowledge of harvest, no knowledge of blending decisions, no knowledge of changes made and reasons for them, no knowledge of forthcoming élevage – you see this is very different to a blind tasting from bottle) but one other worth mentioning is levelling the playing field. In Bordeaux, top châteaux give themselves an advantage by insisting you visit to taste. So you want to taste Latour? Then you must visit Latour, and taste it in Latour, in a room overlooking the Latour vineyard. Blind tasters can’t taste the top 30-40 wines blind even if they say that’s what they do. To taste everything else blind enhances the advantages these top names have given themselves, and works in their favour to the disadvantage of all the little châteaux.
For me, these are the major reasons why blind tasting doesn’t work for the primeurs. The primeurs tastings are an opportunity to clear away the obfuscating mists of marketing speak, to see through to the reality of the vintage, to clear away the confusion. I suppose it is more about being a journalist, getting to the story, rather than just being a taster. To me, tasting blind doesn’t help the taster to develop a robust opinion on each wine, instead it obscures the wines even futher, hiding them behind an information blackout, making them more difficult to interpret. It’s a disservice to those châteaux that allow blind tasting (in other words the wines we might still be able to afford), and it’s a disservice to the reader, who ends up being just as blind as the taster.