A recent article in the Guardian by David Derbyshire, Wine-tasting: it’s junk science 23 June 2013, has caused a bit of a stir in the wine community. It looks at the work of Robert Hodgson, a California winemaker who was so baffled about the inconsistent results his wines achieved in various wine shows from year to year, that for the past six years he’s been conducting experiments with the California State Fair wine competition to find out whether professional judges are any better than you and me at judging wine.

Six years on, the results of his research make for pretty sobering reading. A few highlights from Hodgson’s summary of his work:

“Only about 10% of judges are consistent and those judges who were consistent one year were ordinary the next year.”

“Chance has a great deal to do with the awards that wines win.”

“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.”

Before you dismiss the value of wine critics, remember that wine is without doubt the most complex drink in the world. The Guardian cites the work of Dr Bryce Rankine, an Australian wine scientist who identified 27 distinct organic acids in wine, 23 varieties of alcohol in addition to common ethanol, more than 80 esters and aldehydes, 16 sugars, plus a long list of assorted vitamins, minerals and harmless traces of lead and arsenic from the soil!

This cocktail of ingredients creates at least 400 aroma compounds that work on their own and with others to create an incredible complexity of aromas and flavours. And as experienced wine drinkers know, these aromas and flavours are volatile – the temperature that wine is served at, for example, can profoundly change the taste of the wine.

One point on which most experts agree is that it takes a fair bit of wine drinking experience for people to learn to detect and name a reasonable range of aromas in wines. For this reason I would argue that wine connoisseurs, both amateur and professional, have a real advantage over the occasional drinker in assessing quality. Typically they have a built-in memory bank of hundreds of wines to draw on for comparison. Undoubtedly helpful for making an informed, albeit still subjective, opinion.

Perhaps we’re asking too much of critics to expect them to taste wines blind given that context can be so influential. Researchers from the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, for example, found that even background music can alter someone’s opinion of a wine. If you want to impress a friend with a bottle of chardonnay, apparently you should put on some Kylie Minogue – ‘I should be so lucky!’ perhaps!

Merrill Witt, Editor

Photo Credit: Double Blind Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Guy