Thursday 31 July 2014

Misled by the blind

I’ve been reading yet another of those damn fool blind tasting articles.

You know the ones I mean. The ones which “prove” that, when people don’t know what’s in their glass, they can’t tell an expensive Burgundy from a bargain plonk, or red wine from white wine, or white wine from petrol.

“Could YOU tell Lidl's £5.99 claret from a £595 Grand Cru?” asked the Daily Mail. “Our thirsty volunteers tried - with hilariously humiliating results”. 

Well, in this particular case, Oz Clarke was just about spot on with every one of the wines he sampled blind. He could indeed tell the £5.99 Lidl claret (“It’s reasonably nice from an average-tasting grape”) from the £595 Haut-Brion 1990 (“…reminiscent of pews in a cathedral…old and indulgent…This is the serious bottle.”) So presumably some of the “hilarious humiliation” rests with the Daily Mail itself. 

But what a ridiculous charade. Imagine, for instance, a blind comparison of trainers. You’re blindfolded, then you put successive pairs of trainers on your feet; after walking around in them, you have to say whether the pair you have on is the gobsmackingly expensive Nike/Prada collaboration, or the bargain Hi-Tecs from Sports Direct.

Sorry, what’s that you say? That you don’t buy trainers solely on the basis of a sensory response? That name, price and appearance all affect the way you feel about your trainers? Ah…

We do not ourselves host blind dinner parties. Although now I think of it, there have been times when I would have preferred certain guests to have bags over their heads.

So to me, the presentation of the wine is as important as the presentation of the food. Seeing the wine, with the anticipation it hopefully raises. The look of the bottle and label, even if people don’t necessarily recognise the name. The detail, the vintage, for those who are interested. Let my people see.

I actually find that even older gents with dodgy eyesight seem remarkably visually perceptive when a bottle of wine is concerned. (“Isn’t there a touch left in that bottle on the sideboard?”) Perhaps they should use claret labels in eyesight tests, whether for distance (“That looks like a Margaux to me…”) or for detail (“Oh I say, do I spy an ’82?”)

Of course some of us have decanted a wine before a meal, not because it needed it, but because we wanted to hide the label. Possibly because of its garish, crude design, which would somewhat diminish the elegance of the table. Perhaps because of its downmarket origin, suggestive of an unacceptable lack of generosity towards one’s guests. Probably because we didn’t want it to be spotted by someone who might also have seen it on a 3 for 2 offer. 

But when the wine has been good enough to actually merit decanting, I know I’m not alone in keeping the empty bottle on display, so that people can see what they’re drinking.

It’s been similarly “proven” that people find artistically presented food tastes better than food simply plonked on a plate. And I don’t find the fact that presentation alters our palate in this way particularly surprising. (In some circumstances it can even be rather convenient, as in “I’m sorry dearest but I cannot balance the fish on top of the carrots, which must be why it tastes funny.”)

So unless you’re going to share it “blind” with your guests, what’s the point in knowing how a wine is perceived without its visual information? And heaven knows what serving it “blind” would actually mean. That every time someone’s glass got low, you removed it to an adjacent room in order to fill it up unobserved? Or that the bottles are encased in bags, with the consequence that your table looks like a street-drinking convention

No, I’m afraid I want a wine to be judged as my guests will experience it – told what it is, shown how it looks, and being influenced by its name, its price and its appearance.

And I can tell you now, if I’m ever serving a £595 bottle of Haut-Brion, I will certainly want people to see it.


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