Conor van der Reest had been keen to work in Tasmania.

In 1976 British wine merchant Steven Spurrier staged a blind tasting that rocked the world of wine.

On a May afternoon in Paris, he assembled a panel of French experts to compare some of the finest red Bordeaux and white Burgundies with several unrecognised Californian wines. Only one journalist bothered to show up – as far as the French were concerned, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. However, in a shocking turn of events, the Californian wines emerged unexpected victors.

The Judgment of Paris, as the wine tasting has come to be known, recalls the Greek legend in which the prince Paris was chosen to judge which goddess was the fairest: Aphrodite, Hera or Athena. His decision, swayed by Aphrodite’s inducements, set in motion the events that led to the Trojan war. As in the myth, the 1976 judgement had profound implications. But unlike Paris, Spurrier’s judges were blinded, which suggests that their verdict was unbiased.

As a wine professional I have participated in more blind tastings than I can remember. When I gather with colleagues it is a common ritual to taste ‘brown bagged’ bottles that conceal the identity of their contents. What follows is a carefully considered act of scrutiny; wine is set before you and the only clues available are in the glass. The brave offer up their assessment: what do they think of the wine? What do they think the wine is?

Blind tasting is a challenge that provided the foundations of my training and equipped me with skills that have enhanced my appreciation of wine. The results are frequently surprising and often humbling. Frustration and embarrassment are commonplace – even veterans of the wine world can get it horribly wrong, making the thrill of correctly deducing all the more rewarding.

The origins of blind tasting in wine culture are largely unknown but it feels like something as old as wine itself. As an exercise, it appeals to a deep-seated desire to engage with a mystery that is sensory and cerebral. And whether it is the wine, the taster or both on trial, our competitive urges come to the fore. Like a sleuth-sommelier, the blind taster seeks clues and uses them to solve the puzzle set before her. She obtains these clues through systematic analysis of aroma, flavour and structure, which help determine the nature, origins and quality of a wine. Some tasters possess an innate talent, but like any worthwhile skill, serious tasting requires a solid foundation
and years of practice.

Like mastering a foreign language, tasting skills are acquired by expanding our knowledge. Stored within our memory is a vast catalogue of tastes and smells accumulated throughout life; the skilled wine taster learns how to access nature’s filing system. This provides the raw vocabulary, but to taste effectively we need to place these sensory elements of a wine in context. As with grammar, critical tasters evaluate wine systematically within a framework that looks at key components: appearance, aroma, flavour, sweetness, acidity, tannin and body. While taste may be subjective, blind tasting makes it more systematic since the parameters remain constant.

Blind tasting is a fundamental pillar of wine education. Institutions including the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and the Court of Master Sommeliers use blind tasting to teach and examine students, considering it the fairest way to evaluate wine but also the professional’s ability to assess wine. By concealing a wines identity, we attempt to remove prejudices and keep the taster honest, but even the wine world’s elite can fall prey to biases and assumptions. This is why blind tasting plays a vital role in the wine industry and remains a central part of wine competitions and criticism. On the Australian wine show circuit, the majority of prizes are awarded through extensive blind tastings carried out by a panel of experts. It is widely considered the most objective way of assessing wine – one is less likely to be swayed by expensive labels and lofty reputations: don’t drink the label, drink the wine.

It is clear that blind tasting is not appropriate in all circumstances. Assessment can often be enhanced by knowing a wine’s backstory – where the grapes were grown, how growing season unfolded, the winemaking decisions taken, or how previous vintages have tended to evolve – providing a more nuanced critique for consumers.

In the top tiers of the wine world, reputations can be made and lost in blind tastings. To earn the prestigious Master of Wine title, candidates must complete a rigorous set of blind tasting exams in which they assess several flights of wines at a rate of less than seven minutes per wine. MW students take on training regimes of Olympic proportion, devoting years to sharpening their senses and knowledge to develop and test their expertise. To date, only 389 MW titles have been awarded – a humbling reminder of the program’s difficulty.

Many professionals persist with this discipline because blind tasting is considered to be rigorous and impartial. However, it is important to remember that wines and palates are fickle, and that tasters often read more into their assessments than is justified.

The 1976 Judgement blind tasting confronted antiquated preconceptions, proving that the US was capable of producing wines to rival first-growth Bordeaux and grand cru Burgundies.

As revealed by the 1976 Judgement, the value of blind tasting lies in its ability to challenge our biases and the status quo. In paring things back to what is immediately evident, we are forced to be objective as possible, avoiding subjective and culturally charged influences. While blind tasting is as fascinating as it is invaluable in wine education and assessment, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that wine is made for drinking first.

A NOTE FROM THE EDITORIAL TEAM

The calibre of entrants for this year’s award was incredible, with a rich diversity of topics. Our judging panel felt Madeleine captured her subject matter expertly, crafting an article that was a pleasure to read. Our other finalists were: Kirsty Dale; Alexandra Quinton; Lauren Jones; Bruce White; and Lisa Cardelli.