Blind Tasting – You either love it or you hate it?

Marmite, so the marketeers tell us, is either loved or hated. The trouble is, and this is perhaps more of a reflection of my own indecision than of the yeast-based spread itself, I’m pretty ambivalent towards it. My love, or hate, of marmite comes down more to mood and situation than any inherent marmite-philia or phobia. Usually I just think it’s okay.

This is sort of how I feel about blind tasting. Blind tasting, the practice of tasting an unknown wine with the goal of determining its identity can be really fun. For those of a competitive nature, an excuse to challenge, to impress, to show off even. Even if you lack this drive, the feeling of correctly divining the culprit, even if it seems by divine intervention itself, can be exhilarating: a sensation of success that I can only assume compares to winning the lottery, scoring in the World Cup Final, or finding a cure for cancer.

But for those of a less confident disposition, the potential for humiliation outweighs the prospect of glory. Add in a theoretically awkward, pressurised situation – a prestigious winemaker overlooking your shoulder and judging, for example – you risk making what is always a hit-or-miss affair a veritable ordeal.

Sitting around a table on Friday night with three friends in Southern Spain, we faced our foe. Seven bottles of wine, each wrapped carefully in tin foil, each chosen to test us and encourage debate. The premise of loving or hating blind tasting seemed to stand true: two amongst us were raring to go, the other two looked on, ashen-faced, hoping for a stay of execution.

Fortunately for all, this was no torment. The wines were amazing, which helps: carefully chosen and delicious, it felt a real privilege to try them. And as for the divination itself? Some of the suggestions were of course outrageous, embarrassing at best. But part of the joy of tasting blind, or drinking blind as it should have been called, are these outrageous suggestions, the willingness to have a go, the laughter that accompanies. Interestingly, those who had feared in advance came out most in credit – circumspection, perhaps, but far more likely down to the superior ability of their palate, proving they had nothing to fear. 

This wasn’t pressurised, overlooked, judged blind tasting, but rather a discussion, a chat, ideas bounced around amongst friends. It added another layer of interest to an already amazing meal, and provided memories galore that we’ll struggle to remember. In these circumstances, you couldn’t help but love blind tasting.

It was suggested to me last week that great wines, when tasted blind, can lack the impact that they deserve, that a certain part of the drinking process of icons is the acknowledgement of being in the presence of greatness, of bowing down and worshipping the label.

Perhaps this is indeed true, and perhaps it suggests a different mind-set when tasting blind to tasting sighted, something more akin to fandom than a careful evaluation. There is, of course room for both for wine drinkers, but once you strip this fandom away, and you’re left with liquid that has to be judged on its merits, red or white, old or young, you reserve the right to be surprised and you heighten your ability to be amazed. When done in the right environment and with the right company, this can create truly special experiences.

But much like marmite, I have to be in the mood…

Published on 13/11/2015 / By Robbie Toothill