Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Rising to the quality challenge

Andover Wine Friends’ fine wine supper for February 2014 set itself a modest challenge.     When trios of related wines are tasted without knowing their identities, can a mixed group of tasters tell which is the best quality? and, further, did the group know what the wines were?  The answers were, on the whole, encouraging!

What did we mean by quality?  We could use the standard BLIC mnemonic: to what extent did the wines show balance, length, intensity and complexity … or we could just go by personal response. And, further, the wines had been subject to the rigorous selection of the Wine Society’s buyers as they were, wherever possible the Wine Society’s basic X, its Exhibition X and a single vineyard or other top wine of the producer of the other wines in each trio.  Certainly, if price is a true guide these were carefully chosen to rise steeply and proportionately in quality.  Across the four flights, the average prices of the wines in the trios were £9, £14.50 and £32 per bottle. If you strip out the taxes, a notional amount for packaging, transport, etc this results in the neat outcome of £3.50, £7 and £18 for the contents of the bottle – which is what wine lovers are supposed to be interested in! In other words, the second wine is twice as expensive as the first and the third twice again as much as the second …

And did the steep quality ladder lead us to vinous heaven?  To make the comparison fair, the wines were poured in their trios but in a random order within the three.  So there was no knowing from the order of the glasses which was the most expensive or least expensive.  Fascinatingly, with 16 tasters of a range of levels of experience, there was unanimity about the top wine on each of four occasions.  This did not mean that it was the wine people preferred – much less that they would be willing to pay for it – but they recognised that there was much more about it.  In some cases, there were visual clues. The top wine was often a deeper colour that its partner wines, though that is not an infallible guide.  But overall, the top wines were more intense, fuller flavoured, bigger structured, more complex.  So we can say, from this small sample of both tasters and wines, that there is something we call wine quality. It is not just personal preference and a mixed group of tasters can agree about it when the quality steps are as steep as this. 

Once we got beyond the top wine the unanimity ceased.  I preferred the cheapest Sangiovese (see below) to the mid-priced one, and others ranked the wines in a range of ways.  Here the point is that, given that all these wines had been subject to such serious selection already, is it much more difficult to establish the difference between a really good cheap wine and a good or very good medium priced one.

I personally had a very mixed evening!  I am pleased and relieved to say that I got the wine and the quality levels absolutely correct for the Chiantis – the slightly harsh Chianti Rufina 2011, the cherry fruit, fragrance and tannic structure of the Classico from Poggiopiano 2010 and the magnificent if intimidating Vigna del Sorbo 2009 from Fontodi. This was first in this trio and followed immediately on from the rather ordinary Burgundies. Wow – what is this intense, almost physical assault of acidity and tannin?  but then notice the black and sour cherry fruit, the well-judged oak and the potential for development.  (This success follows a recent tasting when I did not spot four Italian wines in a line up ‘from one country of origin’ and had to work it out by deduction!)  But to balance that, for the first time I managed to confuse Riesling and cool climate Chardonnay (Chablis) – quite an achievement that! Wines 1 and 3 seem very neutral and non-aromatic; I did not spot the ‘petrol’ note that others found on wine 2.

Many thanks to Rob for the research that went into this very instructive and illuminative tasting.

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