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Posted: Tuesday, 28 May 2019 11:12

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Blog: Blind Tasting vs. Brand Tasting

Tuesday 28: The complex word of wines gets even more complicated when one sets out to choose which wines to drink- there are so many brands available and a much higher number of not so well-known brands that are cheaper and more enjoyable. It is a matter of brand tasting or simply blind tasting that helps evolve your taste and the excitement is to taste wines blind and choose for yourself. I advocate constant experimentation through several blind tastings and look for the occasional gems at much less price

Mouton Cadet vs. Mouton Rothschild

Earlier in the millennium when wine India had barely learnt to hold the glass properly, there was an impression that Mouton (Rothschild) was a fabulous wine and those drinking it had earned the right to be considered as ‘arrived’. But what was available in the market was Mouton Cadet, a popular inexpensive brand from the same owners. For a few years it was almost a status symbol and Mouton (Cadet) was the wine to drink and talk about! After some time when people learnt about their folly they stopped boasting about it. Cadet became better respected than the ubiquitous Cadet d’Or, an entry level wine from South of France by Baron Philippe de Rothschild- the same iconic producer from Bordeaux.

Chinese penchant for Chateau Lafite that made the price skyrocket over the years was their love for the label of Lafite for whatever reasons though in a blind tasting they perhaps hated it or at least did not care for it that much.

I had once organised a blind tasting of various Proseccos at a dinner of the Delhi Wine Club. The cheapest selling Prosecco in the market scored the second highest points. Similarly, in a blind tasting of wines from an Indian producer who also imports them , similar varietal wines were tasted blind in pairs-it was no surprise that some of their Indian wines scored higher than the imported counterparts that cost a lot more (thanks to the higher duties!).

Chilean example

Many years ago when I worked very closely with the Chilean Embassy and ProChile, I thought I had a brilliant idea. The then Chilean Ambassador was a good friend and was very pleased with my focus on promoting their wines (of course because of their decent quality at very affordable price, it was a no-brainer). I decided on a blind tasting by a few professionals from the wine and hospitality industry to choose the ‘Top Chile’ wine in India.

 I requested all importers to give us a couple of bottles of their top wine.  A vast majority gave samples but the response from the high-ended wines from a few importers very muted. What if their top wine scored low in the blind tasting! A couple of them were even diplomatic enough to regret and we had no choice but to eventually hold back the results and only talk about Tasting notes and food and wine match. It turned out to be a lot of fun evening but without achieving the objective I had in mind- to find the best Chilean wine in a blind tasting. One importer had even insisted on giving his entry level wine saying the tasters would give it the highest scores in blind tasting.

Blind Brunello

I was once at a wine dinner where the International sales manager of a big winery in Montalcino sat next to me. He was sharing his experiences of blind tasting and said that people did not care for Brunello in a blind tasting as much as other simpler, cheaper wines, perhaps because of their structure, tannins and a shade of bitterness and muted flavours. But in informal chats the same people absolutely loved Brunello. As he was saying,  a lady across the table having own conversation overheard him and shouted ‘oh, yes. I absolutely love Brunello di Montalcino!!’ Perhaps that is the reason why many importers tell me they must import a Brunello even at cheap prices of € 9.00 or less!! Brunello is such a favourite premium brand in Delhi that even if the customer did not like it in a blind tasting, they were are all palate when they knew it was Brunello. I am afraid I am also not immune to the phenomenon at times either.

There is another corollary to this. I have inadvertently helped an importer do a bumper business in selling Brunello because of one vintage of his principals was exceptional and it was reasonably priced wine. I told many of my contacts unabashedly about it and coaxed them into buying it. But I had also encouraged them to import Rosso di Montalcino from the same producer as it is more approachable and at 40% of the price of the real McCoy. He imported a small quantity but was disappointed with the slow sales- partly because he was not able to create the impact of this ‘Baby Brunello’ as a brand. Moreover his are affluent clients who would rather pay more and drink Brunello brand. This has also splashed water over my favourite slogan I coined for India, ‘Think Brunello, drink Rosso’.

Brand Amarone

Same thing has happened with Amarone in India where people drink it for its brand value, no matter the high alcohol and the cost. It is a powerful wine that needs beef, game or full- bodied and textured red meats to match. Earlier this year Tedeschi label from Valpolicella, Italy was launched by Prestige Wines. At a wine dinner where 5 wines were served, Tedeschi Capitel San Rocco Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore2016 was served before pouring a youngTedeschi Amarone della Valpolicella docg 2014. Undoubtedly, the Amarone was of excellent quality as could be expected from a producer of such repute. But the Ripasso was quite delicious and perhaps matched the dish better. In any case, at Rs. 4050, it is a much better value than the Amarone selling for Rs. 10,000. But who is going to tell that to the pseudo/nouveau   connoisseurs who believe Amarone is the label to drink? In a blind tasting they might even find it more bitter with higher alcohol and not doing much for the food-wine match.

Saperavi from Georgia

At the 200th wine dinner and 10th anniversary celebrations of the Delhi Wine Club, we served champagne and several top-quality wines-totalling over 10. To test my theory, I slipped in a Saperavi from Georgia, then selling at Rs. 950 a bottle-one of the lowest-priced imported wines. People did not know about the wine, grape, origin or the price. I was happy to know that the members really loved the wine and found it better than many other more expensive wines. There are numerous such examples.

Blind Tasting as Barometer

Blind Tasting is a real test for the perceived quality of a wine. But it also depends on the experience of the taster who might rate a fruit forward wine very high even though it is relatively simple or a commercial wine made for drinkers like him or her. It is important however, for the consumer to have his own sense of judgement and choice rather than depend on a wine expert who can only show him the direction to take. Wine tasting is an evolutionary process and any passionate drinker would tell you that palate changes over time; some lean towards branded wines while others prefer experimenting with ‘blind tastings’ - based on their taste without knowing anything about the wine.

It is important to note that Brand is built through a process of communication and positive influence on the palates of experts and novices alike and takes time, energy and money to build. The producers want to protect it furiously. Naturally, once the brand is built up, the price goes up automatically; wine is a business like any other and the efforts are always to build the brand image and charge higher and higher prices.

Recently, I met an American taster from California at a judging competition in Switzerland. He tastes wines professionally for a popular magazine, with Asia-including India as his current beat. We were discussing an Indian brand which sells at a very high price- perhaps it’s the most expensive Indian wine today. He said the first time he opened the bottle, the wine was corked and he had to wait for weeks before he could lay hands on another sample.  He found it highly oaky and said he would not like to drink it, and scored it low. That is Brand vs. Blind Tasting for you!

It may be nice to occasionally taste wines enjoying a very good brand image –but you are always paying for the brand strength and popularity (someone did a study once about one of the Top Growths of Bordeaux and surmised the cost per bottle was not more than € 20 while it sold for € 1000 or more!). But you can build up your own palate through blind tastings. Get a bunch of friends who bring a bottle each and describe the wine before or after tasting blind.

You would be doing your palate a big favour.

Subhash Arora

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