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wine judgingI’m puzzled by Oliver Styles’ recent article at Wine Searcher. His target is the widely held assumption that context is critical in judging a wine. He argues rightfully that the kind of blind tasting performed by critics is not really blind. They don’t know the producer since that would risk a biased judgment, but critics almost always know the varietal from which the wine is made and the region in which the grapes were grown prior to evaluating the wine.  The reason is that the accuracy of an evaluation depends on context.

A wine from the Croatian coast should not be judged in the same way, or in the same field, as a white Bordeaux from Pessac. One wouldn’t judge a Riesling as one would judge a Chardonnay – it would be heinous to judge a Napa Cabernet next to a Santenay. And how do you rate an oxidative-style Jura white if you don’t know that a wine from Jura’s what you have in your glass?

Styles goes on to argue that this may be misguided. His reasoning is that while a critic is judging, for instance, a 2016 Pinot Noir from Santenay against other 2016 Pinot Noirs from Santenay, the average wine consumer walking into a wine shop is deciding between many varietals from many regions. For a consumer trying to choose between Burgundy, Rioja, or Chianti, knowing which 2016 Santenay shows best isn’t helpful.

Note the assumption here that there is some way of comparing wines from Burgundy, Chianti, and Rioja according to common criteria. Styles seems to think there are such common criteria.

And I think this is a bit of a shame, because the basic pillars of what makes a good wine – balance, intensity, complexity and length – come, as you can see, in total abstraction. It’s not price, balance, intensity, royal warrant, complexity, bottle weight, regional sunlight hours, length; factors of quality are abstract.

I don’t think this is right. Balance, intensity, complexity and length are common criteria used to judge all wines. But they are not abstract. What counts as balance, what counts as intensity, etc. depend on the varietal and region. A premium Napa Cab will usually have more intensity than a Volnay. That doesn’t make it a better wine. Wines from Volnay have their own form of intensity based more on clarity than sheer power. All wines should be in balance but Pinot Noir will usually have more prominent acidity than Malbec. That doesn’t mean the Malbec is out of balance. The grape has a different balance point.

Styles points out:

Critics of a no-context approach will say that we need information about the region in order to understand the wine’s peculiarities. To which I’d ask why a professional wine critic can’t appreciate a wine fully without knowing those peculiarities before tasting it. Is our job that redundant?

But again, what counts as peculiar will depend on context. A pronounced herbal note in Rioja might be peculiar but quite expected in cool climate Pinot Noir, notes of fig jam ordinary in a Napa Cabernet but peculiar in Austrian Blaufrankisch.

I can’t think of a tasting procedure more likely to encourage homogeneity than one that refuses to consider context when judging wines. I get that novice consumers face an array of criterionless choices in the wine shop. But in the end there is no substitute for knowing a bit about what you like and where to find it.