And the best Cabernet – is a shiraz!

Results of a tasting conducted by international wine society, Les Amis du Vin, dispel any lingering belief in the sanctity of wine-show results or the infallibility of wine-guru palates.

Here, at last, is palpable evidence of the subjective, unreliable, and often meaningless nature of wine judging. As well, the automatic supremacy of cabernet amongst red grape varieties comes under challenge.

The masked tasting, conducted by the Chicago chapter of Les Amis in February, lined up many of the finest French and American cabernet sauvignons from the 1982 vintage.

Fifty judges now wonder how a ring-in won the day. As Chapter Director Paul H. Ernst reported, a shiraz was “the hands-down, concensus favorite of the entire tasting.”

How could grubby-old, work-horse shiraz lick the glitziest names in the glitziest of all red grape varieties, cabernet sauvignon? What was it doing there in the first place?

Ernst writes, “… this year’s ringer was the 1982 Penfold’s Grange Hermitage… no one overtly identified the wine, the combination of cassis-like fruit and green olive character contributed by the oak, sufficed to stump the majority of attendees. Its relative maturity and round, elegant fruit were certainly some of the elements that resulted in it being… the favorite.”

Why the ringer was included, I don’t know. But anyone who attends masked tastings appreciates just how difficult it is to spot the unexpected. When we’re told there are twenty four cabernets to assess, we assume that’s what’s in front of us. Trickery’s the last thing we expect. So, it’s not surprising that no one identified one big, rich shiraz amongst twenty three big, rich cabernets.

Still, assessing the 1982 reds, not spotting the odd one out, was the theme of the tasting. And because the press release focuses on scores, presumably the organisers believe the results have some significance beyond being simply a tally of preferences on the day. Are they telling us this is a valid and definitive ranking of the wines tasted?

For that to hold true, then the results should be reproducible. And, of course, they are not. Even at this tasting where guests were free to use either of two scoring systems, two appreciably different rankings resulted. Were the same wines to be lined up again the next day with a different group of judges, no doubt a different order of preferences would result.

What we have to conclude is that the tasting, like all of its ilk, offers the consumer no reliable guide to quality. It can be seen as nothing more than an averaging of the opinions of fifty people and offers not one useful insight into the nature of the wines tasted.

No absolute value can be stuck on a wine. And even relative values in a line up become less valid in direct proportion to the diversity of styles being tasted. Wine collectors with the 1982s in their cellars might find carefully prepared descriptions of each wine more enlightening than a mere ranking.

The tasting presented a diverse array of wines, including many classics. All five Medoc First Growths were present, plus a sprinkling of other highly-regarded Bordeaux, as was Grange Hermitage, and Opus One, the brilliant joint creation of California’s Robert Mondavi and France’s late Baron Phillipe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (one of the Bordeaux First Growths).

Had it been a race, the bookies would’ve cleaned up. The illustrious favourites, under both scoring systems, finished well down a field led by an outsider. (Somehow, though, I suspect the form books won’t be re-written just yet).

The tasting was split into three flights of eight wines each. But even if we question the overall valdity of rankings, it does say a lot for Grange 1982 that it was in the flight containing four of the five Bordeaux First Growths.

Being a touch jealous and not too happy with the way it has been reported, I’m joining forces with Alby Sedaitis of Barocca Cafe to reconvene the tasting here in Canberra and will report back in due course. However, we intend lopping the number of wines from 24 to 12 and the number of tasters from 50 back to 6 — a proper ratio.

We’ll assess the wines blind and then savour them slowly over an extended lunch to see how well our initial assessments hold up.

To paraphrase the recently deceased Max Schubert, creator of Grange, when you’re confronted by magnificence you should savour it to the hilt.

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