Blind tastings and the many wonders of the sherry triangle

I have written elsewhere on this blog about the excellent Spanish website elmundovino as a great place to find high quality wine writing. In particular I find its historic archive of blind tastings an excellent resource. This week, though, their tasting of sherry wines (Jerez y mas allá – in english, “Jerez and beyond”) was a touch controversial.

For what it is worth, I didn’t agree with the assessment and scoring of several of the wines in the tasting, and I was surprised in particular by some of the tasting notes since they didn’t correspond to my own experiences and recollections (I had to go back and read my own to make sure). More importantly, some actual real experts took to twitter to express their difference of opinion, giving rise to a lively correspondence, some frank exchanges of views and some interesting philosophical contemplation (my favourite contribution was this great post by the guys at enoarquia).

More heat than light was shed overall. Understandably, there was quite a bit of steam being let off. However, some good points were made that set my sluggish neurons into a slow shuffle towards what I euphemistically describe as “thoughts”.

One issue that came up for debate was the old chestnut of blind tasting vs, non-blind tasting (fully sighted tasting? labels out? not sure what the term is). On this I think most agree that blind tasting is preferable, but I think it is also widely accepted that when wines are very different in character it is necessary to have at least some kind of sorting so that an opinion can be formed in context. This seems especially important point for the wines of the sherry triangle, which produces a greater variety of styles than any other region I can think of.

In fact the controversial tasting this week pushed the envelope even by these standards: there were wines of every kind including fortified and unfortified, red and white, still and sparkling and among the fortified wines manzanillas, manzanilla pasadas, fino, amontillado fino, cream and moscatel. I am not suggesting that the panel weren’t able to distinguish them, and I am certain that every care was taken in relation to the order of tasting, but I can’t believe that such a mixed bag provides the best context in which to evaluate a given type of wine. I myself have found that some excellent wines come across very differently in different formats, with some wines (in particular Equipo Navazos’ superb little palo cortados, for example) doing way better in “catas” when tasted against their similar peers.

Another issue that came up is the issue of the “unfortunate bottle”: the concern that in a blind tasting, the taster may not realize that the bottle he or she has tasted is not in condition since they do not know what to expect. Again, I think this can be a critical issue for sherry wines, and in particular in the case of some of the unfiltered or lightly filtered wines that featured in the tasting (I hesitate to use the word “natural” wines, but these are the product of miraculous biological processes that to my ignorant mind simply must be more fragile than your standard grape juice). Simply put, sherry wines are not as other wines and even at the very high end, some bottles come out better than others: I recently had a bottle of La Panesa that was notably more alive and exciting than most I have had. (Of course that could be a result of the saca, but an interesting blog piece by criadera highlighted the enormous differences in evolution of several bottles of an identical wine.)

Finally, and on the tasting notes I always remember a gem of a quote in a post by Jamie Goode on Wineanorak.com – “‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – which I think very neatly sums up the issue. When we look at the case in point, that difficulty is made worse, once again, by the sheer variety of styles in the tasting. To extend the analogy, writing punchy little tasting notes for such a variety of wines must be like discussing different styles of architecture, engineering and geography using only tap shoes.

All in all, I believe the panel gave themselves an impossible task here and as a result got some scores and notes wrong. I for one hope that these wines get another chance – tasted blind by all means, but against comparable wines.

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5 thoughts on “Blind tastings and the many wonders of the sherry triangle

  1. Great post Andrew.

    Just let me please add the following: in my very humble opinion, when you don’t have the experience to evaluate the quality of a wine, you should refuse to give an evaluation; although you can have and express an opinion, of course. I maintain that acting as an specialized taster when you are not is not honest. And let’s keep this limited to our favourite wines, the sherry wines.

    As you commented, elmundovino is used for some wine lovers to find out details and tasting notes of (mostly) spanish wines, because is an specialized magazine. I do, you said you do also. They should count on well skilled tasters for some wines; for the sherry wines, absolutely.

    Un abrazo.
    Federico Ferrer

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    1. Federico – many thanks for your comment. I understand where you are coming from and I absolutely share your frustration with the outcome. To be fair, from what I have seen of them those panelists have inhaled as much sherry as anyone and I am certainly not in a position to question their qualifications! I am pretty sure this will not stop the wider world discovering how great these wines are – not if there is anything I can do about it at least.

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