Are some wines ‘better’ than others? If so, why? And who gets to decide? Is it possible to be objective in assessing wines? Secondly, one of the aspects of the wine trade that most fascinates outsiders is the disparity in prices between ordinary and great wines. But, great wines are not to be determined by price factors.

The influence of the place where the grapes are grown seems to be paramount. Let’s try to summarize the issues in a paragraph. While terroir is a French word, it’s a concept widespread in the wine world. At the most basic level, it’s immediately apparent that the same grape varieties grown in even subtly different locations will make wines that are somewhat different, even when treated the same way in the winery.

Then there is the issue of reputation. Reputation matters a great deal in the world of wine. Our senses of taste and smell are, it seems, easily fooled. We bring a lot of expectation to bottles of wine that are supposed to be rather grand.

You may be forgotten to think that you tasted a simple wine and then a very special wine, even though it could be the same wine both times. Certainly, wines from vineyards of exalted reputation, which have a track record of making great wines (that is, terroir where grape variety and environment are perfectly matched) fetch very high prices, sometimes even irrespective of the quality of what is in the bottle.

The terms used in tasting notes are often misleading too, and it makes for telling reading. For a top wine versus an ordinary table wine, ‘A lot’ replaces ‘a little’; ‘complex’ replaces ‘simple’; and ‘balanced’ replaces ‘unbalanced’ – all because of the sight of the label.

This is about a phenomenon called ‘perceptive expectation’: a subject perceives what they have pre-perceived, and then they find it difficult to back away from that. For us humans, visual information is much more important than chemo-sensory information, so we tend to trust vision more. Therefore, blind tasting of great wines can often be disappointing’.

This is not to say, though, that great wines never deserve their reputation. There do exist many seriously great wines that merit, at least in part, the reverence accorded to them. The very top ‘trophy’ wines, though, do have a reputation that extends beyond what is in the bottle in paying for more than just an exceptional bottle of wine.


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