Wine: Knowing when the price is right

The untrained palate may not always recognise an expensive wine, but that's not to say the quality isn't there.

Frizzell Central Otago Pinot Noir 2009 $24.99. Photo / Babiche Martens
Frizzell Central Otago Pinot Noir 2009 $24.99. Photo / Babiche Martens

This tastes awful. I want my money back!" demanded the customer, returning the expensive bottle of burgundy he'd only a day before happily purchased for a special occasion. I tried the wine myself and found it quite exquisite, albeit far from the fruit-driven style that this particular chap favoured in his everyday drinking. For him, like many others, expensive certainly did not equate with better, in fact it meant worse.

Back in the days when I was running a wine shop, experiences like these meant I wasn't surprised by the findings of a recent study that discovered many people could not clearly distinguish between cheap and pricey wine.

The research was carried out by psychologist, Professor Peter Wiseman of Britain's University of Hertfordshire, who conducted a blind tasting using over 400 members of the public attending the Edinburgh Science Festival. Wiseman gave participants either a cheap wine (under £5, roughly equating to under NZ$12.50) or a more expensive one between £10 and £30, that's approximately the NZ$25 to $75 bracket) and asked them whether they thought it was cheap or expensive.

The volunteers got it right 50 per cent of the time, the same as chance. Wiseman claimed these were "remarkable results". "People were unable to tell expensive from inexpensive wines, and so in these times of financial hardship the message is clear - the inexpensive wines we tested tasted the same as their expensive counterparts," he concluded.

If only it were that simple.

There are some serious flaws in this and similar studies which ask inexperienced tasters to make accurate quality assessments, exacerbated in Wiseman's study by the fact each taster was only given one wine to try, and had nothing to compare it with. Furthermore, the tasters were not asked to specify the price bracket in which they did most of their drinking.

This approach may be fine for testing mainstream products through focus groups, but is highly dubious when trying to draw conclusions about a wine's quality and value.

I ran it past wine sensory scientist, Dr Wendy Parr of Lincoln University who was similarly sceptical about the study's findings. "The task would have been outside the capabilities of most inexperienced 'palates'," she thinks. "The data showing chance performance could just as easily support the notion that people responded at chance because the task was too difficult."

Considering data from connoisseurs could be considered more valid and a comparison between two wines making for a better methodology, she said.

When it came to my disgruntled customer, I'd tried to advise him to trade up to something in a similar taste spectrum to the wines he regularly enjoyed. However, he was bent on buying burgundy because of its prestige, despite being unfamiliar with the more restrained savoury style often displayed by top European wines in particular, which can come as a shock to those used to the upfront sweet fruit of most everyday drops.

Just because he didn't like that bottle of burgundy, didn't mean it was bad or not worth its price tag. It led to disappointment for him, but a treat for me, as I reflected when polishing it off with my dinner that evening.

TASTE SENSATIONS

NEW WORLD MEETS OLD
Bel Echo by Clos Henri Broadbridge Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2009 $24
A complex and textural sauvignon from the Marlborough venture of Sancerre supremo, Henri Bourgeois in which rich notes of bergamot and passionfruit are counterpoised by a steely grapefruit edge. (From Bacchus, Fishbone, Maison Vauron, Point Wines, The Wine Vault.)

BARGAIN BUY
Frizzell Central Otago Pinot Noir 2009 $24.99
Classic plump and juicy Central Otago pinot with a lot of spice-infused cherry fruit at this sharp price. (From wine stores and selected supermarkets.)

SVELTE AND SAVOURY
Rimu Grove Nelson Chardonnay 2009 $30
A svelte and savoury chardonnay driven by a fresh fusion of mineral and citrus under delicious toasty and nutty layers. (From Glengarry.)

- NZ Herald

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