Sour Grapes No Doubt

Experts are not always right. Sometimes their reputation is sullied especially in the realms of politics and economics. Now it seems the abilities of wine professionals are being called into question too.

In a blind test, where the labels are hidden, they were asked to identify different red wines by smell. And the predictive powers of the experts were found to be no better than those of novices.

The researchers behind the Italian experiment said: ‘Irrespective of expertise, novices and wine professionals did not show any significant difference in their odour discrimination ability, neither in accuracy, nor in response speed.

‘Thus, novices and wine professionals seem to have similar basic sensory abilities to discriminate the presence of olfactory differences.

‘These results clearly support the notion that we can detect subtle olfactory differences between two wines.’

The test, which was led by Dr Francesco Foroni of the SISSA research institute in Trieste, examined the importance of terroir – the French word for the earth and other characteristics of a vineyard. For example, the distinctive mineral flavour of wine from the Chablis region in northern Burgundy is attributed to the limestone bedrock.

For the study, twelve wine professions including winemakers and sommeliers were pitted against twenty novices. They were asked to smell seven wines made from grape varieties such as merlot and cabernet and asked to spot the difference.

No tasting was involved. Despite their expertise, the professionals could not tell the wines apart any better than amateurs. The study found: ‘Results showed that panellists can smell the terroir.’

While previous experiments for terroir have focussed on global quality judgements of the wine based on multisensory information, to our knowledge, this is the first investigation that directly tested whether differences between two terroirs can be detected solely on the base of unisensory information.

The panel overall showed that they can discriminate between two wines that differ in variety and terroir and their performance in this condition is better than the condition in which the two wines differ only in variety or only in terroir. Both novices and wine professionals can, however, discriminate significantly above chance level also when two wines are of the same variety but from different terroir.’

The report in the journal Food Quality and Preference concluded, ‘No previous study has focused yet on the ability to distinguish two wines by their odour.’

It added: ‘Olfactory discrimination performance of both novices and wine professionals reflected whether two wines differed by terroir, variety or both. Performance peaked when wines differed in both terroir and variety, with terroir being more easily discriminated than variety.’

It goes to prove that wine experts have limits and that bombastic claims as to their ability are often to be taken with a pinch of salt.

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