Have you ever heard the claim that some wine experts, when blindfolded, cannot actually tell white wine from red wine? My gut reaction was the same as everyone’s, “That’s ridiculous, they’re so different!!” But I know enough about psychology and illusions to know that the wine industry is mostly bullshit, and it’s very possible that we might be kidding ourselves. Ever since hearing this claim, I’ve been dying to run an experiment on myself. This past weekend, I finally had the time and wine and test subjects… My parents, wife and I drank wine blindfolded to see how good we were at sensing the wine in the glass without our eyes.
We went to my local wine store with the intention of buying the cheapest red, a really expensive (within reason) red, and a regular white wine. After this insightful comment on the subject by a vintner friend, I wanted the white wine to be as similar to the red, in grape variety and region, as possible.
From left to right: el cheapo, rosé, white, and expensive red.
The cheap wine was a 1.75€ (not the absolute cheapest, but a good representative) bottle of young Tempranillo from the Rioja region that was bottled for and labeled by the wine shop we bought it in. It’s the kind of house wine included for free with restaurant meals in Spain. It’s potable, but below my standards for daily dinner wine.
We weren’t going to buy a rosé, but it was from the Rioja region and I thought it might add further confusion, blurring the line between white and red. The rosé was 2.90€, fairly cheap, but rosés tend to be cheaper than reds.
The white wine was of the Viura, or Macabeo, wine variety, the most common white from the Rioja region. It was also 2.90€. Faustino is one of the more famous wineries in Rioja. Pro tip: The lower the roman numeral on the Faustino bottle, the better the wine (they go up to Faustino VII).
Last we have the Faustino I: Gran Reserva, coming in at the bargain price of 19.90€. I rarely stray into the double digit wines on the top shelf, but we wanted a wine that the industry was certain was definitely better than the cheap red. I figured that if we couldn’t tell a 20€ bottle from a 2€ bottle, then we could save quite a bit of money over the course of a wine-drinking lifetime.
It was tempting to wear white coats and safety goggles and carry clipboards, but in the end we decided that all we really needed was a scarf blindfold and some water and bread to cleanse our palates. We took turns being the blindfolded contestant. Small post-it notes were used to label the glasses A, B, C and D. Similar notes were added to the wine bottles. The wine was poured. Although the pinnacle of unbiased scientific experiments is the double-blind experiment, I highly recommend that the person pouring the wine not be blindfolded. Once the contestant was blindfolded and the wine poured, label swaps were performed between glasses and bottles, taking special care to do the same swap on both glass and bottle (if you swap the label on glass A with the one on glass D, you must swap the labels on bottles A and D as well). Once several (0 – 5) labels swaps were completed, the blindfolded taster had no idea which wine was which. Then the taster requested each glass in order, sniffing and sipping each one until an idea was formed as to its identity. Some of us only tasted each wine once, and some of us went through them all three times, sipping water between wines.
Marga sniffs a Gran Reserva.
We had four wines and four tasters. The guesses as to each wine’s identity is listed below each taster.
|Cheap Red||Expensive Red||Rosé||Cheap Red||White|
|Rosé||Rosé||Cheap Red||White||Cheap Red|
|Expensive Red||Cheap Red||Expensive Red||Expensive Red||Expensive Red|
Correct answers are shown in green.
First of all, thank goodness that the overarching trend in the data is that YES!, we can tell a 20€ wine from a bunch of cheap stuff.
Erik, Marga and Paul drink red wine almost exclusively, and never ever drink rosé, so they were thrown off a bit by the rosé, and couldn’t really distinguish it from the white or cheap red.
Betsy, who is more experienced in white wines, nailed the white and rosé with ease. In fact, after her first tasting of each of them, she told us her preliminary mapping, and she was exactly right about every wine. But then she asked to try the two reds again and changed her mind about them, actually preferring the less odiferous cheap red.
All the tasters let out some sort of “Wow!” exclamation upon putting the expensive red to their nose. It really was a violent olfactory experience. I don’t recall being so nasally assaulted before; perhaps the blindfold heightened the other senses.
Going into the test, I was most certain of my ability to identify the expensive red and the white, and I am absolutely delighted that I got those two correct.
Distinguishing red from white wine was MUCH more difficult than I expected it would be. I completely understand how expert wine tasters, when given wines of sufficiently high quality and similar grape variety, would be completely clueless as to the color. Like all good experiments, this one was both surprising and educational.
If you feel this experiment was flawed in any way, please feel free to donate money or wine for subsequent trials. No grants will be refused.