Saturday 24 May 2014

The Judgement of Paris

If I had been properly educated in the Arts Block, I'd have something to say about this picture by Lucas Cranach der Ältere who was court painter to the Elector of Saxony and a personal friend of Martin Luther. Cranach made at least 20 attempts at capturing the essence of man's relationship with woman or woman's relationship with man or was just cashing in on the desire of chaps to view some naked tottie.  Cranach's work is not now so well known as the several versions of the story by Peter Paul Rubens. But I wasn't (so educated) so I won't (bang on about the symbolic meaning of 'apple').  It would be, in me, just too pretentious.  But I'm not afraid to expose the pretensions of other people, so today I'm going to whack wine 'experts' with some data.

About a decade ago, The Beloved and I were coming up to a significant anniversary and a generous and well-heeled pal of ours said he'd like to send us to Tuscanyshire for a week in a repurposed monastery outside Cetona.  The monastery had been founded by St Francis himself and was set on the edge of a long wooded hill hanging over a stunning view of a broad Italian valley.  The business model was that people with disposable income could get away from the noise and bustle of their life in The West, get fed perfectly simple food and walk in the formal gardens. The furniture was massive and medieval, unbleached linen curtains used to billow in from the windows as the breeze got up after breakfast. The income from this pampering supported a community of young men who had been destroying themselves with drugs in the cities of North Italy. These lads did the cooking, gardening and created art-works in metal and stone. Apart from a quiet and self-contained film director, we were the only guests. One night we were joined in the dining room by a middle-aged chap in a suit with a younger woman. I was taught that they only thing you can sensibly do when invited to taste the wine is to give it a good sniff to make sure it wasn't 'corked' and then let the waitron pour away.  You can't tell if a wine is corked until you open the bottle and get the distinctive whiff of wet dog.  This is caused by 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), and/or 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA) which are generated by certain fungi metabolising natural and unnatural chemical components of the cork.  There was considerably more fuss at the other table with the wine being scrutinised against the last of the evening light, swirled around the glass, elaborately sniffed and and checked for mouth-feel. Eventually it was declared fit for the young woman to drink.  Food came, we tucked in, it was delicious. Then there was further discrete but insistent commotion at the other table; the sommelier had decided; on mature reflection; that the wine was slightly corked and not fit for either Signore or Signora to drink; a new bottle would be provided immediately; apologies were profuse.  We could only suppose that, on a previous visit, the Signore had forgotten to tip the staff or had sent back some perfectly good food and the staff didn't feel that gobbing in his soup was sufficient punishment.

Today is the anniversary of another Judgement of Paris.  In May 1976, a British wine merchant organised a blind tasting of some French and Californian wines by the top wine experts in Paris. The take-home was the surprising result that in both the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon category a Californian wine topped the poll.  This was great news for the credibility of New World wines and opened the flood-gates to eminently drinkable wine from California (but later from Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia) into Europe.  But I've looked at the data which consists of marks /20 for each of ten Cabernet Sauvignons - four from Bordeaux, six Californian:
Notice how Claude Dubois-Millot and Christian Vanneque are so certain of their discrimination that they make calls of fractions of a point. If there is any truth in such a test, there should be some internal consistency,  Everyone should more or less agree which are the best and worst wines.  It looks like most people give Freemark a low score, for example, but Michel Dovaz of L'Institut Francais de la Vigne et du Vin thinks this one is the best. There is some consistency:
Christian Vanneque and Pierre Brejoux have very similar taste.  The correlation coefficient between their assessments is a striking 0.91 and the trend-line shown says that they are in agreement.  But I've labeled this Best Correlation because the other pair-wise comparisons are all-to-hell:
Gallagher and Spurrier, the two Anglophones, have similar taste; as do Kahn and Dubois-Millot, but Oliver and Dovaz agree to disagree on most of their assessments (r = -0.59).
My conclusion is that the expertise of these people is absolute bloody nonsense bordering on charlatanism because the data are "all variance and no mean" - there is no consistency among the pundits as to what is good.  Steven Spurrier the (English) organiser said as much at the time "The results of a blind tasting cannot be predicted and will not even be reproduced the next day by the same panel tasting the same wines".  This is damn near 40 years ago but there are still periodical reports of gross inconsistency among professional wine-tasters and, more worryingly inconsistency of the same palate on different days.  Going back about 15 years, when I worked in Trinity College, we had an English graduate student who had 'tasted for Cambridge'. He used to facilitate a wine-tasting every year in the run up to Christmas. To be recommended as a group-morale-building exercise! It was really interesting to have the opportunity to compare different wines: for starters some 'white' wines are the palest green and others a disturbing urine-yellow, but it's silly to rank wines as if they have some absolute 'quality'. Effectively any expertise that wine-tasters have is set at naught when you soak off the label and remove the price-tag.

The one rule that everyone can remember is that you must never drink red wine while eating fish . . . because the sky will fall?  This is addressable by science and it turns out that the problem arises when fruits de la mer are exposed to iron which breaks down a sea-food-specific fatty acid to make a rank fishy smell that puts most people off their food.  Red wines tend to have higher concentrations of iron, so you're more likely to have an adverse experience with red wine and fish but many red wines will be fine and some white wines will trigger the reaction.  Nuance is too much for most people, hence The Rule.

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