Of all the things most associated with wine snobbery, blind tasting must surely be one of the most derided. We all have the caricature of the old French sommelier (replete with slicked back, oiled hair) locked away in a dusty subconscious cellar, sniffing a glass and declaring with absolute confidence—this is a 1945 Margaux!
After that moment, his audience gasps and then collects themselves, before clapping furiously. What skill! What knowledge.
In Hong Kong, replace the old French sommelier (because all the sommeliers now in the city are exceedingly handsome, young, and suave) with a stubborn collector—and you pretty much have the same scenario.
It sounds like a lot of bullshit, but does blind tasting actually have any practical use?
Don't think you know everything about wine
To be sure, it can be humbling to think you know a lot about wine and then suddenly miss the target on every bottle you taste blind. And modesty is certainly something everyone needs more of in life. It's best that even after trying lots of wine people shouldn't be too full of themselves; wine is all about discovery anyway, so let's not let ego get in the way.
For example, in the wine above, someone who says they hate all Beaujolais might be immensely surprised to taste Chateau des Jacques' Moulin-a-Vent, especially from a ripe, long-living vintage like 2005. First of all, it's definitely not light and fruity like the stereotype of Beaujolais, secondly it shows that good Gamay can age, and thirdly it proves even Louis Jadot (who own the estate) can make interesting wines. And before anyone writes me an irate comment (probably because they either distribute or own lots of Jadot), relax—there's nothing wrong with Jadot wines; there's just nothing great about them either.
There are two lessons that I took back from this bottle. The first was that after drinking so much natural, clean Beaujolais from producers such as Foillard, Lapierre, Lapalu, Thillardon, and Yann Bertrand, another side of Gamay exists. Whereas the aforementioned producers mostly eschew new oak and usually ferment in a blend of cement vats/old oak, Chateau des Jacques is marked heavily by its heavy-handed use of oak—and after 11 years its still massively apparent. As admittedly I hadn't tried such an oaked Beaujolais in years, it threw me off the trail. Personally I'm not the biggest fan of this style because it didn't really taste like Gamay or Pinot, but it might serve as a good introduction for Bordeaux / Rhone fans to get into Beaujolais.
Secondly, despite the amount of intervention from the winemaker, it was a great chance to see the terroir of Moulin-a-Vent even through the oak, as the intensity of the cru still came through. Also since nobody ever really carries extensive stock of aged Beaujolais, every little glimpse we can get of a vintage like 2005 is an interesting reference.
Free yourself of the label
Drinking blind frees yourself from prejudgement, which is normally inevitable as just knowing the region will already start to influence your thoughts. It also will reveal a lot of famous names for what they are—good (occasionally great, and almost always too young) wines that are overpriced due to excessive demand from insatiable wine lovers who insist on drinking the best, or what is generally considered the best, exclusively. This goes for people who worship Selosse when maybe some of his protégées are doing equally well for far less, or for people who prefer a young famous Rhone to an aged lesser-known Rhone from an equally good producer.
Just a few weeks ago I had the good fortune to experience a 2011 Butteaux from Raveneau, generally accepted as one of the two best producers in Chablis. His wines are legendary, not cheap at all, and electric. Even if we drank it blind it would have been amazing, bold, and an exception to the humdrum Chardonnay that many producers try to pass off as Chablis. But the question that came to mind was, for $1200, is there better Chablis now at a lower price?
I definitely believe so, and think the Raveneau will probably justify its reputation and price in another 5-10 years. At the moment however, I'll try to speak without bias when I say that Thomas Pico (disclaimer: yes I know we sell his wines), makes an equally fresh and transparent expression of Chablis right now. Because honestly speaking, the Raveneau wasn't that profound. It was everything we love in Chablis and it's 100% an incredible wine, but it didn't exceed our expectations of what Chablis could be. There were hints of the brine, and even some deeper strands of smoke, but as of right now, this is not showing its full potential. If tasted blind, few would give it a second chance. But because we know it's Raveneau, we know it has the chops to be great in the future.
But $1200 for a wine that's meant to be consumed years on? For the cellar, yes. For a restaurant, no.