April 11, 2019
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Finding the right wine expert to help you select your next bottle

by Bianca Grohmann

Do you often wander the aisles of a wine shop, trying to figure out which wine to buy? To help choose a bottle, you may turn to a wine expert. No shame in that: many consumers who do not consider themselves wine connoisseurs seek out the opinion of wine experts.

But which expert? To what extent do wine experts agree in their evaluation of wines? Does it matter where the expert lives and how they were trained?

A recent study examined these questions by looking at wine assessments by two groups of wine experts from different geographical regions in Canada: Québec and British Columbia. These two groups were mainly trained in two different traditions of wine tasting: the British and the French. What we found out may surprise you.

Fourteen wine experts from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia and eight wine experts from Montréal attended two wine-tasting sessions. In each session, they blind-tasted the same set of seven red wines. The wines represented a range of varietals and vintages.

After tasting the wines, the experts evaluated the wines. Evaluations included seven aroma descriptions, such as spicy, berry or oak. The experts also rated the wines on nine flavours, including length of finish, balance, acidity and taint/off-flavour. The wine experts also evaluated the overall quality of the wines.

Same, but different

There are some commonalities but also substantial differences in the assessment of wines by experts from the two regions.

Significant differences emerged in the assessment of wine aroma and flavour. Compared to the Okanagan wine experts, the Montréal group reported considerably higher levels of vegetative, vegetal, green bell pepper, spicy and oak aroma. The assessment of the Montréal wine experts also reflected higher levels of bitterness, acidity, balance, and off-flavour in the sampled wines.

Despite the differences in the judgment of aroma and flavour, however, the two groups of wine experts agreed in their overall quality assessment of the wines.

There was one exception. Compared to the group from Montréal, the experts from the Okanagan Valley found the 2015 Apothic Red, a blend of zinfandel, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot produced in California, to be of much higher quality. This may reflect a preference for blended wines in the new world wine-making tradition of this group.

Although overall quality judgments were largely consistent, the difference in the assessment of aroma and flavours among the two groups raises the question: Why do experts from different geographical regions have divergent opinions when it comes to wine assessment?

British system versus French

The diversity and nature of wine expertise represented in the two geographical regions helps explain these findings.

Many of the wine experts in the Okanagan group were formally trained in the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) system established in the U.K. in 1969. The wine experts from the Okanagan Valley consisted of winemakers and winery employees. Some were assessors affiliated with British Columbia’s Vintner Quality Alliance (VQA) program, which ensures that wines meet a set of minimum quality requirements.

As a result of their professional roles, the Okanagan panel may have been more concerned with the overall quality and consistency of the wines than their sensory attributes. In addition, based on years of experience in the judgment of wine quality and consistency mostly involving wines from the Okanagan region, these wine experts may have been less inclined to identify differences in sensory attributes.

The Montréal group, on the other hand, consisted of wine journalists, educators and sommeliers. Wine journalists, in particular, are interested in the independent judgment of different wine styles and description of wines. The Montréal wine experts had undergone sommelier training rooted in French tradition that is concerned with wine characteristics and pairing wine with food.

The consumer-focused professional experience of the Montréal experts, who were accustomed to providing wine descriptions and recommendations to consumers and customers, may have predisposed them to pay closer attention to the sensory attributes of the wines.

Although wine experts from different geographic locations varied in their assessment of wine characteristics, their overall assessment of the quality of wines was consistent over time and did not differ across tasting sessions. This means that wine experts apply their standards consistently in the assessment process.

What’s it mean for consumers looking for advice?

First, the study shows that when it comes to wine quality, the assessments of wine experts from both regions converge. Wine experts are a good source of information regarding wine quality, regardless of their geographical location, training or experience.

Second, when it comes to preferences for a specific sensory profile of wines, consumers may want to take into consideration the background, training and professional role of the wine expert whose opinion they’re relying upon.

Finally, this study may be an invitation to explore multiple sources of wine expertise, such as blogs, web sites or media reports. Consumers may enjoy finding out whether their own experience of wine sensory attributes aligns with one of the diverse perspectives arising from the training and professional roles of wine experts.

Originally appeared in Tthe Conversation

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