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Can we really trust wine experts?

Might as well flip a coin. Getty

Wine tasting is basically “junk science”, says David Derbyshire in The Observer. In a long-running experiment, the esteemed judges at the California State Fair wine competition were secretly given the same drink three times during blind tastings. Only about 10% gave them consistent ratings in any given year – and none did so year after year. In 2001, a University of Bordeaux professor asked 54 experts to test a red and a white. They said all the usual things – the red was “jammy”, apparently – without noticing that both glasses had actually been from the same bottle of white. “The only difference was that one had been coloured red with a flavourless dye.”

The main problem is the “sheer complexity” of wine, a drink with no fewer than 27 distinct organic acids, 23 varieties of alcohols besides ethanol, 16 sugars, and so on. Another is that your palate is affected by all sorts of external factors: what you ate or drank earlier that day, tiredness, even the weather. Particularly important is your perception of what you’re drinking. When tasters in another 2001 study were given the same wine from two different bottles, one marked as table wine and the other as grand cru, they were much more complimentary about the supposedly expensive stuff. Even the music can make a difference: a 2008 study found that “a blast of Jimi Hendrix enhanced cabernet sauvignon while Kylie Minogue went well with chardonnay”.

🍷🤨 As you’d expect, ordinary consumers are no better. Research in 2011 found that people could distinguish between wines under £5 and those above £10 only around 50% of the time – meaning “they would have been just as successful flipping a coin”.