Getting wine wrong, how (not) to look stupid, and MW tasting secrets

Having lived in Singapore for just over a month, I’m keen to make a good impression on the wine trade. Which is why it was particularly unfortunate that I made a spectacularly bad identification of a Pinot Noir at a prestigious masterclass this week.

Shaw and Smith Pinot Noir tasting.jpg

Nine Pinot Noirs were served blind, with the only clue being that some Shaw & Smith wines were probably included, seeing as they were hosting the tasting. When the room was asked if anyone had a strong feeling about the first wine’s origin, the room fell predictably silent. Identifying a wine wrong in front of fellow professionals is the single most mortifying event that can happen.

“Not a strong feeling,” I said, hand held aloft. “But I would say Chile. Probably coastal.”

Uh-huh. The wine was Joseph Drouhin 2016 Vosne-Romanée. In case anyone missed that, the new British Master of Wine sitting right at the front with his hand up just made himself look like a total fucktard.

There are two useful and important things to learn from this - both of which I should have known already - and I will share them below.

But first, why did I think a classic Burgundy was from Chile? Because I straight-up read the wine wrong. It was nothing like Chilean Pinot. I was totally off - no excuses. Incompetence on my part. Bad reads happen sometimes. In fact, they happen frequently.

However, identifying wines blind isn’t just about the glass itself - it’s about probability, and understanding the wider world of wine. Does Chile make world-class Pinot Noir? Yes, but not many. Are there more likely origins? Yes, loads. Was I confident in my guess? Not especially - but I made it anyway.

In that circumstance, I would have been better off going for a New World origin which is more statistically likely. Confusing California or Australian Pinot Noir for good Burgundy is far more forgivable. Likewise for Germany, New Zealand and Oregon - almost anywhere, in fact. Furthermore, I should have realised that the Singapore market has relatively far fewer Chilean wines than French or Australian.

Understanding those concepts is essential for passing the MW exam. Across the 36 blind wines that you must identify, everyone will get some wrong, very possibly most of them.

But the severity of that wrongness can make all the difference to your chances of passing. There is absolutely no shame in misidentifying a Pinot Noir, but the credibility of your guess isn’t just about the wine’s characteristics in the glass, but having a comprehensive understanding of the world of wine. Using that knowledge makes the difference between a reasonable mistake and a chronic misfire.

To some people, that may seem like cheating., because there’s an assumption that passing tasting exams should rely solely on tasting skill; using the characteristics of the wine in the glass in total isolation. But that’s totally naive. These days, wines from all around the world - especially Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, among others - are increasingly difficult to tell apart. There should absolutely no shame in getting it wrong - but when you identify Vosne-Romanée as Chilean, you are revealing an ignorance of Pinot Noir probabilities around the world.

One of the great advantages of passing the MW exam is that you have proved your ability in the one of the world’s toughest wine tasting scenarios, and this gives you far greater freedom to admit when you don’t know something. When faced with the blind Vosne-Romanée, I should have admitted I didn’t know, or guessed a more likely option to maximise credibility.

But I didn’t - lesson learned.

Making such a woeful mistake in public is the reason that professionals hate identifying wine in front of their peers. That applies as much in MW seminars as it does in masterclasses. Hence why, when people are asked for their opinions, dead silence usually ensues.

As wine professionals, we must be prepared to discuss wine in public. If we are too embarrassed to speak up, how can we expect consumers to engage with wine? Getting wines wrong is completely normal - it happens way more often than getting them right. But learning how to guess intelligently is the best way of both mitigating that fear and demonstrating a real understanding of the wide world of wine.