Guessing game: the pressure and politics of blind tasting

Recently, I mentioned the pressure involved in choosing a bottle of wine to take along to a dinner populated with fellow wine professionals during a week judging the National Wine Show of Australia in Canberra. A few nights later, another communal dinner introduced stress of an equal yet opposite sort: guessing what bottles others had brought.

Chifley's Bar and Grill is the venue; the Official Judges' Dinner is the occasion. We gather round a large table in the private dining room. Over the next few hours, five flights of wines will be served alongside each course. There are 22 bottles in total and the objective is to identify every single one. Among a peer group such as this, the pressure is palpable. Everybody wants to bathe themselves in glory by nailing a wine precisely, but the far greater desire is not to drown yourself in ignominy by declaiming something that turns out to be laughably inaccurate.

This conjures a peculiarly contradictory atmosphere whereby everyone must drink liberally yet nobody wants to lose sobriety. I sip sparingly at the first flight poured before us. Four flutes of fizz: one champagne, one Australian, two English. It's an easy start, with virtual unanimity around the table. I supplied the two English sparklers and they show well, with Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2010 coming second only to Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006, which is no shame.

The atmosphere relaxes and conversation flows, oiled by the wine. I must pace myself. Glancing down to my place setting, I observe that all four flutes are now near enough empty, and have been joined by four additional glasses, each containing an unidentified white. We are called to order by a tinging glass. "I want to play a game," someone growls. Like the deranged psychopath from the splatter movie Saw. I choose to believe this is just coincidence.

Reverse Options is declared. This is a pastime is peculiar to Australia, whereby attendees take it in turns to make a statement about the wines, which is given a yes or no by the architect of the flight.

These wines are all white.


A few nervous laughs. Next person.

These wines are all Riesling.

Dramatic pause.


But from there on, most guesses become wrong. The rooms grows quieter. Somebody accurately identifies that all four are from 2013. My turn.

Wine four is a Von Buhl Grosses Gewächs Riesling from the Pfalz.

KABLAMMO! And that, ladies and gentlemen, is precisely what I don't say. Instead, I say: 

Wine four is from Australia.


Everything clenches. I return the glass to my nose, wearing an expression that I hope says well gosh, how curious and what fun this is. When nobody's looking, I take a large, calming gulp. The game continues in a way that increasingly resembles the torture traps of the Saw movies. Finally, we get to the stage of identifying producer - at which point, bizarrely, it suddenly gets easier.

I quickly realise that you can make well-informed guesses about who might have made a given wine, according to certain parameters. Once you know region and variety, some producers become far more likely to crop up than others. What you need to do is read the situation. 

At the judges dinner of a major Australian wine competition, attended by top sommeliers and winemakers, serving bad wine is unthinkable. In a flight of four dry German Rieslings (as this flight turned out to be), certain benchmark producers are almost bound to be present. If you know your wine, then Keller or Donnhoff are two names that should spring to mind, and in this case, you'd be right.

Crucially, though, even if you're wrong, the suggestion is both complimentary and respectful to your host. For instance, flight three turns out to be five Chardonnays, one of which is identified as Chablis. Almost immediately, someone guesses Raveneau, the legend of the appellation. Wrong, but respectful. Brownie points to you. Another is identified as being from Corton-Charlemagne. Bonneau du Martray? Yes. Why? Because it's statistically likely.

We are then told that a Meursault and a Chassagne-Montachet are made by the same producer. Within two or three guesses, someone calls Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, another famous name within the wine world. Did the identifier recognise a particular attribute of the wines that suggested this, or was it simply a clever guess, a process of elimination?

There's a certain predictability about what's likely to be present at these sorts of things - though admittedly, for these wines, there turns out to be some relative wildcards too. Although by the time we get to the final flight of the meal, it doesn't seem to matter so much any more, funnily enough. 

Here's the list of everything we ate and drank.