THE BLOG
01/07/2008 05:15 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Red and the White

Would you consider me a total moron if I couldn't tell the difference between red and white wine? If the answer is yes, would it dismay, please, or just confuse you to know that plenty of wine experts can't tell the difference either?

This idea isn't as ridiculous as it may seem, as top wine schools have found that experts trip themselves up when they are asked to say if a wine is white or red when the identity of the wine is disguised. At the University of Bordeaux in 2001, Frederic Brochet conducted an experiment where he offered 57 wine experts two glasses of wine, one red and one white, and asked them their impressions. A sizable number of the experts described the red wine's qualities in terms of its redness: that it was jammy, or displayed red fruit. The trouble was that Brochet had served them two glasses of the same white wine, and one was dyed red with a tasteless, odorless dye.

Calvin Trillin has also written about a test given by the Department of Viticulture and Enology of the University of California at Davis that asks its students a simple question: red or white? To test their tasting acumen, a series of room-temperature wines are poured into black cups. Just as with the experts in Bordeaux, the Davis students tend to fail embarrassingly at noting a difference. Maybe this is why the enology school denies ever administering the test, as Trillin reports.

These tests get a lot of attention because they're red meat for the grumpy masses who think that wine tasting is a load of pretentious bunk. Like politicians and baseball players, wine writers aren't infallible, and they too succumb to temptations. In this case, the experts may have relied on what they thought they knew rather than what the taste or the texture of the wine indicated. Like many skills, tasting requires the right tools: perfectly clean, clear glasses for swirling, smelling and viewing the wine, a cool, calculating mind tuned for assessment, and a spit bucket to maintain the sharpness of the aforesaid mind.

Reading about these tests made me very curious to find out if I might know more than the duped wine critics. So I decided to try tasting wine blindfolded. (Also handcuffed! Hanging from the ceiling! Over a pool of hungry sharks!)

Unfortunately that sort of spectacle will have to wait until the Ringling Brothers launch a culinary circus. Instead, I sent my friend, Kyle, to buy two bottles of wine, one red and one white, while I sat at home and pondered the death of my credibility as a wine writer. Kyle returned with the bottles swathed in tissue paper to protect their identities. I went into another room and tied a blindfold around my head while she uncorked the wine and poured it into two standard tasting glasses.

I have sat down before with a few unidentified glasses of wine and have had the challenge of assessing them and guessing the grape variety and where they are from. Appearance is a key part of this, as wine gives up some facts about itself from the way it looks. If it's aged, wine takes on a slight brownish, oxidized cast, and if it's deeply hued or opaque it hints at what sort of grapes it was made from.

In the absence of visual clues I figured that if I just trusted my taste buds I could guess correctly. The main difference between red and white wine is tannin, that slightly acrid, woody and drying sensation that one also finds in overbrewed black tea. As it is made, red wine stays in contact with grape skins, seeds and stems to extract tannin and color. White wine skips this step, resulting in yellow, tannin-free wine.

So back at the lab and under the blindfold, I swirled, and I sniffed, and slurped and swallowed; I puffed out my cheeks to let the wine settle in contact with my gums, which can detect tannin. I had a pencil and paper, and as I tasted the first wine I crookedly scrawled "LOTS OF OAK" (Kyle suggested it should be framed: baby's first tasting note). I thought at first that it was a Spanish red -- the Spanish really like the taste of oak -- but then I wondered if it was a really oaky California chardonnay. I wasn't picking up the buttery texture one normally finds in that wine, though. To contrast the two I picked up the second glass. This held a wine that had lovely floral and citrus notes and no tannin, clearly a white wine from what I could tell.

As it turns out, I was right. The first wine was Kilo Cero, a red garnacha from Cariñena, and the second was Las Brisas, a white from Rueda. Interestingly, Kyle had no trouble identifying the two when she covered her eyes and tried them. As she put it, one had the "red wine taste" and the other had the "white wine taste" -- she didn't pussyfoot around with oaky notes vs. floral notes, and thus she didn't over-think it, like I nearly did.

Kyle knows only a little about wine, while I know just enough to almost confuse myself, even though I was able to identify more characteristics of the wine than she could. A wine pro who has assessed thousands of bottles could let all that knowledge trip him up. The wine writer Jancis Robinson touched on this in her memoir, Tasting Pleasure, when she noted that younger, less experienced tasters have a better shot at identifying a wine during a blind tasting because their memories are less clogged by years of judging many different wines.

Youth may triumph over experience, but that doesn't mean that wine tasting is all bunk. Knowing a lot can help a person assess the quality of a wine, understand the distinctive styles of wine regions and know which wines would pair with which foods. Performing parlor tricks blindfolded doesn't help answer these questions but does help keep wine experts honest: just because a person knows a lot doesn't mean that she's always right.