Decades ago, the charming British wine expert Harry Waugh, former director of the famed Chateau Latour French wine estate, was asked, "When was the last time you mistook a Bordeaux for a Burgundy?"
Replied the inimitable Waugh, with a trace of self-deprecatory humor, "Not since lunch."
Waugh was proud of the response. I met the man several times and he reveled in the fact that, even then in the 1960s when most wines were distinctively more different from one another than they subsequently became, it was only human nature to be fallible.
And part of this was the fault not of the taster, but of the wine.
Think of the Waugh remark carefully: It says much for pinning the blame not on the potential identifier, but on the producer — which says more about the wine than it does about Waugh.
I suspect that what Waugh really was saying was that when a great taster mistakes a Bordeaux for a Burgundy, it really means that the wine in question is a horrid example of what it is supposed to be!
An example: Waugh and dozens of other great tasters of the 1960s knew that a St. Julien differed from a St. Est?he in distinctive ways (aromas, textures, tannin levels), and that it wasn't terribly difficult to guess that a wine was from one of the Bordeaux districts as long as it was true to type.
If a St. Est?he tasted like a St. Julien, it was a bad St. Est?he! And vice versa.
Today the world has changed. In the eyes of some wine evaluators, a St. Est?he that smells and tastes like a St. Est?he is a poor wine because it is not plump, ripe, generous, soft and delicious.
The numerical rating concept that's been with us since the 1980s is a linear scale. It was created to compare wines to one another, but has left us with nowhere to place the great wines of the past that diverge from the obvious, simplistic and tasty.