Shibboleths in wine – Ian Hickinbotham

A wine by any other name would taste as....

By Ian Hickinbotham
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Tasting lineup at the Cool Climate Wine Show.

Tasting lineup at the Cool Climate Wine Show.

Australian Plonky by Ian Hickinbotham
Ian Hickinbotham, author of Australian Plonky


There are several shibboleths concerning wine: that was the much publicised assertion of the late Professor Amerine of the University of California, soon after their enology (as Americans spell oenology) school was granted massive funding following the demise of Prohibition in the USA.

Shibboleths are customs, practices, words or phrases (a.k.a. 'jargon')  that can define a particular group, or shared beliefs or experiences. These are certainly evident in the world of wine, and in particular, in wine tasting and judging.

So what did Amerine mean? That enforced absence from the 'world of wine' during Prohibition possibly instilled original thinking in American wine academia of the time. There was almost an irreverence in their scientific approach to winegrowing, which resulted in quick world leadership in some aspects. (Rather conversely, a formal tasting at a French university has been likened to a 'poets' meeting'.)

For example, American official tasting of wine is done in individual cubicles to which unmarked glasses of wine are presented through a sliding panel and where the taster cannot even see others, let alone confer. This arrangement contrasts with common Australian practice. Our show judges are required to reach consensus with fellow judges before medals are decided. 

Thus in Australia the 'dominant personality' is the first shibboleth. It has been proven that the dominant personality's opinion of a wine unduly influences when consensus is required. It was documented how the chairman of judges at one major show declared (for the other judges to hear while walking behind them busy tasting), 'Number 4 glass is an outstanding wine'. Indeed it was awarded the Gold Medal and it transpired that it came from the chairman's region!

Any practising professional should be able to at least recognise wine from his/her own region. I emphasise ‘practising’: I once observed an oenologist taste the same glass of wine every two hours during one day in his cellar. Amerine documented a staged tasting with Swiss winegrowers of chasselas, which most of us find makes a very neutral wine (Bests of Great Western, Victoria, have made the wine for years). Those growers could distinguish their own wines from their own vineyards.

Another important shibboleth concerns amateur wine tasters: they tend to score all wines around 15 (of the possible 20), due to lack of confidence.

A third is that we should never taste (and score) a wine in the presence of the winemaker. It has been shown that we tend to wish to be polite and score higher than normal.

Further, if a row of glasses of wines are labelled numerically, we tend to prefer number '1', while if there is an 'A1' in the line-up, preference is almost assured!

Still another used to be the bias (which certainly no longer pertains in Australia) if tasters saw the wine poured from a screwcap sealed bottle. Today of course wines under screwcap might obtain the reverse result.

Some of the other shibboleths are:

  • wines from one region are superior to those of another;
  • that bottled wine improves with age;
  • that wines improve if left open prior to serving; and
  • that certain wines should be consumed with certain foods.

Then there are over-lapping shibboleths: some 200 people attended an annual dinner of a wine and food society at a luxury hotel. The cellar-master called for opinions of the first drink of the night that we had enjoyed while gathering and chatting. To the astonishment of all those oenophiles, he announced that the ‘wine’ had been made from apples: not one member had deduced that (or had been sufficiently brave to voice their opinion).

Two points – ‘we tend to taste what we expect to taste’ and also, we should never attempt serious tasting in a social circumstance.


Ian Hickinbotham, one of the most innovative and influential oenologists in Australia over his 50 year career, is the author of Australian Plonky (see related review below).



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September 19th, 2010
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