As much as I like to pretend otherwise, while studiously assessing a wine list in front of other people, I suspect I just actually pick based on a combination of name, price, or a vague sense of what I think sounds sophisticated.
Thankfully, I had the chance to put this to the test with Lidl’s ‘wine tasting in the dark’ pop up event underneath Barton Arcade.
As part of a three-city pop up series, the Lidl Chateaux Noir is described as “an experience to taste a range of different wines in total darkness to dispel common prejudices that can come with selecting the best wines”.
For £5 to attend (proceedings of which was donated to charity, it would be remiss not to mention), and for Lidl to get some product promotion and tangible focus group feedback from a nice PR event; a pretty clever and good deal all round.
The event goes like this. You arrive into a trippy Lewis Carroll-esque oversized candy cane corridor where you queue to enter the dark room.
We were told you must go into the room in fours, and with there being two of us, we were paired with a couple and told to hold onto the shoulder of the person in front of you.
You’re then led through a black curtain and into the dark room by someone wearing weird, protruding night vision goggles straight out of a spy film.
I can’t think of a way to describe entering the room without sounding a bit stupid, but it was really, really, pitch black. Black by its very nature doesn’t need adjectives, but I’ve been in some dark places in my time and this was somehow markedly darker.
Normally your eyes gradually adjust so you can see basic shapes, but that didn’t happen at all. It was a bit disconcerting at first. You’re told if at any point you need help just raise your hands and they’ll see you in the dark, or shout mince pies.
I had absolutely no bearings or comprehension to where I was, how many people were around, who else was on the table, where anyone was in relation to me, and as we had settled into seats I could hear one of the couple on our table starting to voice that she was freaking out a bit.
To be honest, I totally got it. It was a weird environment and sensation, but in such scenarios, I have a nervous trigger to say something largely to just make myself laugh and deflect any anguish.
“Just take your trousers off, guys. I did a minute ago and I feel way better”
I hadn’t, for the record, and a bit of a risky gag given I didn’t know who we were sitting with. But thankfully everyone laughed, and we all started chatting which lifted the weirdness and we were ready to drink.
The host then shook a tambourine to gain our attention and introduced the plan. In front of us, we had two rows of four glasses of wine. The first four were sparkling white, the row behind was four reds.
Drinking one at a time, left to right, one to four, we’d then give our feedback on which one we thought was the nicest, then most expensive. It’s worth noting that they weren’t shy with the measures, as we were pretty giddy by the time we left after sinking every drop.
The first round of sparkling ones was interesting. On our table, we were initially trying to guess what they were, rather than which we liked. Doing that felt like we were trying to use confirmation bias to decide which one matched what we thought we liked.
“I think this one is Cava, and I like Cava, so that one is the best. I don’t like Champagne, and that one is Champagne and that’s the most expensive”
I had a feeling that there was going to be a shock when we were told the results, but we were actually right; collectively identifying the Cava and picking as our favourite, and the Champagne as the most expensive.
Between the descriptions and reveals, the host halted individual group murmuring by shaking a tambourine in what became an increasingly funny passively aggressive fashion. I’ve never been gently bollocked with a tambourine in the dark before.
The round of reds went the opposite of the first, with the most expensive Chianti being chosen as the favourite, but the second cheapest Tarragona being chosen as the most expensive.
As the results were revealed, it did sort of prove the point that label and price doesn’t equate to the best. The host was also quick to suggest that even Lidl’s most expensive was still cheap, which was a shoehorned but fair point.
Once we were done, we were ushered back out by the goggled agents back into another trippy room to have a drink of our favourite and a mince pie.
All in all, it’s an odd but fun thing to try. One thing I do like is that it removes the qualitative, snobby element of wine tasting. The “mmm. Yah. Sensitive notes. It cascades across the palette like a wisp of honeysuckle” and boils it down to a show of hands for what’s your favourite.
I recommend giving it a go, and might I suggest to Lidl that a wine and cheese combination event would be great?
At the very least, it’s given me some good ammunition to try and sound knowledgeable next time I’m handed a wine list.