The Trouble With Tasting Wine

Dec 20, 2011 4:01 pm

A new book reveals why you can’t trust your tongue

A new book calls into question the art of pulling "notes of grass and tar" from wines.
A new book calls into question the art of pulling "notes of grass and tar" from wines.
 

As someone who tastes and writes about wine for a living, it may come as a surprise to you that I believe wine tasting is bogus. Let me clarify. It’s not that I think people should throw glasses of vino down their throats without first swirling and smelling, even chewing the precious liquid.

All these are tremendously important to the overall enjoyment of wine – so much so that there have been many a wine in which the first two were so pleasurable to me that getting to the bottom of a glass took forever. When I say that wine tasting is bogus, I mean that it’s misunderstood. It’s considered to be an exercise in the power of the palate. But the truth is you can’t always trust your tongue.

A new book, Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters, lends credence to the idea that wine tasting isn’t the flavor-detecting feat it’s portrayed to be. In it, Gordon M. Shepherd, a professor of neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine, describes – in mind-blowing detail – how people taste. For starters, we use the word incorrectly: taste refers only to salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. Citrus peel and blackberries and porcini mushroom and cat pee (yes, even that last one is a common wine descriptor) are flavors. Next, forget the notion that your mouth and tongue are where flavors occur. Flavors occur in the brain and the way we detect them is through smell – specifically, when we breathe out while eating. Whoa.

With regard to wine tasting, Shepherd refers to a well-known experiment in which tasters were given samples of red and white, then of a white wine dyed red, and could not tell that the second red was really a white. I have taken part in a similar experiment, where I was given samples of rosé and white sparkling wines. I had the same results as others in the room: the rosé was more strawberry-vanilla; the white was more citrusy and dry. But they were both the same wine with a flavorless, odorless coloring added to one.

So, what do such experiments and Shepherd’s in-depth study of how taste works mean to the world of wine tasting? Before I answer that, I should point out that Shepherd’s comprehensive investigation of how people process flavors can be put to far better use than shaming oenophiles. The findings can (and should) be used to better understand health issues like obesity. Yet, as a booze writer, I couldn’t help but think of all the tasting notes I’ve read. And written.

Taste, as the word suggests, is subjective. So many things can affect what a person tastes in a given instant. Color is just one of them. Memory is another. Shepherd suggests that when tasters ascribe descriptors to a wine, what they are actually doing is less of an analytical exercise than a comparative one. Indeed, there is no blackberry, porcini or cat pee in wine – and if there is, stop drinking immediately. What a person may taste is a flavor molecule that reminds them of other flavor molecules they’ve tasted.

In addition, people, even professionals, are subject to the power of suggestion. Shepherd talks about the focus of one’s attention influencing what one tastes. I can attest that all it takes is for one person in the room to call out that they can detect a note of gooseberry in a wine for you to start thinking to yourself that, yeah, you can taste it, too. What other factors are at play? A wine company in the U.K. just conducted an experiment that suggests background music affects taste. Subjects described a wine as “subtle” when soft music was playing; the same wine was so “robust” when the music became more dramatic that they thought it was a different wine.

Shepherd points to another study in which responses to flavor are shown to occur mainly in the right hemisphere of the brain, while analytical processes occur mainly in the left. It begs the question, what exactly is lost in translation between those two sides of the brain? And does it matter?

Surely, wine tasting has its place. (I’d be considerably underemployed if it didn’t.) But it should be seen for what it is: a sensual experience. It has no right answers. What we taste in our mouths is a result of what we're inhaling and, especially, exhaling; what we’re seeing and hearing and focusing on; what we’ve experienced in the past; and who knows what else. The fact that all these aspects influence what our tongue tells us doesn’t detract from the experience. It is the experience. We should embrace the bogusness of it all.


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