More on aroma perception by sniff and sip

I am again writing here about comparing orthonasal and retronasal olfaction – smelling things through the nostrils, compared with through back of the mouth. If having two modes of smelling is a new concept for you, you might like to refer to an earlier post on the subject where I explain it in more detail. I started to get interested in the subject when I realised that a number of studies on wine aroma perception only looked at orthonasal olfaction, i.e. sniffing the wine, and wondered how much difference it would make if retronasal olfaction was studied instead. One of those studies was the relatively well-known one where a red dye was added to white wine, leading tasters to describe it in terms of red wine aromas (Morrot, Brochet and Dubourdieu, 2001, The color of odors, Brain Lang, 79 , 309-320). Another series of studies with the conclusion that we can reliably identify a maximum of four aromas in a multi-aroma mixture. Reading the recently published books by Gordon Shepherd and Jamie Goode has given me a few new insights, which I shall share here.

The most general point is that the smell of a wine never perceived alone. It is part of what we might call the wine’s overall flavour, and it is impossible to totally separate smell from what we perceive through other senses. With retronasal olfaction, we are simultaneously tasting the wine on our tongue, and also feeling it in our mouth as possible astringency and alcoholic heat. Orthonasally, the interference from other senses is maybe less obvious, but we before we sniff the wine we still normally see it, and that affects expectations. This was in fact the point of the Morrot et al experiment mentioned above. Additionally we can also experience chemicals in our nostrils through our sense of touch, for example as alcoholic heat, or the pungency of hydrogen sulphide. These non-smell sense modalities are not only confusable with smells, but they can also affect our sensitivity to true smells

We should also note that we never smell the wine itself, but the volatile molecules that escape from it. In the glass, however much we may swirl and sniff, we have relatively little control over how the volatile molecules escape and reach our nasal cavity. But once in the mouth, the processes acting on the wine can be complex, and vary a lot from time to time, and person to person, even if we are largely unconscious of what is going on – the wine is mixed with saliva, warmed towards body temperature, moved around the mouth to a greater or lesser extent, and allowed to coat the mouth and throat, and its molecules enter the nose when we breathe out.

Then, there are the effects of background smells. You can become so used to a background smell that you no longer notice it. Normally this is an advantage when it comes to wine tasting. It will, for example, filter out the smell on your hands of cigarettes or mildly scented soap. But what if that background smell also happens to be a component of the wine? IN that case your desensitisation to the background smell will affect how you perceive the wine. There is also the possibility of cross-adaption, where one odour affects your sensitivity to other one. The most obvious example is perhaps how the TCA of a corked wine mutes its fruity aromas. If background smells may be important from the environment, retronasal olfaction must be affected by non-wine smells inside your mouth. Apart from the possible remnants of lunch, coffee and cigarettes, there are also the normal odours of your mouth and throat to consider. Unpalatable to think about perhaps, but perfectly natural, and a potential source of desensitisation and cross-adaption when tasting wine.

There have, by the way been a number of studies that have concluded that odour detection thresholds are higher for retronasal that orthonasal olfaction – in other words that we are more sensitive to smells when sniffing through our nostrils. But we need to be careful about drawing false conclusions from these results. In the experiments, the samples are presented to subjects as gases containing an odour, through a tube that goes either to the nostrils or to the back of the mouth, so it is difficult to see what direct relevance these results have to wine tasting.

Finally I would draw your attention to a 2006 study, not discussed in the above-mentioned books, that pursues the question of how many flavour components we can identify in a mixture, but unlike earlier studies that have looked at orthonasal olfaction alone, this one concerns how we perform with a liquid in the mouth, and involves both odourants and tastants – things we detect using both the nose and taste buds. Thus, it is more applicable to the question of how many component we can detect when tasting wine. I won’t give a detailed description of the results here, but just mention that they were very much in line which the findings of the orthonasal olfaction studies. To quote from the authors: “In conclusion, the present study has shown that humans have great difficulty identifying the components of odor–taste mixtures when more than two components are present”.

In summary, I would say that there are many potential reasons why orthonasal and retronasal olfaction might lead to different perceptions in wine tasting, but it is still far from clear how important the differences are in practical terms.

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Neuroenology, and I Taste Red – two book reviews

Here I review two recently published books that cover similar ground. Both describe the science of how we perceive wine. As is made abundantly clear in both books, we use all our senses in wine perception, not just smell and taste, and we integrate this information in our brain, together with memories of other wines, and what we think we know about the wine, to create the impression of what the wine “tastes like”. It is an important point.

Both books were worthwhile reading for me, and yet I found both annoying in places. They are a nice pair of books to read at roughly the same time, as Jamie Goode’s is written from the perspective of a wine writer who has read up on the science of tasting wine, while Gordon Shepherd writes as a neuroscientist making research findings relevant to wine lovers. As you might expect, the books are very different in style.

First off, let’s take a look at I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting Wine, by Jamie Goode. I got it for £10.77 including postage from Books Please, who seem currently to have the best price for books – well below Amazon prices. If I buy the book myself, I always quote the street price rather than the usually irrelevant RRP.

This is a generally very readable book, which will appeal to a lot of wine lovers, and covers the ground well, with a good emphasis on the importance of multimodal perception on wine tasting.

In my opinion though, some of this readability was at the cost of understanding the basis for a some of the information we are presented with. Jamie did explain that, in order to make the book more accessible, he did not want to include references in the text, but this meant I that I was unable to check out the evidence for a few statements that I thought questionable. In a similar way, Jamie did tend to talk about things that were assumed by wine experts as if they were facts, and I think a more critical examination of the assumptions would have been good.

Sometimes, I felt that the ground was covered a bit too broadly, in that the topics strayed well away from wine tasting, into the importance of smell for sexual attraction for example. It was interesting in a way, and I am sure deliberate, but I would have preferred a bit more focus.

Another criticism – and this seems to be increasingly common in wine writing, and journalism in general – is that there was a lot of reporting of what other people say and think, with little analysis and reflection. I would like to have seen more of an attempt to establish a consistent and reasoned view of where the truth lies.

Get this if you want an accessible book that has a broad mainstream overview of the subject.

Now on to Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine, by Gordon M Shepherd, also bought from Books Please, this time for £13.85.

This book is tougher going, reflecting perhaps that it is written by a neuroscientist, and there is a lot more hardcore science, which might put off a lot of people. It starts at a ponderous pace, mainly telling us what we are going to be told about later, but picks up momentum as you get into the book. I found most of it clear, but I did get a bit lost trying to follow the pathways of information in the brain. I think I took a wrong turn at the Amygdala. Perhaps clearer diagrams might have helped? As with Jamie’s book, there is no formal referencing system, but I felt the informal system in this book would by-and-large make it possible for me to chase up the original research if I wanted to.

This book covers the ground very well too. Perhaps in a bit too much detail in places – I am not sure, for example, that we really need to know so much about the aerodynamics of the inside of the nose. In other places however, the detailed scientific explanations are both relevant and fascinating.

The author does not pretend to be a wine expert but he has clearly spoken to some, and one in particular: Jean-Claude Berrouet of Petrus, the meeting with whom is described in an interesting appendix. But I do wonder if that meeting was a little too influential in the image of The Wine Professional painted in the book. A lot of professionals taste a lot more informally than Gordon describes.

And in a way, that leads on to a general gripe. Gordon is always at pains to emphasise the importance of each stage of wine perception – from the first sight, sniff and sip, through the mouth and nasal cavity, and within the brain – but there does not seem to be any attempt to get a handle on the relative importance of all these factors. Thus, as everything is soooo important, the wine taster is advised to do all manner of things to get the maximum sensory input from the wine. However, I am far from convinced that this turning-up-the-volume approach is a good idea when tasting, and think that it may finish up emphasising aspects of the wine that are far less noticeable when drinking properly, and not necessarily in a good way. I personally have discovered, for example, that swilling young Barolos round the mouth causes the astringency to mask the fruit, which is more evident under normal drinking conditions.

You may not know, but the same author also wrote a book call Neurogastronomy, which I reviewed a few years ago. So one obvious question is: should I buy Neuroenologly if I already have the older one? And if I were only to buy one book which one should I get? While they share some material, they are very different books. Neuroenology being very much organised around tasting wine. It certainly would not hurt to get both books, but if you really want only one, I would say wine lovers should get the older Neurogastronomy. But do note that this is a big thumbs-up to Neurogastronomy, rather than a strong criticism of the new book. You might have to do a bit more work to relate it to wine, but Neurogastronomy gives a bigger picture, some of the additional information being relevant to wine too.

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How important is a rich soil ecology?

Intuitively for most people, a vineyard with grass and wild flowers between the vines is regarded as a Good Thing. It looks pretty, and is indicative of a healthy ecology that has not been destroyed by pesticides. A vineyard soil teeming with life can be an end in itself, and an important benefit of sustainable viticulture. But however good for the environment it may be, is a rich soil ecology critical for good wine?

By way of example, here are images of vineyards that have a lot in common, and yet are totally different. They are both on islands in Southern Europe, and both have volcanic soils. The first one is a vine on the island of Santorini, where the soil has been created by man tilling tuff (a rock of compacted volcanic ash) to a depth of half a metre or so. I only show a small area of the vineyard in the image, but it is typical of the island in that there is little or no vegetation, and the soil has very little organic matter. Lack of water, not over-use of pesticides, is the reason for this barren soil. The other image is from the Northern slopes of Mount Etna. Here there is more water, and nature has had more time to work after the most recent lava flow in the area. So there on Etna, the organic farming methods employed in the vineyard result in a much richer biodiversity – which would also be expected in most parts of Europe.

As for the wines from both these places, I think most people would agree that they are good if not excellent. I do not know where the grapes from that particular Santorini vine would finish up, but the soil is typical of the island and Santorini wine is generally of high quality, and the vineyard on the right is owned by Tenuta delle Terre Nere, one of the most highly regarded Etna producers.

So from these examples can we conclude that organic matter in vineyard soil is not necessarily so important? And that good wine can result from soils both rich and meagre? More contentiously, perhaps even soils poor from the over-use of pesticides can result in good wine? Or could, for example, Santorini wine be vastly improved by applying compost, most of the ingredients for which would need to be imported? These are not totally rhetorical questions – I would genuinely like to know, and I suspect the answers are not as clear-cut as some would have us believe.

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Natural wines – my two penn’orth

Firstly, let’s take a look at what natural wine actually is. While the term is not standardised, and there is no universal agreement on how it should be used, the principle is clear: it is used for wines made with minimal intervention. So in principle, the grapes are grown with no artificial fertilisers or pesticides, and in the winemaking nothing is added to the grapes or removed, and there is no new-fangled winery technology. Here are some of the more important practices that distinguish natural from more conventional winemaking:

  1. No chemical-factory vineyard treatments, apart from the traditional sulphur and copper sulphate
  2. No bought-in yeasts
  3. Minimal additions of sulphur in the winery, or none at all
  4. No chaptalisation or acidification
  5. Minimal fining and filtering, or none at all

So far, so unremarkable. But of at least equal importance is that natural wine has become something of a movement, with hip winemakers, jazzy wine labels with provocative names, and trendy natural wine bars, riding the wave of concern for the environment and free-from foods. All this has ruffled the feathers of more conservative members of the wine establishment, who poo-poo natural wines, pointing out that they are the faulty products of poor winemaking.

I present all of the above with no comment. I just want to give an impression of what natural wines are, and how they have polarised opinion, in some circles at least. Now for the two penn’orth from me. From my experience with wines that are marketed as natural, they do seem to have distinctive flavour profiles. That factor alone is for me a big positive. Unless a wine style threatens to kill off other ones, and that is hardly yet the case with natural wine, it only serves to offer choice – no one is forced to drink natural wine. I personally would definitely chose to do so, occasionally at least, if only for the additional fun it contributes to my wine-drinking. And if you want to do it as a life-style choice, well there are worse options.

With natural wine being so vaguely defined, and also allowing for all the different grapes varieties, wine regions and producers, you will understand there is quite a lot of variation between natural wines. I agree to an extent with some of their detractors about wine faults – I think natural wines do tend to show off-flavours more commonly than conventional wines. But such wines are still in the minority, and I am of the view that these so-called faults are generally a good thing because they add interest. Or to put it another way, if I like a wine I do not care that other people chose to say it is faulty.

Without wanting to generalise, other features you might find in red natural wines are sharpness, astringency and vibrant fruit. The whites often suggest apple to me. Yes, sometimes the over-ripe apple flavours of oxidation, but crunchy fresh apples more often than not. They can also often gain interesting leesy characteristics from the sediment. And look out for the orange wines, much beloved of some natural wine producers, with their phenolic flavours and often high astringency. If you are old enough to remember carbolic soap, you might think the phenolic nature of these wines is a nod in that direction. Don’t let it put you off though, as it will be the merest of nods. Natural wines can also just taste like, er, well, wine – the common or garden unnatural stuff.

Another objection is that natural winemaking obliterates terroir and varietal typicity, with the result that it all tastes alike. We can right away knock on the head the idea that all natural wines taste alike: they simply do not. And to the extent that some wines might seem to taste similar, could it possibly be that we have not yet allowed our palates to tune into the styles? As a community, wine enthusiasts have invested a lot of time learning to spot more-or-less subtle differences in conventional wines. I suggest that natural wines need a bit more consideration before we declare that there is no terroir and varietal typicity. We might have to accept that they have different types of typicity, but is that so bad? Even if they turn out to have no typicity whatsoever, is it really such a disaster?

I actually have a suspicion that some aspects of natural wines are only indirectly related to their so-called natural methods of production, for example that the sharpness and astringency is actually due to harvesting the grapes when they are less ripe. So we might eventually find conventional wines changing to mimic natural ones. If I am honest, I think I would like that to happen. Even if I like natural wines themselves, there is a lot of ideology in the natural wine movement I do not get along with. This is exemplified by the use of the word natural itself, as if somehow natural wine makes itself and is uniquely healthful, all other wines being industrial chemical abominations. Of course, the truth is much more nuanced.

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Having your subjective cake and objectifying it

Is wine appreciation is subjective or objective? Professionals can often be difficult to tie down on that issue. For example, they often agree that opinions on wine quality are totally subjective, while at the same time claiming to be objective in their judgements. In that way they can encourage everyone to say what they think about a wine, and yet not lose their special role as experts. The problem with subjectivity is that it can mean everyone’s opinions are equally valid, which then leaves no space for connoisseurship and meaningful dialogue about wine. If there is no right and wrong, what is left to discuss when it comes to wine? So they say. Some people at least. Sometimes.
Personally, while I may occasionally use the language of objectivity for convenience, I am very consistently on the side of subjectivity in this debate. Here is how I see it… The objective aspect of a wine is represented by its chemical and physical structure. Using our senses, mainly smell and taste, and the brain to integrate sensory input, we create there a perceptual model, and then interpret that model to draw conclusions about the wine. In other words, in the sense that it is created within ourselves, flavour is literally subjective. It is not only subjective, but the perception of flavour can vary greatly from person to person according to our genetic makeup. So flavour is totally subjective: it simply does not exist independently of an observer. In addition to this relatively straightforward flavour perception, some of us are also interested in aesthetic aspects of wine such as balance, harmony and elegance, and that adds yet another level of subjectivity. Even if we can agree on the principles of wine quality, those principles will always be rather arbitrary, and our interpretation of the principles subjective. However, unlike others, I do not see subjectivity in wine as a cause for concern. There is still room for wine expertise in my opinion, and with the acceptance of subjectivity I see even more opportunity for interesting discussions about wine quality.

While this strongly subjective stance does not seem to be popular amongst wine people, it is the orthodox view in perceptual science, and I find it difficult to understand how anyone could possibly begin to seriously disagree. However, Barry Smith (of the Institute of Philosophy, School of Advanced Studies, University of London) manages just that. Based on the objective chemistry on the wine, he proposes that there are emergent flavour properties. The flavours might vary with time, but they are objective in the sense that they depend solely on the wine itself. According to him, tasters do not experience the chemical and physical structure of the wine directly: only indirectly, through the flavour properties. Here, there is still subjectivity, but the subjectivity comes into play only when the objective flavours are sensed by a taster to create flavour perceptions. At that point, the person-to-person variations I mentioned above again become relevant, and net result is again a mix of different perceptions. However, according to this theory, they are regarded as more-or-less imperfect perceptions of the objective and true wine flavours. Less imperfect for expert tasters, and more so for novices.

My impression is that Barry Smith has spent a lot of time talking to wine experts, and flavour technologists, and what they say seems to have led him to believe the objective flavours are necessary. Jamie Goode, in his recent book I Taste Red, seems to like the theory, largely because it accommodates the idea of flavours being both objective and subjective, and leaves the traditional role of wine expert intact. However, I see no need for the existence of these objective flavour properties whatsoever. In fact, the only reason I am writing about them in this blog post is because I fear the idea might be gaining traction as a result of Jamie’s new book.

Barry Smith himself, writing in Issue 50 of The World of Fine Wine, identifies what for me is the major problem with his objective flavours: They give us two tough tasks instead of one. The first task is to establish the relationship between the wine chemistry and its emergent objective flavours. The second task is to establish the relationship between the objective flavours and flavour perceptions. Well how are those tasks progressing? Not very well I suggest. Meanwhile however, quite a lot of scientific progress has been made with the single task that replaces Barry Smith’s two, showing how chemicals interact directly with the tongue and nose, and how the resulting signals are processed, and routed to and through the brain, where they are integrated to create flavours.

Whether these mooted objective flavours exist or not matters not a jot as you sit with a glass of wine. However, it does matter to those who write about wine, or buy and sell it. It matters at a philosophical level, and livelihoods based on the myth of objectivity could be at stake. But it does not need to be like that. There is money to be made in the subjective world too. And fun to be had.

(If you would like to check that I have not been misrepresenting Barry Smith, or would simply like to read more about his ideas, in addition to his The World of Fine Wine and sections in Jamie Goode’s book, both mentioned above, you might like to see his essay in the book “Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine”, his Nature Outlook article, or this article I found online. For a scientist’s view of flavour perception I can recommend Gordon Shepherd’s book Neurogastronomy. The same author has also written a more recent book, Neuroenology, which might well be of even more interest. Finally, for a fuller argument in favour of subjectivity, may I again draw your attention to the online version of my article in The World of Fine Wine?)

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Wine tasting and alcohol – spit or swallow?

Spit or swallow? There are a few issues surrounding this decision when wine tasting, including whether you experience the wine properly when you spit, the social acceptability of spitting, and the most elegant way of doing it. To an extent the issues overlap a little, but I would like to focus on the amount of alcohol your body absorbs while tasting. Even with this focus, there are number of factors to consider.

Perhaps most importantly there is your ability to get home safely afterwards, critical if you are driving of course. Professionally, it is also important not to have your palate blunted by the effects of alcohol towards the end of the tasting, though this needs to be weighed against the possibility of not properly experiencing the wine if you don’t swallow. Finally, there are longer term health concerns surrounding alcohol consumption. However much we might be tempted to dismiss the latest government advice, there is certainly a limit beyond which alcohol consumption is unhealthy. But I am not going to preach here. I shall merely do my best to examine the evidence for how much alcohol we take on board when tasting wine. However, as you will find out, it doesn’t depend merely on whether you spit or not.

Firstly, I should point out that there is a lot of anecdotal evidence kicking about the Internet on the subject of intoxication and wine tasting, a lot of it contradictory. Some involves the use of consumer-quality breathalyser equipment, which as far as I can establish is very unreliable, but I did also find a reference to judges of an Australian wine competition being breathalysed by the police (presumably in the pursuit of science rather than a convictions) after a hard day’s work tasting and spitting an unspecified number of wines. The judges were found to be comfortably under the Australian drink drive limit. That seems to be at odds with a lot of other anecdotal evidence of tasters not feeling fit to drive after a day of tasting and spitting, and I think the devil is in the detail, e.g. number of wines tasted.

The only hard evidence I have found for swallow vs spit comparisons of blood alcohol concentration is a single study, The Bac(chus) experiment: blood alcohol concentrations after wine tasting, which was published a few years ago in 2012. It used a very specific experimental protocol, but nevertheless provides a good starting point.

The basic idea was to simulate a common wine tasting format, with and without spitting. Firstly with white wines and then with red, the subjects were required to do the following 5 times: rinse part of a 15 ml sample through the mouth for 15 seconds and spit, wait 1 minute, rinse the rest of the sample through the mouth for 15 seconds and spit, wash the mouth with water, wait 5 minutes. Between the white and red wines, there was an additional 5 minutes of waiting. Then, 15 minutes after the last wine, a blood sample was taken for analysis. Two weeks later the experiment was repeated, except this time the subjects swallowed the wine. 10 subjects participated in the first part of the experiment, but it seems 3 of them dropped out for the second part. The authors say the wine strength was 11.5-13.5%, and also give some details about the experimental subjects, but those details do not seem to be too important to the broad conclusions about spitting.

The blood samples were taken when the BAC (blood alcohol concentration) could be expected to be about at its maximum. For the spitting part of the experiment the BACs were in the range 0.01-0.06, which can be compared to the legal limit for driving in the Netherlands (where the research was carried out) of 0.5. The authors assume that these levels of BAC are due to absorption though the inside of the cheek. For the swallowing part of the experiment the range was 0.3-0.63. In other words, if you spat your BAC would be about an order of magnitude less than the drink-drive limit, while if you didn’t you would stand a good chance of losing your licence if caught. Worryingly for a scientific paper, and hardly a great advertisement for Open Access publishing, the authors do not state what unit they use for BAC, but as they are in the Netherlands it would be g/L – grams of alcohol per litre of blood. Note that in England and Wales the drink-drive limit is 80 mg/100mL, or 0.8 in the Dutch system.

So that’s the story for the precise set of conditions used in the experiment, but how may any changes to those circumstances affect the BACs? Let’s start with some factors mentioned by the authors. Firstly, if you have food in your stomach initially, or if you eat when tasting, it will tend to slow down the absorption of ingested alcohol as the alcohol will spend more time in your stomach, where the rate of absorption is less than in the small intestine. Note that the experimental subjects started on an empty stomach, and did not eat anything while tasting. The authors also point out that it takes about an hour for the body to eliminate the alcohol contained in a glass of wine. So an hour spent between finishing the tasting and starting to drive should, at very least, make a big impact on the amounts of alcohol swallowed in this experiment. Also more time spent in the actual tasting would reduce the BACs.

The authors also point out that if you drink more wine then you will get more alcohol in your blood. Pretty obvious really, but I think this is an important practical concern. 15ml is a usable pour, but a lot smaller than I am used to. There is 15ml in the ISO glass shown here, and it is well below the widest part of the glass. Also bear in mind that the rate at which the body can metabolise alcohol is more or less fixed, and it is when the absorption rate exceeds this that BAC increases. That suggests that if you double your alcohol consumption in the same period of time, your maximum BAC will more than double.

I also suspect that the spitting technique, and use of water, is important. I don’t know anyone who rinses their mouth after every wine in a tasting, and if you do not do this then of course wine stays in contact with the cheeks, and alcohol will continue to be absorbed by them, for a much longer period of time. There is also the issue that some residual wine may sneak down you throat when you swallow saliva.

For me personally at least, everything points to the benefits of spitting at tastings, even small tastings of 10 wines or so, and even if not driving. Unless you really enjoy the act of swallowing when tasting, or really believe it is necessary to properly judge the wine, why do it? The benefits have already been mentioned above: accident prevention, health and acuity of flavour perception. I would much rather save my weekly quota of alcohol units for the times when I am really enjoying wine, than use them when tasting. But if you enjoy combining tasting and drinking wine, or ignore government health warnings anyway, I suppose that is a very different situation. As for needing to swallow to properly judge a wine, there are some reasons to believe swallowing gives you a more complete impression of the wine, but I am not convinced it makes vary much difference. Besides, I think there is already enough artifice in conventional wine tasting to render any judgement moot when it comes to real life, whether you swallow or not.

Anyway, must go now to meet some friends and open a few bottles with a meal. Tonight I shall swallow.

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Fake news, alternative facts, bullshit and lies

There are many subtle differences between the various words of this post’s subject line, but what they have in common is that they have little to do with the truth. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe something called the truth exists. Not everything is opinion. Not everything depends on your politics and philosophy. Facts is facts. Some events actually happened; some didn’t. The truth may be hard to establish, but in many cases it can be dug out and exposed if necessary.

Has the Internet exacerbated the problem with untruth? I’m not convinced it has. It may possibly have increased the volume of misinformation in circulation, but there never has been a period of history free of bullshit and lies. They have always thrived as propaganda, in the press, and of course in many a discussion between friends. Even academia did not worry too much about the modern idea of truth. Truth in medieval universities was defined by the writings of Aristotle, and he made up quite a lot of stuff. The only greater authority for truth was the Church.

Even if the Internet puts misinformation very much more in our face, it also provides us with the tools to check what we read. If we care about the truth, it has never been so easy to verify what we read. Are the author, and the people the information comes from, reliable? Are they biased? How do they earn a living? Do other sources agree? If relevant, what does mainstream science have to say about it? With the Internet it is now often possible to get answers to those questions in a matter of minutes.

As for the world of wine, I don’t think there is much that I would call fake news or deliberate lying. But that is more than made up for by the volume of bullshit – that is to say unsubstantiated statements that may sound plausible, but are at best doubtful. Sometimes the bullshit is a more or less subtle attempt to persuade or sell, or possibly merely a misguided attempt to help but, regardless of motivation, while the bullshit might speak to wine enthusiasts, the vast majority of people see right through it. To be frank, I usually go with the vast majority on that one.

I don’t guarantee to be totally free of bullshit myself, but that is my goal. And I also often call out wine bullshit whenever I think I smell it. As a result, many of my vinous views are rather extreme and unorthodox. For example I remain highly sceptical on issues like terroir, minerality and elaborate tasting notes; and have even more negative views on biodynamics, and objectivity in wine tasting. For interesting yet bullshitty subjects like wine, my advice is to listen carefully to every opinion, but remain sceptical. And to check the evidence before you repeat what you hear, particularly if you are putting it in writing. Remember – just because the same bullshit has been repeated many times does not make it any more true. In that sense at least, it is very much like fake news shared many times on social media.

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The Vineyards and Wines of Greece 2017 – book review

Here I review The Vineyards and Wines of Greece 2017: Decoding the land of Dionysis, by Yiannis Karakasis MW. Note the year in the title – the author’s intention is to update the book regularly. Its 128 pages are available only as a PDF, and can be ordered here for €14. The presentation is attractive, but I might have preferred a simpler format that is easier to print and read on-screen, even if the result were not as aesthetically pleasing. However, I am sure others would beg to differ. The purchaser’s name appears on each page to discourage sharing and you are prevented from copying text from the file, but otherwise there are no physical restrictions on the copying and you are trusted to respect the author’s copyright.

This is no massive reference tome, but a great introduction to Greek wine that also gives a good update on current trends. It clearly focusses on the what is important, allowing the newcomer to Greek wine to focus on its most rewarding aspects. There is often a temptation to be too inclusive and comprehensive, even in short introductory wine books, but in my opinion that can easily confuse. Neither is Yiannis afraid to stick his neck out with his opinions. I would say that too is good in books of this type. If you already know something about Greek wine you may agree or disagree with the opinions, but at least there is a starting point for exploration and discussion. Often finding the starting point proves to be the main stumbling block in getting to grips with an unfamiliar wine region.

The two forewords in the book include a note from José Vouillamoz on Greek grape varieties. This is followed by Part 1, which has sections on history, current trends and challenges. Also, in a section strangely entitled Down to the basics, there are trends and opinions on the key grape varieties. Part 2 has a map of the Greek wine PDOs, followed by four sections, on Santorini, Naoussa, other islands, and the mainland, where “other islands” means islands other than Santorini, and “mainland” means everything apart from Naoussa. Part 3 is on the Greek grape varieties. It starts by classifying nine of them as Quality, Promising or Pleasant surprises. The same nine varieties are then illustrated and described using bullet points. I felt this used a lot of space and communicated little – I would have much preferred a short paragraph on each variety. Finally in Part 3, the vintages are rated by region, and the aging potential of the nine grapes is commented on, the latter being particularly useful for new buyers of Greek wines I thought. Part 4 has two sections: on sweet wines and Retsina. Yes, Retsina is making a comeback, though judging by comments I have received when praising new high quality Retsinas, they will be a hard sell abroad. Finally there is Part 5, with its classifications and scores. The top producers are divided into the classes of exceptional, excellent, very good and rising. Then there are the top 10s for Assyrtiko wines, indigenous whites, international whites, indigenous reds, international reds, and sweet wines; followed by awards for producer of the year, emerging producer, and red and white wines of the year; and ten profiles of new generation winemakers. Do these profiles really belong in this part on classifications and scores, I wonder? Then, after five pages of pictures of 40 or so producers who don’t get their own profiles, we arrive at something that seems to serve as an introduction to Part 5. The book ends with some 60 pages devoted to tasting notes and scores of some of the better Greek wines, both recently released and older vintages.

So, as you can see, I have a few quibbles about the structure of the book, but the main thrust of its content is in my opinion spot on. For me personally, what I gained most was confirmation of a few things I had suspected but not seen expressed explicitly before, and ideas for future exploration of Greek wine.

As a small footnote, I had some problems printing the PDF using the latest Windows version of Adobe Acrobat Reader. Yiannis assures me that most people do not have this problem, but if you do come across it, you might like to try one of these two solutions, both of which worked for me. Before printing in Acrobat, try clicking on Advanced, and check Print as image before printing. Unfortunately this results in extremely slow printing, and seems to give poor print quality. A better solution in my opinion is to download another PDF reader called Foxit, and use that to do the printing.

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How to research PDO and PGI wine regulations

The name of a PDO or IGP on a wine bottle label conveys a lot of information: where the wine comes from, the grape varieties it may contain, the production methods, and permitted yields. These details are often summarised in wine books, and online in various places, but if you want information that is guaranteed to be accurate, complete and up-to-date, you really need to go the original specification documents.

cahier-des-chargesHere I tell you how to find and read these document for the two biggest wine-producing countries: France and Italy. The methods of finding them, particularly in the case of France, are not at all straightforward – I discovered them by asking on online wine forums, and by poking around on the official websites.

At the EU level

You can find all the PDO and PGI names by using this E-Bacchus form. It requires little explanation, but I would like to draw you attention to one detail that could be extremely useful in the future, and eventually render the rest of this blog post obsolete. If you perform a search, and then click on any PDF icon in the “Action” column, you open a short document. At the bottom of this, there is a field “Reference to the single document”, which in all the examples I have checked contains “Not yet available”. It seems that this will eventually link to a document that describes the PDO of PGI. What a wonderfully simple idea, if and when it ever gets implemented.

French AOC specifications

The simplest way I have found is to start here, where you then enter the PDO or AOC name of interest in the “Nom du produit” field. I have found the system to be tolerant of missing hyphens and accents, but otherwise you must get the spelling correct, so use the EU system first if you need to check on the spelling. Then click “Lancer la recherche”. If you get far too many hits, you might want to repeat the search with more restrictive criteria. You could, for example, limit the search to wines by selecting “Vins” in the “Types / Catégories” field. When you have found the wine you want in the search results, click on its “Fiche détaillée” link. On the page that opens, click on “Cahier des charges” and then “accéder au cahier des charges”. You then get a list of documents, and the one you want is the one with “cahier des charges” in the title. That contains all the information you need about regulations for the AOC. But what a palaver! What we really need is a big link reading: “Just give me the sodding cahier des charges, and give it to me now”.

The Italian system

In comparison, the Italian system is a model of clarity and simplicity. Firstly, go to this page, and scroll down to the lists of zip files. You need one of the zip files listed under “Disciplinari di produzione vini” or “Documenti unici riepilogativi disciplinari (fascicoli tecnici)”, for DOCG, DOC or IGT. Each zip files contains a number of specification files grouped together by the initial letter of the name you are looking for. It’s difficult to describe,  but when you see the lists you will soon get the hang of it. As far as I can make out, the two types of files – “disciplinari” and “documenti unici” – contain essentially the same information, but laid out in a different way. You will notice that the “documenti unici” have the reference numbers you find when performing searches using the EU E-Bacchus system, so my guess is that these documents were designed by the Italians to be linked to in the “reference to the single document” field I mentioned above. Sadly though, the E-Bacchus guys have not yet got round to putting the links into their search results.

But I cannot read French and Italian

As you might expect, the specification documents I told you how to find are in French and Italian. If you have even the merest smattering of those languages it is not too difficult to spot things like grape varieties, but if you need more help there are online translation services for PDF documents. I found that Google Translate does a decent job. If you downloaded the specification PDF you need translating, which is probably easiest way to proceed, you should click on “translate a document” and upload your PDF to Google Translate. You can then save the translation if you wish.

Doubtless these methods will at some point be broken by changes to the official websites, but there is at least hope that future changes might make access simpler.

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How big are your bubbles?

In the pre-Christmas dearth of news, when all serious journalists seem either to be at their Christmas parties or on their way home for the year, comes the widely reported story that champagne is better with bigger bubbles. This assertion is based on a study by Prof Gérard Liger-Belair that is due to be published in the European Physical Journal Special Topics next year.

I cannot get my cyber hands on that precise article, but I am guessing it was the research published earlier this year as a Nature Scientific Report, which states that “Finally, we exhibit conditions on bubble bursting that optimize aerosol evaporation: large bubbles and weakly viscous liquids. We identify a large bubble radius (~1.8?mm), broadly common to the whole range of champagne viscosity, that makes liquid transfer more efficient. […] This result is also remarkable as it undermines the popular belief that the smaller the bubbles, the better the champagne.” A popular belief, eh? I suppose so. But it is also one that Liger-Belair supported back in 2003: “Our ultimate goal is to create smaller bubbles in champagne wines.” According to that older article, the “reason smaller bubbles make better champagne is basically because there are more bubbles available to release the flavour and aroma”.

Absolutely no shame for a scientist to change his mind as new evidence comes to light – science progresses. But this shift of emphasis points to many more fundamental questions about what makes a good Champagne. It is quite possible that in the ideal case you want more bubbles, and bigger ones. But given that a bottle of Champagne can only hold so much carbon dioxide we cannot have both, so where should the balance lie? And do you want them all soon after pouring, as well you might if you a toasting with your glass of Champagne, or do you want them to be released slowly so you can enjoy it over a longer period? Presumably there are also limits to the benefits of aroma-releasing bubbles. However much you enjoy the Champagne aromas, you don’t want your drink splattered all over your nose in a violent eruption of bubbles.

And all the discussion so far seems to assume that aroma intensity, as detected by sniffing, is the most aspect of Champagne quality. Putting aside the other important quality aspects of wine, such as balance, length and complexity, and sticking with the subject of bubbles, my understanding is that the texture of fine bubbles in the mouth is one of the hallmarks of a good sparkling wine. And however much aroma big bubbles might release into the glass, they supposedly give an inferior mouthfeel.

But enough of this geekery. There is a lot more to the enjoyment of Champagne, or any other sparkling wine, than can be achieved by obsessing about bubble size. And most of the enjoyment has nothing to do with what you learn on a wine course. It’s the occasion, and the people you drink it with. Have a good Christmas, and enjoy whatever is in your glass!

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