“Any fool can have a subjective opinion about wine” is one of the arguments I occasionally see in favour of objectivity in winetasting, and that can be followed by “but experts have invested a lot of time in learning to taste objectively”. There are so many assumptions built into that line of argument I hardly know where to start, but my main counter-argument would be that objectivity in winetasting simply does not exist. However, here I would like to focus on debunking the idea that subjective views are necessarily trivial and to be lightly dismissed. We subjectivists do not all take a swig of wine that hardly touches the sides, and immediately pronounce on its quality.
For me, the ideal person to assess a wine is someone who acknowledges the subjectivity of taste, and yet is happy to give an opinion nevertheless. That person would understand the objective properties of wine, i.e. its physical properties and chemical composition, but also know how those elements translate into the perception of flavour, depending on the environment and individual differences. And of course personal preferences.
In its simplest form, a subjective approach might not be too dissimilar to what is thought to be objective tasting, according to the WSET Systematic Approaches to Tasting Wine for example, but without claiming any objectivity in the final quality assessment. The taster might also like to comment on their sensitivity to the different dimensions of the wine, and how factors other than the wine itself might be influencing its perception. Of course this is not easy – in fact it is very difficult to do well. But that is really my main point here. A serious subjective approach to winetasting is far from trivial. If anything, the problem is that it is too complex if done well. But that is no excuse for us to stick our heads in the sand and pretend the complexities don’t exist.
Finally, I would add that I think it is important for the taster to say how much they actually enjoy drinking the wine. To me, a quality score, perhaps arrived at by totting up the scores for intensity, balance, persistence etc, is pretty meaningless, and I’d much rather know a taster’s finger-in-the-air feeling about a wine. That is how I score wines, and to be honest I sometimes find that subjective assessments can be hard to arrive at. With conventional wines from classic regions it is a lot easier, because you know more what to expect, and you understand your preferences a lot better. But with more weird stuff (natural wines, I am mainly looking at you) I find it can be more difficult to decide. The problem is in being able to understand the good and enjoyable aspects of an unexpected wine, and when one would best drink it. For example which dishes to match it with. Occasionally I find that a wine that seems promising on initial tasting does not work that well with food, and vice-versa, and established wisdom and accumulated experience with more-conventional wines does not always work.
But I usually get there in the end with my subjective opinion – if not before, then when deciding whether or not to buy more of the same wine.
(In the above, by concentrating on the complexity aspect of subjectivity I have ignored other important aspects. For more on subjectivity and wine, my World of Fine Wine article is a good place to start)
By now, I think it is quite well known that loss of sense of smell, or anosmia, is a key symptom of COVID-19, but this BBC News article explains how a short-term anosmia due to COVID-19 can turn into a longer-term parosmia, which is a distorted sense of smell. The parosmia seems to make many everyday substances, food for example, smell disgusting. I find this interesting, and not a little scary. I am not sure what the sufferers think, but given a choice between no smell and disgusting smells I think I would choose the former.
But to return to what I found interesting, when reading the BBC article I immediately thought of the disgusting smell of corked wine, which is primarily caused by the chemical 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, commonly abbreviated to TCA. Based on experience of corked wine you might think that TCA had two effects: one being to stimulate some smell receptor cells, to create a nasty smell; and the other to inhibit other smell receptor cells, to give the “fruit scalping”. However, experiments with newts showed only the inhibiting effect, and no receptor cell stimulation. We have to be a bit careful here, because of course the newt olfactory system might not behave like the human one but, on the face of it, the absence of any stimulation to create the corky smell seems rather puzzling. If the human nose behaved like the newt’s then could that mean that corkiness exists as a component of all wines, only to be revealed when other smells are suppressed? It seems unlikely, especially considering that other TCA-contaminated food and drink has the same musty smell.
Perhaps you can now see where this discussion is heading, and I must warn you that from this point it is all speculation on my part. It is possible there is a more solid basis in science, but I am not aware of one.
Could the COVID-19 parosmia be caused by some smell receptor types being inhibited, while others have been restored to a working state? And is that also the way that TCA gives rise to a musty smell, with some receptors types working and some inhibited? Note that in both cases it is not actually a case of aromas being removed from a blend, as there is not a one-to-one relationship between receptor types and aromas. Rather than aromas being removed, it is the taking out of action of receptor types, and that changes the shape of the “smell images” on the olfactory bulb, turning them into ones that are more similar to the images of bad smells (see my earlier post for a discussion of smell images). In the case of TCA, the smell that is distorted into mustiness could perhaps have nothing to do with the wine, but be the unnoticed background smell we have all the time from our own body (i.e. mouth, throat and stomach).
Speculation aside, I think you will agree that our sense of smell is an amazing thing, and of great value. Let’s hope that all COVID-19 sufferers manage to fully regain theirs. And may their wine never be corked.
Health-effects aside, most people seem to regard the primary function of sulphites to be the prevention of spoilage. It kills off bacteria and yeasts that can create nasty off-flavours, and works against oxidation, allowing the supposedly unsullied essential wine characteristics to shine through. And many people who object to the use of sulphites think and argue in the same arena, saying that the off-flavours add interest and character. However, it is true that some also praise the clarity and brightness of fruit flavours in natural wine. Terroir is mustered by both pro- and anti-sulphite factions to serve their separate causes: either saying the faults resulting from insufficient sulphur mask terroir, or that those qualities are actually a reflection of terroir, because the microorganisms that cause them are an essential component of it.
What is often common to both sides of the argument is a general failure, beyond the mere existence or absence of faults, to recognise the far-reaching consequences of sulphites on the organoleptic properties of wine. This point was clearly made in a recent SevenFifty Daily article, How Sulfites Affect a Wine’s Chemistry, which I make no apology for summarising below. I encourage you to read the whole article for further details and references.
There is a lot we still don’t know about how sulphites impact on wine chemistry, but research is starting to show that they affect a large number of chemical components in wine, and its organoleptic properties. Notably, sulphites act with oxygen and acetaldehyde to affect colour and mouthfeel, and aromatic compounds are also altered significantly. For example, a Sauvignon Blanc made reductively with sulphites in stainless steel tanks has a very different aromatic profile to one made in barrels with no sulphite additions. The effects are not only wide-ranging, but long-lasting. Research with Chardonnay shows that differing amounts of sulphite cause differences in the finished wine, even after several years of bottle age
Sulphite additions early in the winemaking process are particularly important. You either allow oxidative processes at that stage by not using sulphites, or must commit to fighting oxidation with sulphites throughout the winemaking process. Counterintuitively, winemaker experiments in vinifying with and without sulphites have shown that the “without” wines tend to have better long-term resistance to oxygen. They also tend to taste older when young, but show freshness of fruit as they get older, also exhibiting softer tannins, lighter colour, and more floral notes. On the other hand, reductive notes (not necessarily a bad thing) and cassis are more likely to be associated with sulphite additions.
The author of the SevenFifty Daily article seems to argue for the pragmatic approach of letting science decide how sulphites are to be used, with the goal of creating a stable wine that has the organoleptic properties intended by the winemaker. I certainly have some sympathy with that view, but on the other hand I also fully appreciate the ideological stance that added sulphites simply do not belong in wines. Should we use them simply because they are perceived by some to be beneficial? And if so, what other additions should be permitted on the same basis?
Irrespective of what we think, the presence or absence of sulphites in wine is an undeniably important issue – it affects stability in complex ways, and sulphites are a dangerous allergen for some – but also, as is becoming increasingly clear, its effect on flavour and mouthfeel can be profound, and cannot be ignored.
As discussed by Jamie Goode in his book Flawless, a wine flaw may be said to be a characteristic of wine that is present to such an extent that it impacts on quality – it causes a wine to be less attractive either to an individual or to an average taster, depending on whether you want a more subjective or objective definition. Clearly though, if you want to use the more objective version you will also need to define average taster. From the attendees in a recent workshop I attended, the concept of the average taster would have been very hard to pin down. There was a wide range of sensitivities to the various flaws we were exposed to, and when detectable they gave rise to different perceptions, both in terms of what they most resembled and how pleasant or unpleasant they were.
As explained in my previous post, I think it is helpful to distinguish between two types of wine flaws: faults, which result from the vine growing and winemaking process, and taints, which come from external sources. In that post I also took a quick look at taints, but below I focus exclusively on wine faults.
Faults like brett and volatile acidity are thought by many tasters to be attractive in low or moderate concentrations, and this is also true of some reductive notes, which may be regarded as minerality and not considered to be a fault at all. In fact Jamie goes a step further in his book and, referring to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, points out that even if a fault is recognised as such, there is an aesthetic view that it can still enhance beauty, or even be part of it. Whether attractive or not, substances that give rise to faults will always be present in wine to a greater or lesser degree. It is also undeniable that whether large concentrations of the substance are acceptable or not can depend on the style of wine. For example, Sherry would not be Sherry without its oxidative whiff of acetaldehyde, but the same nose on a white Burgundy would cause the wine to be sent back in a restaurant.
And yet, despite all this, people talk about faults as if they have some sort of objective existence that is distinct from all the good wholesome stuff in wine. The reality of the situation is of course that winemaking gives rise to many chemicals that individually are neither good nor bad, but together create a wine that may be liked more or less by different people depending on the balance between the chemicals, personal taste, context, and expectation. Put bluntly, in the normal usage of the term, wine faults do not exist. Or, to be less blunt: I struggle to see why the concept of wine faults is useful. As discussed above, acetaldehyde may or may not a pleasurable aspect of wine, depending on many factors. But is that not also true of acidity, sugar and alcohol for example when out of balance, or any individual fruit flavour? So why is acetaldehyde then regarded as a potential fault while many other components of wine get away with it?
Of course, I am not denying the existence of oxidation, reduction and brett, nor the related chemical compounds that impact on flavour. I am just saying that it is often not helpful to describe them as faults. This is not mere semantic quibbling – the issue runs deeper than that.
To declare a wine faulty is to claim a degree of wine expertise, and pronounce a judgement on the wine. Sometimes that is a call that wine professionals may be required to make in the course of their work. And consumers occasionally need to do the same too, when deciding whether to accept a wine in a restaurant for example. Whether or not a wine is faulty also has legal implications in consumer-protection legislation in the UK, as the consumer can claim against retailers for faulty goods – but not, it seems, for a wine that is unpleasantly tannic for example. But those are merely formal and legal aspects, based on the conventional way in which so-called faults are traditionally viewed in our wine culture. The important thing is how much we like a wine, irrespective of whether the cause of our pleasure or displeasure is a fault or not.
Your attitude to wine faults will inevitably influence your views on, for example, homemade and natural wines. If you believe in faults, and in your expert opinion you detect them in homemade wines, then you are going to dismiss the wines and work towards replacing them with their less faulty commercial counterparts. But on the other hand, if you refuse to judge a wine by faults and see people preferring homemade to commercial wines, you are more likely to respect the taste of those people and celebrate diversity in wine. Similarly with natural wines. As a non-believer, you do not need to fret about whether a natural wine is faulty or not. Do you like it or not? That is the important thing. Well, it is certainly one important thing, and to me the most important. Of course you may also be influenced one way or the other by the philosophy of natural wines, but that is a different issue – one I try not to get involved with.
I have been doing a lot of thinking about wine faults recently – firstly as a result of attending a wine faults workshop organised by Jancis Robinson and her team, then through considering some comments about homemade wines in Eastern Europe and Georgia, and most recently from reading Jamie Goode’s book Flawless – and I have a few personal conclusions on the matter I’d like to share.
Although there are one or two grey areas, I agree with those who think it is helpful to divide wine flaws into faults and taints. In this classification, faults have their origins in the basic aspects of growing grapes and making wine. It is possible to avoid them only by using high-intervention viticulture and vinification, and even then vestiges will remain in some form or other. Faults include reduction, oxidation, volatile acidity, and brett. Taints on the other hand come from external sources that do not necessarily have anything at all to do with wine. An example is TCA contamination from corks; also smoke, ladybirds and eucalyptus, all of which can taint grapes in the vineyard.
Let’s take a brief look at taints here, and I’ll cover faults in my next post. To be called a taint, the added flavour cannot be entirely intentional and, if in large enough concentrations that can easily be attained, it negatively impacts the quality of the wine. Some taints are pretty much universally regarded as bad if they can be detected – cork taint is a clear example of this. Others, like eucalyptus, can be seen as a positive if not too strong, and can even be regarded as part of terroir. Note also, that the concentration of eucalyptus in the finished product is sometimes managed by the winemaker, by blending wines from grapes at different distances from the trees.
Essentially, what I am saying is that each type of taint should be considered individually, depending on how much it is liked or reviled. I would argue that, although each individual taint may have its own complexities and management issue, taints are straightforward in principle: they do not really belong in wine, but not all of them are unpleasant and some can be even desirable.
On the other hand, I think faults – flaws which are intrinsic to wine, remember – are more complex, and more controversial. If you disagree that flaws are controversial, wait until you read my next post 😉
Update 06/01/19: It now occurs to me that, in addition to faults and taints, there is a third class of flaw: one that results from poor post-bottling storage. Examples of this are heat damage, lightstrike, and oxidation due to a poor cork. I think these are closer to taints than faults, as they do not have a direct cause in the winemaking process, and if we call them taints my arguments should still work.
It’s a strange thing, expertise. In many areas, I think to call yourself an expert in a very broad subject would sound rather silly. I used to work in engineering research and I don’t recall anyone calling themselves an engineering expert, but there were certainly people regarded as experts in much narrower specialities. Until I came across wine experts I thought an expert is one who knows more and more about less and less. However, wine experts (and here I mean the ones the public see, rather than industry consultants and oenologists) often seem to have knowledge that spans across most of the vast subject of wine – vintage variations, grape varieties, where it’s grown, how it’s made, how to store and serve it, what to drink it with etc etc. Some may specialise to an extent, but even then the areas of speciality are usually quite large. Their depth of knowledge in wine varies tremendously from person to person, but what they have in common is the ability to communicate their wine knowledge – they are essentially critics, writers, broadcasters and teachers.
So are these wine experts to be trusted, or should we listen more to the wisdom of crowds? That is the dichotomy often presented to us, but my answer is no in both cases. We should not trust wine experts per se, just because they are hailed as experts. And I am not even sure what the wisdom of crowds means in the context of wine – I can only imagine it would involve averaging the score of a lot of people you don’t know, who all work with their own rating system. Something which in my book is wrong at many levels.
To me, the only sensible approach is to treat each expert individually, and to do exactly the same for anyone you might regard as a member of the crowd. Each will have a level of knowledge in the subject they are pronouncing on, each will have their own palate and preferences, and each will express their likes and dislikes differently. All those factors are important, whether they are making factual statements about wine or offering opinions. If you do not know the person well, what evidence do they give for any assertions they make? Do they simply assert, or do they refer to another authority, or science? If they talk only from their own experience, how reliable do you think that is? Remember it is very easy to extrapolate way too far from very limited data, and palates and opinions vary a lot.
Personally, if I want factual information, Wikipedia is one of my first ports of call. In one sense it is a wisdom of crowds sort of work, but it is distinguished by the ethos of referencing sources. So if you doubt the article, or if it is important to you to get a particular detail right, you can check the source. Check if that detail is correctly derived from the source, and does the source in turn look reliable? Often it is not possible to do this with the pronouncements of wine experts, and even the best are fallible.
For matters of taste, I trust my own palate mainly, not because it is particularly wonderful, but simply because it is mine. Beyond that, I am most influenced by friends. As we often share and discuss wines I think a lot of that influence is subliminal and ours view tend to merge, but I am also very aware where our tastes are different.
So don’t trust experts just because they claim expertise, and don’t trust crowds just because they are crowds. First and foremost, consider the individuals offering the advice, and the evidence they have. It makes sense – trust me.
The first time I came across the idea of foxiness was when I was reading about the battle against Phylloxera. One proposed strategy was to switch to American grape species, which were resistant to the disease, or perhaps hybrids between them and the better known European grape varieties. But the problem was that the grapes, and the resulting wine, had what the French thought to be an unpleasant foxy flavour. Now foxiness certainly does not sound like something you would want in your glass of Bordeaux, but I had no idea what it was like, or what foxes had to do with it. Here is what I have managed to glean from the interweb in the meantime.
Firstly, let’s try to tie down which grapes smell foxy. They are usually grapes of the species Vitis labrusca. In particular, the Concord variety is often cited as being particularly foxy, which is convenient because most Americans are familiar with the flavour of Concord as it is widely used in their grape jams and juices. So, even if Concord is not so familiar in Europe, it seems reasonable to use that variety as some sort of reference point.
Another fact we can be sure of is that the chemical in Concord that gives its distinctive aroma is methyl anthranilate. That chemical is usually described as fruity and musky, and is often used to flavour soft drinks and sweets, which is another possible way we might be familiar with it. There are also quite a few mentions on the interweb that methyl anthranilate is to be found in the musk glands of foxes and dogs. On the face of it that seems to tie the story up, providing a nice link between foxy musk glands and the grape. But I am not convinced. Even if foxes may smell musky, the only hint I could find of science linking methyl anthranilate to fox musk glands is given here, where “Peter Hemsted [Head Grape Researcher] tells of a fellow Researcher, whose work has shown that this ester is found in both the musk gland of the fox and the Vitis Labrusca grape”. Did this unnamed researcher’s findings ever get published, I wonder? Not as far as I know, and it could have even eventually proved to be incorrect. Unless anyone can dig out some harder evidence, I feel we should dismiss the chemical link to fox musk glands.
So setting aside the contents of fox musk glands, why else might we call these grapes foxy? Frankly, nobody really knows, and I don’t intend to go into it further here. But if you are interested in the speculation I can recommend this discussion of the topic.
However, what I really wanted was to taste foxiness for myself, and it was only after buying some Concord grape juice in the UK for another reason that I realised that this was exactly what I needed. It was Welch’s 100% Concord grape juice, and for comparison purposes I also bought a carton of Sainsbury’s own-brand grape juice, made from Spanish and Italian red grapes.
There was a marked difference in the appearance of these two juices. In wine terms, I would describe the European juice as a medium pale ruby, while the Concord was intense purple. The Concord was very sweet. It had intense aromas of berry fruit, distinctive yet difficult to describe. It reminded me of boiled sweets from my childhood – Blackcurrant Spangles I’m tempted to say, even if some other sweets may have had more of the musky element. I am not particularly familiar with musky smells in general, but the juice certainly had a slightly unpleasant animal note alongside the fruit. For some reason, it made me think of vomit, but I’m not sure if it is vomit-like or vomit inducing, and I’d like to stress that it was not nearly as unpleasant as that may sound. Anyway, it was largely masked by the sweetness when drinking, but seemed stronger on the finish, even if the sweetness also lingered. The word sickly seems appropriate in its ambiguity. In comparison, the European juice tasted very much like red table grapes, and was slightly oxidised, even though it was well before its best-before date. It was also very sweet, but the aromas were neither intense nor distinctive, at least when compared to the Concord juice.
Overall, I think I liked the Concord juice better, especially when diluted with an equal quantity of water, which is how I usually take fruit juice. On the other hand, when I used the Concord juice to make the Georgian dessert pelamushi, which involves reduction of the juice, I found the distinctive flavour to be far too dominant in the end product, and if I make it again I will try another type of grape juice. Sadly, I fear it really needs freshly pressed Saperavi. I must ask at Waitrose.
If a wine’s smell reminds you a bit of nail varnish, Airfix glue or car touch-up paint, then that will be volatile acidity, often abbreviated to VA. If you are not sure what I am talking about then try some Chateau Musar, which is an excellent example of a wine with this character. A high level of VA is regarded as a wine fault and the wine is said to be volatile, but lower levels can be quite pleasing, and often lead the wine to be described as lifted or high-toned, indicating that the smell of VA seems to be higher in some sense than other wine aromas. Chateau Musar levels of VA probably lie at the upper end of what most people would consider acceptable, even though lovers of this wine see this as a very positive aspect of its character.
I believe the term volatile acid was coined because its volatility has important consequences for how it can be isolated for measurement. Steam distillation is normally used for the purposes of analysis, but if you simply boil a wine the volatile acids are also given off as a vapour. On the other hand, the non-volatile acids, mainly tartaric acid, will remain in solid form after the wine has been boiled dry. There are a few different volatile acids that can be found in wine, but by far the most prevalent is acetic acid (AKA ethanoic acid), which is what gives vinegar its distinctive smell and taste. Thus, effectively the term volatile acidity refers to the presence of acetic acid.
So why doesn’t volatile acidity in wine smell like vinegar, I hear you ask? Well, a proportion of the acetic acid reacts with the ethanol in the wine to create an ester called ethyl acetate (AKA ethyl ethanoate), and our noses are a lot more sensitive to ethyl acetate than they are to acetic acid. So at low levels of volatile acidity we will only detect the ethyl acetate, and at higher levels the ethyl acetate tends to drown out the smell of vinegar, even if it might still be noticeable in some instances. And if you have not already guessed by now, ethyl acetate is a solvent that is used in nail varnish, and the other products I mentioned above.
In principle acetic acid can be a straightforward oxidation product of ethanol. But in practice, whenever oxygen is present in large quantities, bacteria and yeasts may grow, and it is these microorganisms that are largely responsible for the production of acetic acid. Some is even produced by the yeasts responsible for wine’s primary fermentation.
And now for the bit about what VA isn’t. Normally it is not necessary to say what things are not, but many people describe VA as smelling of acetone, and there are a number of articles on the internet that link acetone with VA, one even saying that acetone and ethyl acetate are different names for the same thing. So hereby I declare what VA isn’t: acetone.
Acetone is (or at least was, speaking from personal experience) a very common laboratory solvent. Although I find it hard to recall it as I write now, the smell is unpleasant and irritates the nose, and it is nothing like acetic acid or ethyl acetate. I am not sure about the basis in science for this, but when I have the misfortune to smell a mouldy orange, my mind is taken back to the acetone bottle in laboratories of old, so that might give you some clue as to how it smells. And in addition to acetone’s smell being nothing like VA, as far as I can determine (it is difficult to prove a negative) wine never contains acetone in practically significant quantities. The only reason for the confusion seems to be that both acetone and ethyl acetate are sometimes used as a solvent in nail varnish removers, and I vaguely remember being told in school chemistry lessons that nail varnish remover actually is acetone. But that use of acetone seems to have practically died out. Many years ago I struggled to find a nail varnish remover that was acetone-based to check what acetone was like. And when I found one, even that smelled mainly of added fragrances and other stuff, rather than the acetone itself. Also note that nail varnish remover does not have to contain ethyl acetate; it can be any solvent that will do the job.
So if you want to learn about volatile acidity in wine in practical terms, forget about acetone – and sit yourself down with bottle of Chateau Musar, and a bottle of nail varnish. Enjoy.
At the end of July, The Grand Cork Experiment was launched with as much fanfare as could be mustered in the wine media. According to an article in The Drinks Business “a space in Soho was transformed into a laboratory to test whether the pop of a cork had a more positive impact on the wine tasting experience than the click of a screwcap.” A few months later, at the end of September, the results were announced with even greater fanfare – this time in the national press. Take The Telegraph headline for example: “The great wine debate: Corks really are better than screw-tops, Oxford study finds”. And how did we conclude that corks are better? The same wine is apparently preferred if, just prior to tasting, the sound of a popping cork is played to the taster through headphones, when compared to the sound of a screwcap being opened. Right, so that is sorted then, and it’s all proved by those boffins at Oxford. Well, not really.
Firstly, let’s take a look who funded the experiment, and who else was involved. The funding body was APCOR, who “exist to promote and value cork as a raw material of excellence, and its products. We work to represent and promote the Portuguese cork industry worldwide.” That’s not a good start for unbiased research, but not necessarily a problem if the researchers are given complete control of the experiment and allowed to publish the results regardless of what they show. Charles Spence of Oxford University has a good reputation as an academic in this field, and we are told in July that he designed the experiment. But I doubt very much that he designed the whole experience that experimental subjects were exposed to. This seems to have been the work of Bompas & Parr, who were employed by APCOR. Whatever this company does in general, it is certainly more akin to marketing and brand-building than it is to science.
In the absence of any scientific report, let alone peer-reviewed paper, it seems that the best description of the experiment is given in another article from The Drinks Business. The event was clearly very showy and expensive, it was viewable through windows opening onto a Soho street, and designed to impress. Certainly it was not how scientific experiments would normally be conducted. The experimental bit comes in slide number 9 of The Drinks Business presentation: Each visitor is “placed in a chair and given headphones, before being asked to rate four wines according to their quality, intensity and how much they invoked a feeling of celebration. Importantly, the wines were served in pairs, and before each one was sampled, the taster was played either the sound of a cork popping, or a screwcap being twisted open.” Ignoring some of the silly headlines, the results seem to be best summarised by Wine Industry Advisor here: “Overall, participants rated the same wine as 15% better quality when served under a cork than a screwcap. The wine under a cork was also rated as more appropriate for a celebration (+20%) and more inciting of a celebratory mood (+16%).” This is actually quite interesting, but not exactly earth-shattering. If you give most people two glasses of the identical wine while implying that they are different they will often manage to find differences that do not exist, and here the sound of a popping cork was sufficient to swing the results a little bit in favour of the wine associated with the cork pop. But we are told nothing of the quantitative scale that was used, so the percentage increases are pretty meaningless. Neither are we told if the reported increases are statistically significant. And if the wines were actually sealed under cork and screwcap, an actual wine difference due to the closure could of course easily swamp any effect of a popping sound.
Strangely, the razzmatazz surrounding The Great Cork Experiment does not get a mention in the media articles that discuss the results – presumably because it was not mentioned in the press release. The fancy event laid on by Bompas and Parr, takes very much a backseat and, again according to The Telegraph, it is now reported that the study was not just designed by Charles Spence, but conducted “by a team at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory headed up by psychologist Professor Charles Spence”. Perhaps this is because APCOR would prefer us to have forgotten the PR stunt aspect, and the details of what happened to the participants before they took part in the actual tasting. Those details I think are rather important. They are given below….
Again referring to The Drinks Business description of the event, slides 1, 2 and 3 say that before the tasting there is “a cork workshop, where visitors can paint and play with cork”, they can “also then see (sic) the sound a cork makes by placing it in the ‘pyramid synth’, which produces different noises depending on the colour and density of the material”, and they were later “invited to partake in a ‘brain scan experiment’, which uses brain activity monitors to test how a person’s senses are triggered by the rituals associated with wine drinking”. This is really not the sort of thing you would expose experimental participants to if you were serious if determining the effect of a cork-popping sound on wine preference. It is known as priming, and I am sure Bombas and Parr knew exactly what they were doing, and how it might bias the results. What Charles Spence’s part in that was, I wouldn’t like to speculate on. Hopefully his input was restricted to the design of the actual sound-playing and tasting. But, the event as a whole was an exercise in sensory branding, to associate the sound of a popping cork with good wine. The popping cork is itself a form of priming where, to quote Wikipedia, “exposure to one stimulus (i.e., perceptual pattern) influences the response to another stimulus”. And the preamble activities seem very much also to be designed to increase the subjects awareness of cork, the popping sound, and its place in wine rituals. Fine as a piece of marketing, but science?
Cynicism aside though, if the pop of a cork really is so important, there are lessons to be learned that are unrelated to the possible superiority of any particular closure. One is that in addition to all the other ritual associated with removing a cork, contrary to current sommelier training the cork should be extracted with such vigour that the blighter does actually make a popping noise. Or perhaps, in cases where the cork is too fragile, or Elfen Safety objects to Champagne corks flying across the restaurant, perhaps the sommelier’s phone could have an app with cork-removal sound effects. Of course, the experiment also suggested that the same app might work equally well with screwcapped wines.
(Despite my best efforts to dig out information from the Internet maybe I am wrong, and the results reported in September were actually taken from a peer-reviewed paper, and based on a proper experiment conducted at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory in Oxford. Do tell me if you know that to be the case.)
I’ve been taking a bit of a break from wine recently and catching up on an old interest of mine – architecture – and eventually came across my copy of Andrea Palladio’s The Four Books on Architecture. Here I paused, partly because I was just so impressed by Palladio’s work, and partly because my mind started wandering back to wine. Specifically, I was thinking about well-balanced wines.
All classical architects stress the importance of balance and harmony, but one of the strongest proponents is Palladio. For him there was little compromise. Architecture should follow the precedents laid down by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who in turn seem to have spent a lot of time obsessing about what looks right. And form should be determined by function: columns should look solid, arches unbroken, and the exterior should reflect the interior structure – there is no room for deception and trickery. The Villa Rotunda is perhaps Palladio’s most famous building – see drawings above. I find it difficult to imagine any building more balanced, harmonious, stable and restful. Just looking at the drawings makes me thing of a beautiful well-balanced wine: one with all the correct elements present, but nothing out of place or obtrusive.
OK it’s beautiful, but isn’t this all a bit boring? In both architecture and wine? I’m not sure I would use the word boring. I actually find harmony and balance rather stimulating in a quiet sort of way. But on the other hand I would not want everything to be balanced. Wonkiness, funk, flamboyance and individualism has its place. But it is reassuring to be able to return to the comfort and safety of classicism now and then.
And isn’t the definition of balance rather arbitrary? It is all very well for the ancient Greeks and the wine trade to define balance in their respective fields, but what about the rest of the world? Yes it is arbitrary, but even if there are billions in the world who might disagree there is a broad consensus in our own little corner of Western culture. Sometimes, while not being blind to others, we just have to accept the culture in which we live.
I might return in my blog with further architecture-wine pairs as there must be others if I put my mind to it. But for now I shall stick at this single example – one that occurred to me spontaneously – Palladianism and balanced wine.
Just one final thought. Discussions of music and wine always seem to slip into matching the two, whatever that means. So how about a bit of architecture-wine matching? I have not tried it, but would love to. Of course, architecture is not meant to be enjoyed from drawings any more than wine is from technical specifications, so you should really taste the wine while wandering around the building, inside and out. It would be a lot more difficult to organise than music-wine matching, but if anyone would like to transport me to Villa Rotunda with some nice wine I will happily comply. The idea of enjoying wine in a Palladian villa sounds wonderful!