Taste is subjective

People who know me, or who have read my blog, would hardly expect me to say anything other than that taste is subjective.  But here I mean it in a very basic sense – I am not here talking about what is considered to be good or bad taste, but taste as a perception.  Or perhaps I should say perceptions in the plural, for a lot of what we call taste is in fact due to our sense of smell.

For me it has always been self evident that taste is subjective.  That is to say it exists only in the mind of the taster, and it has no independent existence as a property of the thing being tasted.  But many seem to believe the opposite, and I have seen more essays written by philsophers arguing that position than I care to count.  They often say that objects have taste in the same way that objects have colour.

Well, exactly!  Colours are subjective too.  The colour blind amongst us perceive colours very differently, and there are also huge interpersonal differences in taste and smell.  The objective physical reality consists of chemicals, and of electromagnetic waves of various frequencies.  We perceive these chemicals and waves through our mouth, nose and eyes, and describe them as colours and tastes.  If we did not exist, neither would colours and tastes.  End of story as far as I am concerned.

For me, the interesting question is the extent to which we can effectively communicate our perceptions so others undertand our subjective experience, and the degree to which we have a common experience.  It is a lot easier to communicate colour, and I think that is at least partly because we have had a lot more practice.  It is trivially easy for more than one person to observe the same thing and to agree to describe its colour in a certain way.  It is relatively difficult to arrange for more than one person to be tasting exactly the same thing at the same time, and outside specialist circles people rarely attempt to describe their experiences.

Why wine tastes the way it does

  1. Environment
    Lots of anecdotal evidence for this one.  Supposedly explains, for example, why rosé wines taste better when you are drinking them on holiday in southern France.
  2. Ambient light
    There is experimental evidence that the colour of ambient light affects taste. People like wine when it is served in blue or red light more than if the background lighting is green or white.  Also, according to Emile Peynaud in Chapter 3 of “The Taste of Wine”, odours are perceived better when the lighting is good.
  3. Music and other sounds
    The pitch of a tone being causes you to enjoy different beers to a greater or lesser extent, and playing different pieces of music also affects how wine tastes.  This is discussed by Charles Spence in World of Fine Wine issue 31. You may note that WoFW 31 was published after the date of this post – yes, I snook in this point, and point 6, on 26th March 2011!
  4. Company
    It is easier to enjoy a wine if you are in good company. I also think it is possible for a group to persuade an individual that a wine is good or bad by exerting a form of peer group pressure.  Similarly I am told that someone leading a tasting can easily persuade tasters.
  5. Mood
    Many wine drinkers seem to think their mood is important for enjoyment of wine, and I see absolutely no reason to doubt it.  Perhaps another reason why wine tastes better on holiday in the South of France.  Some apparently think that the wine itself can have moods.
  6. Activities prior to tasting
    Sleep deprivation raises the threshold for perception of sourness, and sensitivity to taste decreases in the period immediately following a meal.  Discussed in World of Fine Wine issue 31, this time by Francis Percival.
  7. Food
    I think this one is pretty uncontroversial.  But there are two aspects to this.  One is the physical effect of the food, for example the iron in red wine making it a poor match for fish. The other is tradition and culture.
  8. Previous wine
    This is easy to demonstrate for oneself when tasting wine.  If for example you had a very acidic wine immediately beforehand, the one you are tasting now will tend to taste less acidic than it would otherwise.  It is not really too surprising, and similar effects are to be found with the other senses.
  9. Serving temperature
    Clearly this is important, but it is less clear to me that there is an ideal temperature for any given wine.  Surely it is a matter of personal taste.  Many wine writers observe that red wines are often served too warm, and whites too cold.  In the glass, and over the course of an evening the temperature of the wine will probably change anyway.
  10. Degree of inebriation
    As with many other senses, taste and smell are dulled by the effects of alcohol.  It is a lot more difficult to appreciate the wines at the end of a “generous tasting” that those at the beginning.
  11. Palate fatigue
    Even if you do not swallow a drop, after several wines it becomes increasingly difficult to taste properly without a break.  It seems to get easier with experience, but even professionals have their limits.
  12. Attention
    Have you ever noticed that if someone else mentions an aroma you are more likely to find it in the wine?  Presumably that is because you stand a better chance of finding aromas if you concentrate on looking for them.
  13. Wine education
    According to The Wine Trials, tasters who have an educated palate tend to prefer more expensive wines; those who do not tend to prefer cheaper ones.
  14. Physiology
    It is well documented that difference people have very different degrees of sensitivity to TCA.  Another example is the rotundone – responsible for the peppery taste in Syrah and black pepper, and undetectable by 20% of the population. I see no particular reason to expect that there is any less variation in sensitivity to many other aromas.  Then there are supertasters, who have many more tastebuds than most people, and who tolerate acidic and bitter flavours less well, and the 30% of Caucasions who totally fail to detect the bitter flavours of PROP.
  15. Personal preferences
    While physiology may account for some difference in personal taste, I think sometimes we simply prefer different things, probably the result of the associations we make with different smells and flavours from childhood on.
  16. Glass
    Undoubtedly the glass is important.  Certainly wine will taste different in a tumbler that it does in a conventionally designed wine glass.  And wine glasses of widely varying size and shape will also produce different results.  But beyond that, I have seen no hard evidence for different shapes being ideal for wines of different grapes or regions.  Of course that does not mean that a wine won’t taste better in what is supposedly the right glass if you believe it will.
  17. Colour
    In a study by Morrot et al, a white wine coloured with red food dye was characterised by tasters in terms of red wine odour descriptors.  Also the colour of rosé wine seems to be important in determining how good it tastes  – something again reported in Chapter 3 of “The Taste of Wine” by Emile Peynaud.
  18. Bottle ageing history
    Temperature is key here.  Wines will age age faster in warmer conditions, and will not follow the same path to maturity.  And if a wine sees temperatures that are too high it will be destroyed.  Exposure to light is also damaging; it causes something called light strike.
  19. Bottle sickness
    I use bottle sickness here to include wine being under par due to having just been bottled, also called bottle shock, and wine that is not so good because it has just arrived somewhere after a long journey.  More people seem to agree about bottle shock than wine needing time to settle down after travelling.
  20. Time after opening
    Many wine lovers will say that the wine changes in bottle after opening, in the decanter, and in the glass.  It is also often claimed by those who do not finish a bottle at one sitting that wines change over a period of days.  I rarely get a chance to put that one to the test.
  21. Bottle variation
    Probably cork variation would be a better term, as a lot of it must be caused by different oxygen permeabilities.  Possibly varying amounts of contaminants such as TCA are also a factor.
  22. Label
    For some the prestige of the name and vintage on the label is more important than the wine itself.  If they know they are drinking a great wine, they will tend to enjoy it more that if they are drinking it blind.
  23. Price
    This is similar to the label in the way it can influence opinion.  There was a well-publicised study around 3 years ago that suggested that wine is perceived to be better if it is believed to be expensive.  By which I mean actually tastes better; not merely that the tasters felt the need to say that it was better.
  24. Bottle design
    Bottles and labels give all sorts of subtle expectations as to what is in the bottle, and expectations affect perception of taste. Unfortunately marketeers are aware of this, and fancy heavy bottles with well designed labels are now used to help sell inferior wine.
  25. Back-story
    OK, this is another one I can offer no evidence for, but I bet if you told someone that the wine they were tasting was grown biodynamically, pressed by the thighs of virgins, and matured in gold plated barriques, they would think the wine tasted better than if you told them the same wine was produced in an environment that looked like a chemical factory.
  26. Moon location
    Yes, some people believe that the position of the moon in the zodiac affects the way a wine tastes.  I believe that there might be an effect if you are told before tasting where the moon is and how that should affect the taste, but not otherwise.
  27. The liquid put into the bottle, and its age
    And some believe that how a wine tastes may depend on the liquid in the bottle, and the period of time between bottling and tasting.  They write tasting notes linked to this information only and publish them.  Other people read them thinking that they contain useful information.

I do realise you might not agree with me that all of the above affect the actual taste of wine.  But stick with my blog, and I hope to return to argue my case.  Here, I just wanted to gather everything together in a list.

Update: I have added points 28 and 29 in another post.