The Aesthetics of Wine – book review

aestheticsThis is a review of the book The Aesthetics of Wine by Douglas Burnham and Ole Martin Skilleås.

You can currently buy new copies online for around £55.00.  I got a used “as-new” copy for £25-ish via Amazon, which I thought was good value.  It is a slim volume of just over 200 pages, and obviously priced with the expectation of a small  market.  For me personally, a lot of the book’s value will be as a work of reference – to be able to check on various issues I might come across at some point in the future, and to use the references to access the original articles if necessary.

The first chapter sets the scene very nicely.  It defines the key concepts and lays out the basic arguments for wine being an aesthetic object, promising that detail will be explored in later chapters.  But it was in those later chapters that I began to lose the thread of the plot.  It might well be just me and my non-philosophical attitude, but I found it discussing many things I was not so interested in, and failing in what I was most interested: a critical examination of the evidence, rather than opinion and received wisdom.

I now know a lot more about aesthetics than I did before I read the book, but I am afraid I finished up not really caring whether wine was a valid aesthetic object or not.  Life is too short and it is certainly not the most important aspect of wine for me.  If a wine is interesting, tastes good in my opinion, and I can enjoy it with good food and company, that is usually enough.  Like most people who write tasting notes, I use descriptors from the language of aesthetics, but that is about as far as it goes with me and the aesthetics of wine.  I am also aware that wine very much an object of commerce, and feel that a lot of aesthetic wine language is actually thinly veiled investment advice and marketing.

If you know me at all, you are probably aware that I very much think that wine appreciation is essentially subjective, right from the most basic perceptions of flavours through to the evaluation of quality.  But I am prepared to allow a degree of inter-subjectivity.  Thus I was very interested to see the topic of inter-subjectivity broached by the authors.  However, I was hoping for more evidence to be presented for inter-subjectivity in wine.  It seemed to be assumed rather than demonstrated.  What is the level of agreement between experts, even within a relatively narrowly defined cultural context?  I am more and more coming round to the view that there is very little.  Certainly experts can be very clever at evaluating the relative merits of different Burgundy vineyards, and Bordeaux châteaux, but their unanimity seems to evaporate when tasting blind.

One of the main reasons for disagreements about wine is, I believe, genetic variation amongst tasters.  This aspect was dismissed far too lightly by the authors.  It was pointed out that 7% of males (that would be a lower percentage of the population as a whole) are colour blind, and that does not cause problems for the idea of aesthetics in the visual arts.  However, they also said that there are dozens of specific anosmias, each one affecting up to 75% of the population.  We know that some of those anosmias involve aromas used as wine descriptors, and I suggest that this high prevalence of complex and difficult-to-detect anosmias represents a big problem for the aesthetics of wine.  It is very different to the situation with the visual arts and colour blindness, which is far less prevalent and more easily detectable.

My overall impression was that the book was written for academic philosophers rather than wine lovers, even wine lovers with an interest in philosophy.  So maybe a lot of my criticism is unfounded, but I expect that it is wine lovers, rather than philosophers, that will be reading here.  Like my tasting notes, there is of course a lot of subjectivity in this book review.

I made a few more detailed comments on the UK Wine Forum.  Do take a look at if you are interested, and feel free to add to the discussion there, or as comments to this blog post.

Manifesto

A few months ago Jamie Goode published his Wine Manifesto.  It did a good job of encapsulating a lot of current thinking about wine.  On the other hand I did not think it would stand the test of time and, more importantly for me, it was very different from the manifesto I would come up with.  So here is my shot at one.  At some point in the future, I might rework it, and it could find its way to my About page.  Or I might just let it slip into obscurity, to be discovered and praised by the historians of the future.

If you don’t like the word manifesto, just think of it as an itemised summary of stuff I have been banging on about in my blog over the last 3 years or so.

1) Wine is fermented grape juice

You might fairly object that there is more to wine is than just fermented grape juice.  Certainly, there is a lot of skill that goes in making good wine, and various cultures have layered meaning and symbolism on top. But fundamentally it is still a fermented agricultural product, and sometimes it is good to remind ourselves of that fact, and even celebrate its simplicity.

2) Flavour is not a property of wine

Wine comprises a mixture of chemicals that we sense in our nose and mouth, and the perception of flavour is created in our brains. Flavour is not a property of wine itself.  There is nothing unusual about this; it is the way all our senses work. To say that a wine is sweet, bitter or sour is nothing more than a useful shorthand to describe our perception of it.

3) Different people perceive the same wine differently

The sensitivity to various aromas varies greatly from person to person, as does the degree to which we find them pleasant.  Research is increasingly showing that these differences can be due to physiological differences that are determined by specific genes.  This means that few people experience the same perception when they taste the same wine.  Genetic differences also affect other senses; in vision they cause what we call colour blindness, but it seems that genetic variation in how we smell is a lot more varied and widespread.  In addition to these physiological differences, perception of aromas is also affected by culture and historical exposure to smells and flavours.

4) At different times, the same person perceives the same wine differently

Perception depends on mood, the environment, the glass, what is believed about the wine, and what has been eaten or drunk immediately beforehand. There may also be variation from bottle to bottle, and the contents of the same bottle may change with time after it has been opened.  Under normal circumstances is often difficult to distinguish between variation in the wine itself and variation in our perception of it.

5) Wine is regarded and judged according to cultural norms and fashions

Despite tendencies towards globalisation in wine taste, the value placed on various wine styles varies from culture to culture.  For example oxidised wines are much more likely to be regarded as acceptable in Georgia.  Also brett, and petrol notes in Riesling, are more likely to be regarded as faults in new world wine growing countries than Europe.  As for fashion, a lot of us have witnessed the rise and fall of Chardonnay and Merlot in the early 21st century.  But the fall from grace of sweet German wines in the late 20th century was a lot more significant.

6) Wine tasting notes are not objective or definitive

It follows from items 2) to 5) above, that objectivity cannot be summoned up by particularly skilled and ethical wine critics.   It simply does not exist, as flavour is essentially a subjective experience.  The best you can hope for in a critic is that they try to be commercially unbiased, and that they are aware that not everyone perceives wine the same way as they do.

7) Wine tasting notes are useful as a personal record, and as the starting point for discussion

Just because tasting notes and scores are subjective, does not mean to say that they are totally without value. As a personal record I find them useful for jogging my memory.  They can also act as the starting point for a discussion, and can lead to interesting and useful insights.

8) Wine is interesting

There are many different aspect to wine that can be explored, e.g.  geography, history, culture, viticulture, winemaking, gastronomy, philosophy, science.  These can add significantly to the enjoyment of wine.

9) Wine is fun, and tastes nice

This is what wine is mainly about, though it is easy for wine geeks to forget.

The turning of Pinot Noir into Rioja

Medical researchers have different definitions, but in the jargon of wine, tasting a wine blind means that you probably know its broad class, e.g. region or grape variety, but the other details are withheld.  While double-blind means that in principle you know nothing about the wine.  Then there is blind tasting where you are actively mislead about what you are tasting.

The most common use of this may be in those experiments that lead to the newspaper headlines about how wine snobs have been fooled. For example, the one where 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).  I was caught by one of these underhand tricks at a recent tasting.

As part of something billed as a “Comparative Tasting of Red Burgundy and Pinot Noir from around the World” three wines were presented blind.  One of them was awful.  It was pale mahogany, and horribly oxidised beyond recognition.  I guessed it was a cheap New World Pinot Noir, mainly I didn’t think out host would let any decent wine deteriorate so badly. So in the ensuing game of “options” I was out at the first hurdle, because it was Old World.  When the question “Is it from Spain?” came up, the penny began to drop, but I was out of the running at that stage.  The wine was actually Urbina Rioja Gran Riserva Especial 1994.  Along with many others, I was well and truly, er, well let’s just say wrong.

Nothing too unusual with that – anyone that has tried even above-board single-blind tastings will be used to messing up.  The remarkable thing though, was that when I returned to taste the wine it had totally transformed – form a horribly oxidised Pinot Noir to a Rioja that was perfectly drinkable.  To be honest it was probably not the freshest of samples considering its vintage, but certainly not the disgusting liquid I tasted earlier.  The transformative effect of the information on the label was, to me at least, as powerful as various optical illusions I have seen, e.g. the one where you initially see two faces or a vase until someone tells you there is another interpretation.

Rubin

Thanks to John Smithson for releasing this image into the public domain – it is also used in the Wikipedia article on the Rubin Vase.  I am not sure if the wine was bi-stable like the image, because my sample ran out too quickly 🙁

Fooling the experts?

An article published last week in the Observer, Wine-tasting: it’s junk science, has proved controversial.  As it covers a subject that interests me greatly – how we perceive, describe and rate wines – I wanted to post about it here immediately, but I was not sure how to start.

Perhaps the best way is to point out that the article itself refers to the work of others, and it represents a fair summary of that work.  If you don’t like the results, read the original studies, and criticise them from a position of knowledge, but do not dismiss them out of hand.  As far as I can tell, with the exception of the widely reported Wisemann study, they are sound pieces of work.

The second thing I would say is that the article’s headline misses the point completely.  Winetasting is not junk science.  It is not any sort of science.  It’s…  well, it’s tasting wine: smelling it, putting it into your mouth, and attending to what you perceive.  Punters, individuals and businesses, do it all the time and base their buying decisions on it.

Tasting itself is not problematic.  The content of the article is about how reliable experts are at describing and rating what they taste.  To be reliable, each individual expert needs to be consistent, and also different experts needs to be able to form a consensus with other people, ideally other experts.  To me it is clear that the studies show there is little reliability.

But that raises another issue: who are these people (who I am calling experts) that are unreliable?  They are different in the various studies.  Judges at shows are typically taken from the wine trade, and can be a mixed bunch.  In the Goldstein study, those who had any form of wines education were deemed to be expert.  And university studies often use oenology students as subjects – these presumably have attended courses on tasting.  Few of the subjects would be Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers, or even enthusiasts who take part in blind tasting competitions. Were they to be made the subject to research, who knows what the results would be?  Not too dissimilar from the existing studies I suspect.

I do not wish to associate myself with the tone of many of the article comments that glory in the stupidity of the experts and wine snobs alike, but I can see that they have a point.  A lot of the language used to describe wine is rather ridiculous.   Some is designed to elevate the status of the writer rather than to communicate, and other descriptions are simply invented to sell the wine.  Couple that with demonstrable expert reliability problems, and I can absolutely understand the substance of their complaints.

I think the premium end of the wine trade has a big problem in communicating to the general public, in the UK at least.  The answer is not for experts to get defensive about their abilities, and hurl criticism back to punters saying that they are stupid for continuing to buy cheap wine from their supermarkets and that they need to take courses to appreciate wine.  We really do need to move on from trading insults.  In my opinion, as evidenced by his recent book, Eric Asimov gets the tone just about right in his unassuming modesty and willingness to engage with the public.

Update: Just in case you are interested, here are another couple of responses to the article, from Fiona Beckett, Tim Atkin and Victoria Moore.

More on tasting note subjectivity

Take a look at this Scientific American blog post by Christina Agapakis.

In summary, it shows how people perceive smells differently dependent on genetic makeup, age, gender, health, and other factors. They have different sensitivities to the smell of particular substances, different ways of describing them, and differ in how attractive they find them.  Watch the short video in the blog post. If you have a scientific bent, chase through the links and read the original research article. If you want you can even reanalyse the same data, which is provided in spreadsheet form.

I really don’t understand how anyone can think that any honest tasting note is anything other than totally subjective.

Order effects, and linguistic fluency

I thought that subject line would get your attention 🙂

In you have an hour or so to spare, take a look at this lecture by Antonia Mantonakis entitled “Does a wine’s name influence consumer taste perception?”  It also covers other influences on taste perception that have nothing to do with the wine itself.

So, to my list of factors that explain why wine tastes the way it does, it seems we can add the following two:

  1. Order effects
    I mentioned in my earlier list that the previous wine tasted affects how the current one is perceived, but Antonia found more general order effects.  In short sequences of  up to 3 wines, consumers show a preference for the first one.    But for longer sequences, up to 5 wines, the last one is preferred.   This research is briefly referred to in the video, but I could not find a publicly accessible research article to link to.
  2. Linguistic fluency
    Two winery names were made up, one of which was easier to pronounce than the other, but in other respects they were the same. In contrast to how linguistic fluency (ease of reading and pronunciation) affects perception of more basic consumer goods, it was found that a wine associated with the less fluent name tasted better.   More details in the video and this article.  I am sure I have heard it said many times that wines with simple names have an advantage in the market, but maybe that idea came about by the invalid extension of results from other product categories.

I’d like to emphasise that these results refer to reported perceptions.  There is admittedly the issue of whether people say what they really think about a wine, or say what they think they should be saying.  It might even vary from experiment to experiment, but MR scan evidence and a clever experimental design suggest that people at least sometimes say what they really think they perceive.

The final thing I would like to comment on is perhaps the most surprising, at least for those who fancy themselves as wine experts. The subjects in the experiments mentioned in the two points listed above were divided into two categories: those who knew more about wine, and those who knew less. Guess which group was more influenced by the order and linguistic fluency. It was the more knowledgable one!

Links on biodynamics and wine-ratings

Just wanted to share a few links I came across recently on the UK Wine Forum.  They are not new articles, but I found them interesting.  If you are a regular reader of my blog, you will probably find them interesting too, as they cover topics I tend to bang on about, and they support my arguments and views.  But if you are not a regular reader, you could find them as irritating as my blog 🙂

Firstly there is a set of three articles about biodynamics, all of which take a pretty sceptical view.  The first is On Fertile Ground? Objections to Biodynamics, which is a 2006 article from The World of Fine Wine, written by  Jesús Barquín and Douglass Smith.  It is a well-argued and balanced piece, very much in the ponderous style of the magazine.  The second is by the same authors: Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle.  Here they take their gloves off, and get more stuck into a critique of Steiner’s ideas.  Neither does Voodoo on the Vine, by Joe Eskenazi, pull any punches.  These articles, particularly the last two, lay themselves open to the criticism that they are using ridicule as an argument.  But I do not think that is fair – the wacky ideas they mention are not at all taken out of context – dip anywhere into Steiner’s work and wackyness is pretty much all you will find.  I particularly liked the concluding paragraphs of Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle, in which the harm of biodymanics is discussed.  The authors write: Apart from being a waste of time money and effort,

The problem resides in the extension of disbelief in empirical technique, and in substituting for it beliefs in unscientific practices like astrology and homeopathy, as well as voodoo-style rituals and even “geo-acupuncture.”  We must confront this problem, not just as wine lovers and wine writers, but also as citizens who do not wish to live in, nor present to our children, a society in which pseudoscience and esoteric fantasies are considered reality.

The final article I’d like to draw your attention to is A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion, by Leonard Mlodinow.  The strong message I am getting here is not to take anyone’s opinions on a wine too seriously, however expert that person is supposed to be, and even if that person is oneself.  But that does not mean that having a views on a wine is a snobbish affectation, which is perhaps a conclusion many would draw.  Let’s just accept that people’s views on wine differ, and are subject to all sorts of influences.

Embracing subjectivity in taste

I think a lot of wine enthusiasts, professional and amateur, might be willing to admit that taste is subjective, both at the fundamental level I discussed in my last blog post, and in the sense that we all have different preferences when it comes to wine.  But they are uncomfortable with this subjectivity.  So they try to put aside personal preferences when assessing a wine and strive to do it as objectively as possible.  The skill may have come as professional training where they will have learned how to recognise a good wine, or it might have been acquired informally by understanding what other people like.

This professional objectivity is often the only appropriate attitude in the trade.  If you are buying to sell to others in a shop or restaurant, you have to try to predict how your customers will like the wine.  And I do the same if I am selecting a wine to serve to guests.  Whether professionally, or on a more domestic scale, one needs to consider both what is regarded as good in the wine world, and what the average punter actually likes to drink – they are not necessarily the same thing.

But critics and wine writers should I think work at a level higher than this notion of professional objectivity.  They should dare to assert their personal preferences, and feel comfortable about criticising wines liked by the trade in general.  They should be setting trends, not following.  I say it not only because I think it demeans the role of the critic to aspire to an objectivity that does not exist, but also because I think it increases the chance that they will really connect with their readers.

Needless to say, I also think that wine enthusiasts with no professional involvement should also embrace subjectivity and see it as a positive thing.  I certainly do.

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.