The multisensory perception of flavour

…that’s the title of an article by Charles Spence  in the September 2010 edition of The Pychologist.  If you think the name is familiar, it might be because he had a couple of articles on colour and wine in recent editions of The World of Fine Wine.  If anything, I think his article in The Psychologist is more interesting.  It is well worth a read, and you can find it here.  It starts on page 21 of this online version.

There are some examples of how vision and sound can affect our palate perception of food and wine, but the most interesting insight for me was an illustration of how closely interlinked our senses of taste and smell are. In winetasting 101 it is drummed into us that we only sense 4 (or was that 5) basic tastes on our tongue, and everything else in our nose.  Well that is still true, but it seems that the brain is not so fussy about where the signals come from when it generates what we would describe as flavours. The two senses are so interlinked that the presence or absence of a taste on the tongue affects our sensitivity to smells.  Putting a drop of sugary water on our tongue, even if the solution is so weak as not to be detectable as sweet, increases our sensitivity to almond aromas.  At least that is the case for Europeans and North Americans, who tend to associate almond flavours with sugar, but not for the Japanese, who rather associate almond with salt.

So there we have yet one more example of how our perception of flavour can vary from person to person – this time in a rather complex way.

Reasons not to pay too much attention to tasting notes

Only two reasons for now – if I put my mind to it I am sure I could find more. In summary they are:

  1. There are often variations, sometime very large ones,  in tasting notes from different authorities
  2. There can be quite large variations in one taster’s experience of a wine – well, mine at least, and I am sure I am not alone.

Perhaps the best known example of authorities having widely divergent opinions is the widely publicised spat between Parker and Jancis Robinson over Pavie 2003.  I don’t want to discuss the rights and wrongs of the disagreement here, but do want to emphasise that the two people disagreeing here are hardly johnny-come-lately wine bloggers.

While this case got a lot of attention, it is not at all unusual for well known critics to have very different opinions.  If you read The World of Fine Wine you will see many examples of this in their tastings section.  Spending only a couple of minutes flicking through the latest edition, I find a notes on a couple of Riojas to illustrate my point.  Here we have three tasters:  Tim Atkin (T), Jesús Barquín (J), and Marcel Orford-Williams (M) – maybe not quite in the same league as Parker and Jancis when it comes to authority and influence, but not too shabby.  It is not explicitly stated, but the implication is that each taster is tasting from the same bottle – not that it makes much difference to the reader, who will be drinking a different bottle anyway.  Here are TN extracts that I hope give an impression of the tasters’ opinions, together with their scores:

CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 1994
T: Mature, feral… gamey… smokey… sweet oak. 15
J: Spicy raw meat… red fruit… fleshy. 17.5
M: Dumb, quite fresh, hard, dry finish. Coarse. 9

Contino Viña del Olivio 2005
T: Firm, chewy… extracted… super ripe… hard to like. 8
J: Balanced structure: acidity, noble tannins… truly excellent. 18
M: Overdone… overextracted and lacking in charm. 15

In case there is any doubt, I am not criticising WoFW or their reviewers.  Quite the reverse in fact – I think it is good that they allow this diversity of opinion to be visible.  But what a range of tasting notes and scores! How is a poor punter meant to interpret this diversity of opinion?  The stock answer is that you should calibrate your palate against the critics and follow those with whom you share tastes.  But I think that is easier said than done.  OK, one might get an impression of a critic’s likes and dislikes, but I doubt very much anyone actually trawls through their own notes and does wine-by-wine comparisons.  I certainly have not enough tasted wines in common with any one critic to do such a thing, though it might be a bit easier to achieve if you are more into high-end clarets.

I would propose that the answer to understanding a wine is to taste it yourself. But it is not quite that simple, and it brings me to my point number 2: variation in my own palate.

A couple of weeks back I attended an informal stand-up tasting at my local wine merchant.  A representative of the producer was pouring, and providing interesting information about the wines, but there was no hard sell. On the back of a small but unhurried tasting sample I bought a bottle of Langmeil Hangin’ Snakes Barossa Shiraz-Viognier 2007.  I didn’t take notes at the tasting, but as I bought the bottle for £12.50 I must have thought it worth 3 or 4 stars.

On getting the wine home, I realised that I had tried it a few months back at with my tasting group, a more leisurely tasting in a home environment.  Checking my notes I was dismayed to see that I was very dismissive of it.  It got 1 star, and I actually used the phrase “cheap and nasty” – ouch! I also thought there was a whiff of hydrogen sulphide about it, and as our hostess had recently acquired a Vinturi aerator we decided to give it a spin (as it were) with this wine.  When served treated and untreated samples blind, I correctly identified the samples and decided that the machine had made the wine drinkable.

So was I now the proud owner of a £12.50 cheap and nasty bottle that could perhaps be improved by a gadget, or was my quick in-store tasting sample to be believed?  I discovered when I took the bottle to Aladdin it was OK, if unspectacular – a grudging 3 stars I guess.  But tasting it at home, both before and after the restaurant trip, it was transformed back to its cheap and nasty mode – a grudging 2 stars.

No, it was not the glass – not entirely at least.  On the Aladdin evening I used the same glass on all occasions.   It was not cork variation, as these bottles were under screwcap. And it didn’t seem to perform consistently worse with or without food.  I do not usually notice such wide variation in my experience of a wine.  But clearly this does happen, and I urge you to bear it in mind when you read any of my tasting notes, or indeed (dare I say it?)  anyone else’s.  I am usually reluctant to to publish notes anyway, and when I do I like to base them on the experience of drinking several bottles on different occasions, though I have offered a few recently based on much more limited experience.

Having said all that, do tasting notes have any value at all?  Yes, I think they do.  For me, my own notes work mainly as memory joggers about previous experiences.  And if my experiences have been inconsistent it is no bad thing to be reminded of that fact too.  But when it comes to the notes of other people I am not so sure.  In my opinion they are mainly useful as a good starting point for a dialog.

Am I going to buy more bottles of  Hangin’ Snakes?  It might be interesting from a scientific point of view, but I am going to save my liver for better stuff.  And if my opinion still counts for anything at all at the end of this article, I would recommend that you take your money elsewhere too.

Trust me, I’m a wine expert

I am fascinated by any scientific study in the field of wine tasting.  So often the results challenge conventional thinking in the wine world and provide much food for thought. Here I shall describe just one piece of research that I think deserves greater recognition.  It is published in The Wine Trials book, and an academic paper that you can download for free.  Do take a look at the paper, but I am not sure I would advise buying the book.  I have the 2008 edition, and most of it is devoted to “100 wine recommendations under $15”.  I enjoyed some of the commentary in the earlier chapters, but I’m a sucker for that sort of thing and even I am not convinced it justifies the purchase price.

The study involved 17 blind tasting events in the USA, held in 2006 and 2007.  There were 506 participants, and 523 wines.  In total 6,175 samples were tasted and rated.   For analysis purposes the participants were classified as expert or non-expert tasters.  Experts were defined as those having had some formal wine training.

The main result is that while the experts’ ratings correlated with price, the non-experts actually preferred cheaper wines.

To give a feel for the magnitude of the effect, the authors give an example of the predictions of one of the models they fitted to the data.  Using the 100 point scale, if there were 2 wines, one costing 10 times as much as the other, experts would rate the expensive bottle seven points higher than the cheaper one, but non-experts would rate it 4 points lower.  The book contains a paragraph of specific results, which I think are useful to put this into perspective: “On the whole, tasters preferred a nine-dollar Beringer Founders’ Estate Cabernet  Sauvignon to a £120 wine from the same grape and the same producer: Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. They preferred a six-dollar Vinho Verde from Portugal to a £40 Cakebread Chardonnay and a £50 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru from Louis Latour.  And when we concealed the labels and prices of 27 sparkling wines and asked people to rate them, the Dom Pérignon finished 17th – behind 14 sparkling wines that cost less than $15, eight of which cost less than $10.”

There is one very practical lesson to be drawn from this study: if you consider yourself a non-expert you would probably do best ignoring recommendations from experts!

But what is really going on here?  There is probably no single explanation.  A few possibilities spring to mind, but I think the main reason is that the wine trade, from producers to critics, is too inward-looking.  The trade decides amongst themselves what defines a good wine, prices wines accordingly, and then seeks to educate neophytes in the mysteries of the art.  Meanwhile, everyone else feels too intimidated by the whole thing to question the clothes of the emperor.  It seems to me that the negative correlation between ratings and prices indicates that the wine market is organised very strangely.

Does it matter?  Well, yes, it has some very important consequences if sellers of wine are hoping that their punters are readily going to part with more money to get a more enjoyable product.  From my reading of the situation it seems that most drinkers are only likely to trade up if they get so interested in wine that they attend a wine course, or if they decide they need to impress by serving a wine with a prestigious label.

Perhaps that is just the way of the world, but I would be really interested in exploring what non-experts tend to enjoy as a group.  Do they really just prefer sugary pap to Proper Wines?  Or is there a new wine aesthetic waiting to be discovered? Something that future wine makers could aim for with the resources that potential higher prices will yield?