Wine Lovers Masterclass: #2 The Chemistry of Wine Tasting

Another Wine Wednesday masterclass on wine tasting that should appeal to wine lovers generally as well as students of wine studying for WSET qualifications. It’s a little confrontational in parts, maybe even cynical of the haughty attitudes of some professional wine writers, sommeliers, and many bloggers who casually bombard us with their tasting notes of “here’s what I drank last night”! That should infuriate a few followers!
This post is about differing perceptions in wine appreciation and I did consider writing it as one of my jokey conversations between Buddha and The Two Doctors, but I realised that not everyone would get it. Get it? Oh well, I’ll carry on! But before we really get going, have a skim of these two tasting notes from a highly reputable wine magazine:

“Chardonnay from Meursault France, Wine Tasting Note: Clean, limpid medium yellow with a hint of green, quite rich, a really lovely colour. Touch of new wood on the nose, ripe melony fruit, slightly exotic, stylish and very expressive. Fine, floral, honeysuckle fruit on the palate, with hazelnut overtones, rich and quite buttery, yet good lemony acidity, very elegant but still young. Very good balance, oak and fruit well blended in, an excellent example of grape variety dominated by terroir, great persistence, very good future.”

“Medoc, Bordeaux France Wine Tasting note: Deep colour, velvety red, no real sign of ageing, still very youthful and firm berry fruits on the nose, heavily Cabernet in style, blackcurrant leaf, with a cedar wood / cigar box spice coming through, concentrated fragrance followed by rich fruit. Same concentrated, tightly knit fruit on the palate, wonderful ripeness, still showing youthful black currants and blackberries, firm backbone but ripe tannins, superb structure. Overall, a classic Medoc from a top chateau in a great vintage.”

Typical Fruit Salad of Wine Tasting

What do you think? Would you buy either of these wines based on the tasting notes? Or, perhaps more importantly, when you have your Friday night bottle of Prosecco with friends, or Sunday afternoon Barolo accompanying the roast lamb, is this how you mentally perceive a wine and describe it to the rest of the family? I know I don’t talk like this, but possibly quite disconcertingly I don’t even sense, perceive, or experience all those items in that fruit salad bingo listed in the tasting notes. I’m lucky if I even “smell/taste” ONE of those items. So what’s going on here, am I suffering from mild forms of Anosmia or Ageusia (More below) or am I just a wine tasting dunce in the eyes of the experts?

Now try this conversation between a wine sommelier and a customer in a restaurant: Credit Blog Your Wine

Customer: “What’s a good wine? Recommend a good wine to me!”

Sommelier: “Well, what do you like?”

Customer: “I just want YOUR recommendation on a good wine.”

Sommelier: “Ok…I think the Petrus is a good wine. It’s $3000 a bottle. Would you like one?”

Customer: “WHAT!?!? Are you crazy!?!?! Besides, I just want a glass!”

Sommelier: “Alright, here taste this…it’s a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. I love it. It’s a good wine.”

Customer: “Hmmmm, it’s ok, it’s not my favorite though….”

Sommelier: “But it’s a good wine. You wanted a good wine. MY recommendation on a good wine is this Cab Franc.”

Customer: “I’d like something with a little more fruit and not quite as dry.”

Sommelier: “So you asked for MY recommendation on a good wine…but you want more fruit and not as dry. Right, try this one then….it’s a Malbec from Argentina…”

Customer: “That’s not bad….did I mention I don’t drink red wine. I want it to be a white wine?”

Sommelier: <Proceeds to smash the customer over the head with the nearest decanter.>”

So what happened in that crazy conversation between a “professional advisor” and a customer? A lot depends on your view of so called “wine appreciation …….

“Wine appreciation: Is it objective or subjective, or maybe a bit of both? The stance taken often seems to be inconsistent, in that many critics and wine lovers will agree that it is totally subjective but then go on to say that they try to be as objective as possible.

• Subjective: existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought

• Objective: not influenced by personal feelings or prejudice; unbiased:

Actually, there is not necessarily an inconsistency. They could mean that it is completely a question of personal taste but that they try not to be influenced by factors other than the wine itself, by the label or the bottle shape, for example. In other words, objective is not always the opposite of subjective: It depends on which meaning you use for each word.”

To my mind (!) however, wine tasting, wine appreciation, wine writing …. is a battle of the senses, and the two armies of science and philosophy! Do our taste buds, nasal passage, neurons and synapses act like a complex Mass Spectrometer, objectively and consistently “detecting, measuring and evaluating” the chemical composition of a wine? Or are these signals whizzing around our “physical brain” filtered, interpreted and perceived by our “subjective mind” which takes the signals from the “Mass Spectrometer” and judges them based on our prior knowledge, past experience, likes/dislikes, mood, environment? Which means of course that what YOU taste in this wine may NOT be what I taste, or heaven forbid, what I taste in this wine TODAY may not be what I taste TOMORROW! Or, and it gets worse, what an EXPERT (!) tells me I should taste in this wine and the food it should pair with just doesn’t work for me. And that last point is the crux of it and should stop you from thinking, “hells bells who cares, I know what I like, a wine is a wine and so long as it’s cheap and cheerful” because an awful lot of wine is bought and poured away based on the sensory perceptions of professional wine tasters and writers.

First, a bit of objective science. Esters, Pyrazines, Terpenes, Thiols! These are some of the main chemical compounds found in wine that give the wine certain aromas that ARE ALSO FOUND in many fruits, flowers, herbs and spices. So, Butyl Acetate and Propyl Acetate are found in red apples and pears respectively, the difference between these two Esters being a single Carbon atom and three Hydrogen atoms; Next example, 2-methoxy-3-isobutylpyrazine is the chemical found in green peppers and responsible for the characteristic odour and it has an incredibly low odour threshold, meaning that its smell can be detected below the part per trillion level; another example, 4-thio-4-methylpentan-2-one is the chemical giving blackcurrant its particular odour, also with quite a low odour threshold but not as low as pyrazines.

I could go on, but the significance here is that Esters are found in wines made from Chardonnay, Pyrazines in Sauvignon Blanc, and Thiols in Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot based wines. Our brains detect SOME of these chemical compounds and we think … “Green Pepper …. kerching!” But of course we should be thinking “I’ve got 2- methoxy-3-isobutylpyrazine here ….. anybody else got that too?” (Joke Danell!) These compounds are NOT the fruit etc actually in the wine, but compounds synthesised from and during the winemaking process, especially the fermentation phase when natural yeasts are converting sugars into alcohol, or to keep this theme going … converting the fructose and glucose from the grapes into ethanol! And, as mentioned above, some have very very low detection thresholds … below one part per trillion (ppt) which some of us definitely do NOT detect because we just don’t have the right equipment! So it comes back to personal perception as to whether I or you get the same aromas and flavours as whoever wrote those wine tasting notes with a fruit salad bingo section. And if having the right equipment wasn’t bad enough there’s the issue of our own psychology and philosophy to take into account too.

Now let’s continue with a bit of philosophy from 18th Century.

The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant assumed that our minds can provide us with certainty of what the world is really like. But empiricist philosophers demonstrated that, because our knowledge of the external world comes to us through our senses, it is always, in a certain sense, uncertain. For example a strawberry is only red or sweet when it is observed through certain equipment—our eyes and our taste buds. However we know that some people with different taste buds may not experience it as sweet at all. So, Kant asked, what is a strawberry “in itself” that makes it appear red and sweet—or otherwise—when run through our sensory equipment? Now, we may think that science can tell us what a thing really is in itself, even if our senses can’t. But, when you think about it, science doesn’t really get us any closer to the strawberry-in-itself. It doesn’t actually help to say that a certain chemical makeup of the strawberry and a certain neurological makeup of a person combine to determine whether the strawberry appears sweet or tart—and that this chemical makeup is what the strawberry is “really” like in itself. What we mean by “a certain chemical makeup” is merely “the effect we observe when we run the strawberry through certain gizmos.” Running the strawberry through the gizmos merely tells us how a strawberry appears when it’s run through those gizmos, just as biting into one tells how us how one appears when it’s run past our taste buds.

I promised above to mention the Anosmia and Ageusia factors in wine appreciation. The first is the inability to perceive odour. A related term,hyposmia, refers to a decreased ability to smell whereas some people may be anosmic for one particular odour! Ageusia is the loss of taste functions of the tongue, particularly the inability to detect sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness, and umami, with hypogusia being partial loss. Of course these five flavour categories are exactly those quoted in many wine tasting notes.

“Back in 2008, Avery Gilbert (Avery Gilbert, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (Crown, New York; 2008), pp.233–34.) noted that more than 20 specific anosmias were known at the time, each one affecting up to 75 percent of the US population, and that these anosmias accounted for merely a fraction of the total variation in aroma perception.” “A well-documented example of a wine-related specific anosmia is that for rotundone, a sesquiterpene found in the essential oils of black pepper. If you have ever noticed that Syrah/Shiraz has a peppery note, that will be due to its presence also in the wine. On the other hand, if you haven’t noticed that peppery note, it is not hugely surprising, because researchers at the Australian Wine Research Institute found that approximately 20 percent of us have a specific anosmia for rotundone. In other words, one fifth of the population will have no idea what people are talking about when they say Shiraz is peppery. If you want the academic paper on this it’s here Anosmia and Rotundone


So, enough of science and philosophy ….. where the heck are we?

Well, all I can state here are personal views, opinions, thoughts and feelings. Here goes:

  • I personally find tasting notes written by professional wine journalists a complete waste of time as I don’t buy ANY wine based on the label or the fruit salad bingo descriptions!
  • The vast majority of bloggers bore most of us rigid with their “here’s what I drank last night and here’s my super tasting notes”. Often not telling us where they bought it from and how much it cost.
  • One mans meat is another mans poison, so you like a Shiraz with your steak, I like a Pinot Noir, and …… my daughter prefers a Chablis with hers …. what’s the point of food matching advice.
  • Try reading Tim Hanni’s book on wine and food matching and you’ll NEVER recommend ANY wine again!
  • Try reading about Anosmia and Ageusia generally, then specifically about wine tasting, and start to understand the angst of us poor sods who have no idea what kiwi, guava, mango, or any berry you care to mention actually taste like!
  • The best wine notes tell you about the vineyard, the terroir, the balance of the wine, and where it might fit in the spectrum of wines of that grape, vintage, style.
  • Tell me about acidity, tannin, minerality, fruitiness, ageing potential, and that’s all …… just as every winemaker I have ever met in France does.
  • If you’re trying to learn more about wine and understand more, have confidence, have faith in your OWN tastes. You know what you like, just experiment a bit, same grape different regions or countries, or different grape around the world, explore a whole country, don’t let anybody tell you what you SHOULD experience or taste. It’s YOUR gizmos the aroma and taste is passing through on their way to your brain, there may be some rotundone or pyrazines…. but who cares….. do you LIKE it.
  • If you’re a wine professional…. before you write those notes or give advice ….. think about your customer!

If ten people look at a cloud, there will be ten different perceptions of it. Whether it is perceived as a dog, a hammer, or a coat depends on our mind —our sadness, our memories, our anger. Our perceptions carry with them all the errors of subjectivity.

We cannot explain an orange to someone who has never tasted one. No matter how well we describe it, we cannot give someone else the direct experience. He has to taste it for himself.”

Thich Nhat Hanh (The Buddha’s Teaching)

Categories: Masterclass, Wine

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