No One Really Thinks Wine Tasting is Subjective

wine classIt never fails to set my teeth on edge. I’m focused on trying to “get” this pinot with strange vegetal notes in front of me, and emerging out of the random background chatter I hear someone prattling on about how wine tasting is thoroughly subjective. I restrained my natural proclivity to try to set her straight. But I am always puzzled by how easily people accept this view even though they really don’t believe it.

Does anyone dispute that the way wine tastes is a function of its chemical composition? Cabernet tastes different from Sangiovese because their chemical constituents differ. We taste green apple in wine because of the malic acid. Chardonnay smells buttery because of  diacetyl compounds. The drying sensation from red wine is caused by tannin, etc. Everybody knows this.

These chemical components are in the wine; they are not mental fabrications or imaginative flights of fancy. When winemakers want to shape the flavor of a wine, they don’t have a séance or sleep with a dreamcatcher. They change the composition of the wine. If in wine tasting we are responding to objective features of the wine, then wine tasting is not thoroughly subjective.

Granted there are many factors that can interfere with our detection of these components. We differ in our sensitivities to them and various biases can distort our perceptions. So there is always an issue of whether in a particular case we can know we are tasting characteristics of the wine. Wine aromas are sometimes faint and vague, and our ability to remember aromas and consistently assign the proper names to them is limited. But  these are obstacles to objectivity; they don’t make it impossible to achieve. Wine evaluation invites even more subjectivity since it is inevitably bound up with our preferences.

But the ability of experienced tasters to perceive basic features of a wine is no more subjective than our ability to perceive color or shapes. Tastes are not a property of the subject alone but are a response to objective features of the wine. To the extent we can track changes in these objective features we are in touch with something beyond our subjective states.

7 comments

  1. Perhaps this: while the structure of wines can be determined by objective analysis, (or for purposes of description, tasting ought to remain objective) tasters often bring varying sensitivities and biases to the experience of tasting and these individualities may distort their ability to objectively perceive wine characteristics.

    I had some friends who alternately very much liked and very much disliked wines with incredibly similar characteristics tasted on different occasions. Their thumbs up or thumbs down appeared to me to depend on their general level of enjoyment or distress on any given day. But then, I would never rely on them to give me an accurate description of any wine. I rely on people who have an ability to describe wines in objective terms.

    1. In the end, I doubt that even very experienced tasters can eliminate all bias. Our preferences will inevitably play a role in judgments about wine. But that doesn’t mean that nothing of an objective nature can be said about it. But it is difficult–it requires lots of experience and training. And ordinary wine drinkers (i.e. untrained) are notoriously unreliable in their judgments, which of course matters not at all if they are just drinking for enjoyment.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more. There are things we can know about wine. If it were all completely subjective, why even bother to study it? Yet, study it we do, because we all know that the balance of a wine isn’t effected at all by our mood or the ambiance of the room.

    1. Hi Foxress. Thanks for commenting. Yes, wine education would be a waste of time if wine tasting were thoroughly subjective. Your comment about balance is interesting. I think you’re right that relative levels of perceived fruit, acidity, tannin, etc. can be perceived regardless of preferences, although people do differ with regard to their sensitivity to these components. But perceptions of balance can be thrown off depending on what else you are drinking or eating. Sweet foods will make wine taste thin and acidic. Which is why it is so important that professional tastings be set up to reduce these factors.

  3. Your post is very true, but the problem is caused by the wine industry itself. I know publishers look at wine writing as entertainment, but when I am entertained, I am rarely educated. I try to explore new wines to match my palate often and find wine collector’s tasting notes to be much more dependable. I don’t need a professional critic to show me how sensitive their palate is. As you say, just give me the objective facts. Tell me about – the nose, levels of acidity and tannins, structure and balance, texture, length of mid-palate and finish, minerality/oak or any other special characteristic and finally red, black, citrus, tropical or stone fruit flavors. Just give me a tasting note I can relate to and depend on for accuracy, please!

    1. Hi Wine DOC(G). Thanks for stopping by. I agree that accurate tasting notes are important which requires that we at least aspire to being as objective as possible. But I also think imaginative tasting notes have their place. Wine is more than just a collection of flavor sensations. It has meaning and stimulates the imagination. And so a comprehensive account of a wine will include the impressions and emotional responses it provokes. But of course these will be more subjective than perceptions of acidity or palate length. Nevertheless these impressions should be explainable in terms of features of the wine that others can perceive as well. A good tasting note should point to features of the wine that the reader might not have otherwise perceived.

      1. Hi Dwight. I agree with your comments again, but with one caveat. Wine is a very strange bedfellow. We can evaluate it objectively, but I think most wine lovers experience it emotionally too. No other alcoholic beverage alters mood, or enhances the moment the way red wine can. I recall many of the wines I have drunk based on the location, or the company shared with. Having said that, I would still prefer wine tasting notes be strictly objective. For me, they are a tool I use frequently to make decisions when exploring the world of wine. Just my two cents.

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