Wine: Will Chemistry Destroy the Romance?

chromo assayWhat do we seek to know when we gain wine knowledge? We learn to distinguish the taste of Cabernet from Zinfandel, recognize the different flavor profiles of French and American oak,  uncover details about how the fermentation process is controlled, and identify the contribution of various winemakers, geographies, and weather patterns.

Of course, what all these factors we study do is modify the chemical structure of the wine. So the underlying assumption behind the pursuit of wine knowledge is that the flavors, aromas, and textures of wine are all explained by its chemical composition, that there is something in the wine that causes our tasting experience.

The obvious implication is that eventually science will fully explain why we taste what we taste. In that perhaps not too distant future, will tasting notes be lists of chemical compounds instead of elaborate metaphors? Will we be able to call the lab to order a 2000 Lafite which was made on-demand from a template constructed from a chemical analysis of the original wine in the bottle?

Is something lost from our experience of wine if it is reduced to chromatographic analysis?  Is winemaking less artful if there is less intuition and risk involved?

When a list of ingredients can tell you exactly how a wine will taste, the element of surprise and risk is removed from the tasting experience; and that is a significant loss.

Of course, the one thing this scientific-reductionist account of wine does not take into account is the variety of subjective responses from tasters. (That too might be subject to full scientific description but that is perhaps further into the future) But will the imaginative, lyrical moods that wine encourages, which make our subjective experiences so enjoyable, be diminished in this world of hegemonic chemical analysis?

The power of science to explain everything from the behavior of black holes to quantum states is perhaps the single greatest accomplishment of the modern mind. But the intensity of our subjective sensations even when they are illusions may be even more fundamental to a human life.

I’m not persuaded that the scientific/reductionist account of wine is correct. But I will have to chew on this awhile before I know what I want to say about it.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy those imaginative/lyrical moods.

2 comments

  1. Great discussion on a question I ask myself just about every day.. what I’ve come to believe, or to hope, at least, is that there is some degree of magic in chemistry – in understanding, but it depends on the level of that understanding. I don’t think wine is explainable by simple enumeration of its component parts. The system is more complex, more dynamic, than that. And maybe in understanding some of these dynamic properties (which, as an aside, I don’t think will be explainable by classic, reductionist science – I think we need new approaches), we will reinforce this element of mystery, of romance. You can’t say there isn’t a bit of magic in some of the most complicated of quantum physics theories. Or in the intricate workings of elaborate mechanisms within the tiny space of each of our cells, for instance. I think wine is a complex enough system that understanding it better will excite us in and of itself. At least this is, in my opinion, the kind of wine science we should be striving for (yes – I do realize, however, that for practical reasons, highly applied research will always be looking for shortcuts to ‘better’ wine. But as you say, the properties of wine that truly make up quality aren’t simple, and can’t be achieved by simple shortcuts, or be understood by a list of the compounds inside) I don’t think it should have to be a matter of science killing romance. I think it should be a matter of asking questions, taking approaches, that glorify and explore this mystery and make it feel all the more fantastic.

    1. Thanks for your comment Alissa. I agree that a simple enumeration of parts isn’t an explanation. We’ve all tasted wines that have all the components of a good wine but it just isn’t integrated. I doubt that what we experience as “integrated” is a law-like regularity best described by a reductionist approach. Even in the hard sciences, theorists find the need to refer to emergent properties–properties of the whole not shared by its components–which suggests a more dynamic system. But I’m still thinking about this issue.

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