Wine Tasting and Aesthetic Competence

wine tasting competenceI described basic wine tasting competence recently as the ability to organize taste perceptions into a 4-dimensional field—time, spatial dimensions plus force (assessing the weight and textural dimensions of the wine). This competence underlies the basic ability to discern flavor and aroma notes and provides the structure or matrix by means of which the flavor and aroma notes are organized. This structure then enables us to understand the wine as a whole rather than merely a collection of components. Wine education is largely a matter of learning how the various wine varietals and regional characteristics fit into this structure, and these are more or less objective elements of the wine.

But recognizing that structure and its components is not by itself sufficient to make valid judgments about wine quality. That a wine exhibits black cherry and earth evolving into mineral notes, medium bodied, with strong acidity and fine-grained tannins tells us little about how good the wine is. For that sort of judgment we need to pay attention to whether the components fit together well. Are they harmonious, intense, powerful, delicate or full of finesse? These are aesthetic properties and their presence is not entailed by a description of the wine’s components, how they are displayed, or how they are related to other wines. There are no rules or criteria that get you from a description of the basic elements of a wine to a judgment about these aesthetic qualities. Two wines that are quite similar with regard to basic components may be quite dissimilar with regard to their aesthetic properties. It’s not the components themselves that give rise to judgments about aesthetic properties but the way they work together.

It is a deep philosophical issue how the basic physical characteristics of any object are related to its aesthetic properties. I won’t go into the gory details but my view is that aesthetic properties are emergent properties that are caused by the underlying physical properties of the wine but are not reducible to them. if you know everything there is to know about the chemical elements of a wine and its basic perceptual properties, you nevertheless could not infer that an aesthetic property such as elegance applies. Nevertheless elegance is caused by these basic physical components of the wine-it emerges from them as a distinct characteristic. The fact that this causal dependence is different in each wine means that there is no generalization available that could be expressed as a law or principle.

Why is this issue important? Well, if knowing the basic components of a wine—aromas, level of acidity, strength of tannins, etc.– is not sufficient for making judgments about aesthetic properties then some other form of competence is necessary in order to discern them.The ability to judge the aesthetic value of a wine requires more than the ability to discriminate elements but in addition requires the ability to perceive relations between them and how they fit into an intelligible whole. And these aesthetic properties are available only given a certain kind of attention. They are not simply perceivable but require practiced, focused attention and the ability to discern and think about complex, singular relations. A shared vocabulary that enables communication between experts is also essential.

Thus basic winetasting competence and aesthetic competence are different although related skill sets. Wine education programs, and many tasting notes, focus on the first but give insufficient attention to the second. Yet it is aesthetic competence that determines genuine wine quality.

Wine is special because unlike most other beverages it demands this kind of aesthetic attention. Most objects can be appreciated aesthetically but only certain kinds of objects—works of art, and some foods and wine—reward aesthetic attention with the experience of emergent properties.

A word about the concept of balance is in order here. Balance between fruit, acidity, tannins, and alcohol is a basic property of a wine and an inherent part of a wine’s structure. Yet it requires not just discernment of individual components but an assessment of the relationship between them and a view of the wine as a whole. Thus, I consider balance an aesthetic property, an emergent property yet one that is given a great deal of deserved attention in wine criticism. Learning to assess balance in a wine is the foundation of acquiring aesthetic competence.

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