Holistic Tasting and the Fear of Subjectivity

word cloudTasting notes are often derided as excessive, boring, or unhelpful. But most of these criticisms miss the main drawback to most tasting notes. They fail to identify a wine’s aesthetic appeal and the aesthetic properties that make it appealing. The culprit is the reigning practice of analytic tasting, the separating out of individual components,  that governs wine tasting as practiced by wine professionals.

There is much in Burnham and Skilleas’  book The Aesthetics of Wine that I disagree with but their account of the importance of tasting synthetically in addition to analytically is entirely correct and crucial to understanding this idea of aesthetic appeal:

“But separating out (i.e. analysis) is only part of the work of tasting, and perhaps not even the most important. The taster must also be able to put the elements back together,  so to speak, in order to perceive and evaluate relations among them and with respect to other wines…The ability to experience relations of sensations is different from the simple ability to experience sensations individually.” (15)

The various aromas, flavors, structural components and textures in a wine are, of course, “mixed up” and the first stage of learning to taste is to learn to disentangle them. But aromas, flavors and textures also happen in sequences and exhibit various values such as clarity, focus, distinctiveness or nuance all at various degrees of intensity and duration.  Once we learn to separate all this out we then have to put the wine back together, so to speak, and experience how all these elements come together. Wine quality crucially depends on that “coming together” and most tasting notes tell us little about that.

The term “balance” doesn’t capture it. Balance usually refers to the relative prominence of fruit vs. acid vs. alcohol. That doesn’t describe the overall character of a wine.

“Harmony” gets closer but all quality wines that have been sufficiently aged will taste integrated just as all competently composed symphonies (putting aside deliberate attempts to eschew tonality) will be harmonious. There are after all many ways of being harmonious that matter crucially in our appreciation of a piece of music. A music critic who simply pointed out that the orchestra sounded harmonious last night would be laughed off the page.  What matters is how that harmony was achieved and what it’s impact was. To describe these effects, only aesthetic properties will suffice.

The same is true of wine. By “aesthetic properties” related to wine I mean properties  such as “elegant”, “profound”,  “vivid”, “powerful”, “dynamic” “complex”, “unified”,  “delicate” and “brooding” to name just a few of the more prevalent aesthetic properties in wine.

These sometimes find their way into the best tasting notes but too often we just get a list of fruits and other aromas. In fact the tasting grids used by certification organizations to train wine tasters seldom go beyond the listing of analytically determined properties.

Why? Why limit the vocabulary of wine tasting to elements rather than overall impression?

The answer I think is that wine professionals are introduced to wine tasting via the blind tasting model where the aim is to identify the origin of the wine and give an indication of quality level largely by judging a wine’s typicity. For this task, those analytical tasting notes suffice. But there is more to wine tasting than identifying origins.

Furthermore, I think there is a widely-held assumption that by sticking to analytically determined elements, wine tasting will be more objective. As Burham and Skilleas point out, aesthetic properties are emergent properties and “their use is not entailed by the application of objective criteria.”

By “objective criteria” Burnham and Skilleas mean descriptive properties of a wine or a group of wines that would Invariably constitute elegance, profundity, or vividness. There are no such criteria. No listing of flavors, aromas, or textures (let alone a listing of the chemical compounds in the wine that produce these aromas and flavors) will  invariably explain the presence of profundity or vividness and no spectrographic analysis will detect elegance. Aesthetic properties can be detected only by human perceivers with their differing perspectives and experiences.

It’s fear of subjectivity that limits wine tasting to boring fruit descriptors.

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