We’ve all had the experience. The Sauvignon Blanc in your glass, which was so refreshing earlier in the day, now makes you pucker like you’re sucking a lemon. The over-oaked Cabernet that reminded you of licking a fence post tastes just fine after a sip or two. Why did the wine that was so good at the winery taste so ordinary once you brought it home?
Flavors in wine can seem like flickering hallucinations—now you taste them, now you don’t. But often it is not the wine that is changing. It’s our palates that are fooling us because of two related phenomena: adaptation and perceptual contrast.
Adaptation happens when sensitivity to a stimulus is decreased with additional tasting. The more you taste of something the less intense the flavor will seem. That’s why a wine that is out of balance at first might be fine after a few sips (or alternatively why a wine that is initially exciting might seem dull after awhile.) Adaptation sets in immediately. Even the tastiest dish will seem boring and flavorless after a few bites unless you have something on your plate to disrupt the adaptation. The same is true of wine.
Perceptual contrast occurs when a perceptual stimulus is influenced by a contrast with other stimuli. So if you have been tasting subtle, restrained wines, a high-alcohol fruit bomb will seem impressively intense and flavorful, although when tasted alone it may be ordinary. But if you’ve been tasting big, full-bodied wines, a subtle, lighter wine will seem disappointingly meager.
This is why the host of a wine tasting will insist on serving dry or light-bodied wines first before full bodied or sweet wines. But this convention by itself will not eliminate all adaptation or perceptual contrast effects. All components of a wine—balance, structure, acidity, alcohol, and flavor profile are subject to the distortions of adaptation and perceptual contrast, and no single sequence will give equal weight to each characteristic.
Several years ago, an experiment at UC Davis (link has expired) shows how this effect works with alcohol. 34 trained subjects tasted several series of Cabernets, some arranged from low to high alcohol, others from high to low alcohol, and others presented randomly.
Those who started with lower alcohols could detect the relative viscosity, more intense aromas and an “extraordinary perception of sweetness” in the higher-alcohol wines. Those who started with higher alcohols had a tougher time assessing alcohol levels, found lower-alcohol wines less smooth and tasted more herbaceous flavors, a trait often criticized in modern Cabernet.
For ordinary consumers, failure to minimize these misperceptions means a disappointing purchase; for professional wine tasters it can mean inconsistent, incoherent judgments. And although being aware of these effects can help moderate them, they are too powerful to be eliminated entirely through awareness alone.
There is not much we can do about this. Taste is inherently contextual, a product of time and circumstance. That is, in part, why it is intriguing.