The Science Supporting Holistic Wine Tasting

wine chemicalsIf you’re interested in the aesthetic dimensions of wine, you will likely find most wine science to be unhelpful and not particularly relevant for understanding wine appreciation. This is because most wine science is reductionist. As I am using the term here, reductionism is a methodological commitment that assumes any complex system or phenomenon can be understood by breaking it into simpler components and analyzing how it is put together.

Thus, wine on this view is best understood as the interaction of molecules in solution. We can best understand a wine by identifying the molecules present and explaining how those molecules cause trained tasters to experience particular aromas such as black cherry, smoke, or butter. It is no accident that wine tasting, as taught by certification organizations, is also reductionist. We have fully described a wine when we can accurately identify individual aromas present in the wine along with distinct and determinate structural characteristics.

Aesthetic concepts such as elegance, finesse, or vitality play no role in this approach to wine because they can’t be measured and thus cannot be anchored in objective features of the wine.

My book Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love is basically about what we’re missing when we take this reductionist approach to wine appreciation. But an analysis like that must proceed without much support from science.

But perhaps the tide is turning. This recent survey of the scientific literature from Portuguese microbiologist Manuel Malfeito-Ferreira at the University of Lisbon is calling for a wholesale shift in how we conceptualize wine science. I don’t have permission to make the paper public but I will post the abstract here and will be commenting on various aspects of his paper over the next few weeks. Here is the abstract of the paper entitled “Fine wine flavour perception and appreciation: Blending neuronal processes, tasting methods and expertise:”

Background: Wine flavour has been methodically studied since the beginning of sensory research, with various purposes relating to product quality and consumer preferences. Recent advances in neuroscience have provided a deeper insight into how the perceptions elicited by flavour-active molecules are processed by the brain. In particular, the implications of the synthetic, emotional and mental imagery features of olfaction, together with the cross-modal influences on flavour perception, should be properly acknowledged in tasting methods. Scope and approach: The purpose of this review is to present a critical appraisal of current tasting methods, with focus on those that are most frequently applied to assess fine wine. The remarkable ability to distinguish odours, and the emotional nature of the sense of smell, are the basis for the development of alternative tasting approaches that have lead to recent advances. The limitations of aroma and flavour descriptive analysis resulting from the synthetic nature of olfaction will be discussed and, in particular, those limitations that relate to the holistic evaluation of quality that constitutes the core of aesthetic judgements. Key findings and conclusions: We argue that the conventional tasting sequence and the dominance given to descriptive analysis contributes to the subordination of the holistic nature of wine assessment. Further, expert quality judgements may be strongly biased by cognitive factors and wine preferences. Hence, the highest level of expertise may be attained when individuals are able to recognise a fine wine’s synthetic properties (e.g. complexity, harmony, persistence) in association with socio-cultural aspects (e.g. origin, winemaking traditions), and then produce aesthetic judgements independently from wine enjoyment. Overall, fine wines may be defined as those characterized by superior synthetic or holistic properties that are perceived and appreciated by individuals who understand, and in the context of, their cultural meaning.

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