Mental Imagery and Wine Tasting

wine taster7In microbiologist Manuel Malfeito-Ferreira’s survey of the science supporting a holistic conception of wine tasting, he devotes a good deal of attention to how expert wine tasters deal with the ambiguity and vagueness of wine aromas and flavors. One phenomenon that has received some attention from researchers is “filling-in” or “guessing the rest.” The initial aromas indicate what we’re drinking, and we then use a mental map of what we know should be there to give an accurate description of the wine, even if some aromas are not in fact perceived

For instance, the perception of volatile thiols may create the image of a typical Sauvignon Blanc and the descriptors may then be straightforward (‘I smell gooseberry therefore it is a Sauvignon Blanc and I should also smell grapefruit and cat urine’) as pointed out by Lesschaeve (2007). Indeed, the dependence of varietal descriptions on memory leads experts to guesses that correspond to familiar “tasting scripts” (Wang & Spence, 2019a).

Facial recognition works in the same way. We recognize a face without perceiving all the details.

So how much of our image of a wine is fantasy? A good memory and a way with words are as important as the ability to perceive when describing a wine. My guess is that the first impression of a wine involves lots of “filling in” and “guessing the rest.”

But if wine tasters take their time, revisit a wine several times, and think of their first impression as an hypothesis rather than a conclusion, we can pare away the imaginary from the image.

For me it’s very common to make a list of aromas I detect in a wine but then cross them off the list when I re-taste and fail to confirm their presence. “Guessing the rest” is a helpful heuristic device; not a final analysis.

Wine tasters who don’t check their work aren’t serious.

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