How Important is Perceptual Expertise in Wine Tasting?

wine taster 2When I talk about wine tasting to people who seldom drink wine, they often say they just don’t have the sensitive palate required to enjoy wine. This is a common misconception that harms wine’s ability to find new customers. Effective wine tasting is not primarily about perceptual expertise at all.

In the wine world, perceptual expertise is usually understood as the ability to detect, recognize, and categorize aromas. The practice of blind tasting and the need to provide accurate descriptions in tasting notes requires an ability to separate aromas and sensations into categories and sub-categories as represented in devices such as the aroma wheel.

These practices leave us with the impression that wine is not primarily experienced synthetically, which is in sharp contrast to how we experience visual objects. We experience visual objects as wholes—the car in the parking lot, the statue in the park, etc.—breaking them down into discrete qualities only when necessary. But even when required to identify discrete properties—e.g. to recognize the car as red or the statue as large—no analysis is required. Our visual experience gives us reliable, immediately accessible information without any additional effort, training, or knowledge.

Not so with wine.

In order to properly experience wine, we have to overcome synthetic perception—the experience of an object as a whole—by separating individual aromas out from the background. Wine tasting at least as currently practiced is inherently analytical, and most people are simply not accustomed to analyzing sensory experience in that way.

But there is a body of research suggesting that novices can acquire this categorization ability with a modest amount of training, especially because devices such as the aroma wheel are so readily available. But of course that simple recognition of aromas is neither the end nor the aim of perceptual expertise. One also has to assign meaning to those aromas and associate them with varietals, regions, and judgments about quality. This is the real core of expertise in wine tasting and it’s about conceptual knowledge, not perception.

Particular aromas may have several connotations depending on what is being tasted and the context in which the tasting takes place. To appreciate a wine you have to identify the correct connotation. For example, traditionally, the best red wines have been aged in oak but many lesser quality wines will exhibit oak flavors too, so one’s knowledge of the wine world must be deployed to draw the right inference from the presence of oak. Truffle aromas or green, herbal notes might be a flaw in some wines but a quality indictor in others. Earth or animal notes might be a sign of bacterial infection or clever winemaking. Understanding what you’re drinking is not a matter of perceptual acuity but of having the conceptual knowledge to draw accurate conclusions about quality.

There is good news and bad news in this reliance on conceptual knowledge. Almost anyone can learn to distinguish aromas with just a modest amount of practice and training. The bad news is that to gain the knowledge necessary to make sense out of what you’re smelling and tasting, you must do lots of reading and thoughtful drinking, paying close attention to what you’re sensing and taking mental or physical notes to aid memory. That’s a lot of (very enjoyable) work but almost anyone can do it.

But this analytical approach to wine tasting, although necessary, does have a downside. After analyzing a wine, if you want to truly appreciate it, you have to put the wine back together again and experience it synthetically. In our zeal to master analytical tasting, we often forget that and our appreciation suffers.

That is where aesthetic expertise comes into play which I will discuss in a future post.

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