In Wine Appreciation, Why do We Ignore Conceptual Expertise?

wine taster8I posted about the nature of perceptual expertise in an earlier post. In this post I want to consider what wine scientist Malfeito-Ferrera calls “conceptual expertise.”

Conceptual expertise, as he is using this term, refers to the ability to perceive the holistic or synthetic properties of a wine as opposed to individual aromas. Drawing on the work of Burnham and Skilleas on the aesthetics of wine, he lists three characteristics of wines’ holistic properties:

(1) They are not a product of individual molecules. Neither can they be obtained by the sum of several molecules;
(2) They depend on the chemical nature of the wine but cannot be predicted by a chemical analysis;
(3) They are not individual sensations or groups of sensations, but to
a certain extent are relations among sensations.

Many of these properties are well known to experienced tasters. They include:
harmony, intensity, balance, transparency, elegance, texture, finesse, body, richness,
complexity, persistence, elegance, depth, gracefulness, delicacy, typicality, memorability, and aging potential. I would include vitality and dynamic variation as well.

However, aside from occasional studies on texture and body, sensory science has largely ignored these properties because they can neither be measured through gas chromatography nor predicted based on a chemical analysis. Even wine education courses give these properties only a passing glance because they are inherently difficult to define. They lack objective reference standards, unlike aromas on the aroma wheel, and experts disagree about their relevance to wine quality.

For instance, complexity is probably the most important indicator of quality but there is little agreement on a definition. The most natural definition is that complexity refers to the number of aroma descriptors. But do we include the number of different aromas that arise as the wine sits in the glass over time? Should aromas that are just at the level of perception but cannot be easily identified count?  Do we include textural variation as a component of complexity? It’s seldom mentioned as such but it isn’t obvious why it should be excluded.

Why are these synthetic properties less important than individual aromas or sensations in accounting for wine quality. Malfeito-Ferrera offers three hypotheses:

  • There is too much individual variation in our perception of synthetic qualities so we seldom forge a consensus about them.
  • Individual aromas are the markers of typicity which many people use as a determinant of quality
  • We arrive at judgments about liking or not liking quickly based on individual aroma notes before assessing synthetic qualities. Thus we define complexity or elegance not as independent criteria but as a function of what we like or don’t like.

As Malfeito-Ferrera writes:

We argue that experts tend to associate the first perceptions (visual or olfactory) to the memorised prototypes of different quality levels. These first perceptions include an emotional reaction of pleasantness, or unpleasantness, which determines the score given to the holistic attributes.

I suspect he is right about this. The practice of identifying a wine’s origins through blind tasting is widely accepted as the gold standard of wine appreciation. This gives pride of place to the ability to identify individual aromas.The ability to conceptualize the overall character of a wine is less important in blind tasting and is thus de-emphasized as a marker of expertise.

That is a shame because it’s those holistic properties that provide the aesthetic experience of wine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.