Why Wine Tasters Miss the Forest for the Trees

wine taster 10Over the past few months I have devoted several posts to the contrast between synthetic vs. analytic tasting. (Here is my initial post on the topic.)

Taste/flavor/texture perception is essentially synthetic. Our processing of aromas, tastes, and textures integrates multiple sense modalities and a variety of cognitive capacities into an holistic aroma perception, like the smell of cinnamon buns, coffee, or Syrah.

But wine education and professional wine tasting are dominated by an analytic approach to perceiving a wine’s features. We learn to distinguish individual aromas, separating them from the whole and identifying each one individually, representing them in a list of distinguishable aroma descriptors—e.g. cherry, cedar, and violets with smoky notes. When we taste only analytically, we fail to grasp the overall aromatic expression of the wine. Furthermore, I argue that this compromises our aesthetic appreciation of a wine because aesthetic properties tend to be holistic properties. To perceive elegance, beauty, gracefulness, or delicacy requires we synthesize several elements into a single holistic impression.

Deborah Parker Wong, Wine Educator and Editor of Somm Journal among other publications, points to the same phenomenon in a recent post (from which I pulled the title of this post.) In the literature on perception, what I call “synthetic tasting” is called “configural perception.”

Confused by the absence of the characteristic candied-orange aromas in a line up of botrytized dessert wines from Bordeaux, she was unsure how to evaluate them. She writes:

Configural perception can present a dilemma for olfactory experts of all kinds, as specific training and repeated exposure to odors mean that we are better at elemental perception of odor mixtures; we can be better at detecting the parts than we are at perceiving the whole.

This is where perceptual learning comes into play. Sensory experts are keenly aware of this adaptation and develop the ability to move fluidly back and forth between perceiving the individual elements of an aroma and perceiving the blend.

I think this is a problem that wine education should address. We have a rich vocabulary for describing the various elements of a wine. We lack a vocabulary for describing configural perceptions or holistic properties. This is why I pull metaphors from the domain of personality, emotion, and character traits when describing wines and it is why I find pairing wine with music helpful. These are tools to capture the synthetic properties of wine that don’t appear on a tasting grid.

After all, most wine lovers outside of professional contexts appreciate the synthetic properties of a wine. They aren’t writing tasting notes but are engaged in configural perception. Wine communication would be improved if we were better able to communicate these synthetic properties.

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