Tasting notes often attribute emotions or personality characteristics to wine. Is there a foundation for such talk or is it just nonsense? In my Three Quarks Daily column, I use recent developments in psychology to show there is in fact a foundation for describing wines as aggressive, brooding, fierce or dignified.
In my conversation with Tyler Thomas, winemaker for Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards, part of which I posted last week, he said that he didn’t think winemaking was an art because wine is incapable of expressing emotions such as melancholy.
The purpose of wine is to bring pleasure. It’s not art because it’s limited in expression. It’s not supposed to express melancholy. It’s about pleasure and about the property. If you don’t like the wine you won’t ask where it came from.
At the time I didn’t raise objections to his comment since I was more interested in discovering his views on a variety of other issues. But I found the comment curious because, it seems to me, melancholy is one of the more salient emotions expressed by some wines—in particular aged wines that show considerable development but still have some vitality to them. So I want to explore this question of how such wines can express melancholy.
Melancholy is a peculiar and complex emotion. Although often associated with sadness and depression, melancholy is a distinct emotion and mood. it lacks the resignation of depression and is reflective and contemplative, unlike sadness which tends to be an immediate, felt response to a perceived loss. Melancholy has negative and positive aspects; a bit of longing with a touch of sadness but also feelings of pleasure or inspiration which are a central element of the emotion. Often caused by particular memories or thoughts, melancholy involves taking some pleasure in what we love or hope for, so it is tinged with sweetness. For instance if melancholy is caused by the memory of a lost love from the past, melancholy might involve a tinge of sadness at the loss but will be accompanied by pleasurable thoughts of being with that person as well. Melancholy is not always, in fact perhaps not typically, experienced as a negative emotion. Sometimes we attempt to prolong melancholy by seeking a quiet place where the feeling can be indulged. As Victor Hugo said, “melancholy is the happiness of being sad.”
We often feel melancholy (or at least a weakened version of it) in response to works of art, literature or film. The fictional characters and events become the object of our experience of melancholy. But melancholy can be a mood as well as an emotion. Moods are feelings that do not have an object. They come over us, seemingly without reason and can affect our entire personality. The mood of melancholy can arise when in a desolate landscape or on a fog-shrouded lake. In the arts the experience of a melancholy mood (as opposed to the emotion) is most often found in music. From Elgar’s “Nimrod” from his Enigma Variations to Avro Pärt’s De Profundis to the ambient soundscapes of Bing and Ruth’s Tomorrow was the Golden Age, music of almost every genre is capable of expressing the contemplative, somber mood with moments of vitality that characterize melancholy.
How does wine express melancholy? The answer can be found in the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi.
Wabi which originally means “poverty” refers to the roughness of everyday things that have been in use for a long time. As an aesthetic it involves finding beauty in the asymmetry and imperfection of disintegration. Sabi typically means” loneliness” and in the aesthetic context refers to a state of contemplative solitude in persons, and spare simplicity in objects. Wabi-Sabi as an aesthetic principle is an affirmation of imperfection, austerity and melancholy. It’s the beauty of weathered, scarred, ephemeral objects which become more exquisite the closer them come to their non-existence. A broken, earthenware cup, a branch of autumn leaves, a weather-beaten door, if they exhibit a kind of grace, in a context that highlights their evocativeness are wabi-sabi. Melancholy, that peculiar mix of sadness and delight, is the primary mood or emotion evoked by wabi-sabi.
It should be obvious that aged wine, as it begins its downward trajectory while still maintaining elegance and vitality, can be an example of wabi-sabi and is properly attended to in the mood of melancholy. Given the ephemeral nature of wine, we are witnessing the loss of something valuable that exhibits its own unique “patina”. Since each bottle of wine ages differently, its flavors and textures reflect its unique nature and history as the wine responds to the conditions under which it was bottled and stored. With many aged wines, it is likely you may never taste that cuvee again as the bottles from a particular vintage are consumed over time. Thus, an aged wine expresses the passage of time, the quality of impermanence which is associated with the sadness, longing, and inspiration of melancholy. The appreciation of aged wine induces reflection on the lives of the people who made the wine who have left behind this fragment from their past. It invites both memory and imagination but also reflection on the impermanence of cultural achievements and their celebration–the ravages of time as both something to celebrate and fear.
The fact that wines must give pleasure in order for us to appreciate them is no obstacle to wine expressing melancholy since the experience of pleasure, albeit mixed with sadness, is an important element in melancholy. Aged wines, like the objects of wabi-sabi lack the bright, juicy, freshness and power of young wines. They are appreciated precisely because time has exposed some hidden dimension of the wine in which we take pleasure.
Thus, it seems to me wine can express melancholy. If we decline to experience it as we consume the wine that may be testimony to our shallowness or inattention, not any inherent limitation on wines’ expressive potential.
Last month I discussed a report of a new study that showed correlations between wine and emotions. At the time I didn’t have access to the complete study, and was relying on a helpful synopsis by Becca Yeomans. I have since been able to view the original study, which is not yet available on line. The study is fascinating because it shows that we respond emotionally to wines which potentially opens a whole new arena for wine appreciation. Yet there are some very odd results that are hard to explain as I noted in my earlier post. Now that I’ve had a chance to read the study, I wanted to revisit the conclusions to be drawn from it, although it turns out that the puzzling results remain puzzling.
The study, conducted by the School of Agricultural, Food and Biosystems Engineering at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid in Spain, consisted of a sensory evaluation of several wines by a trained panel in order to identify the organoleptic properties of the wine and a consumer evaluation of the same wines accompanied by an emotion response analysis. The wines evaluated were a Verdejo, Chardonnay, a rosé made from Garnacha, two Rioja Reserva level wines, one from 2012, the other 2013, and a Ribero del Duero Reserva from 2012.
The consumer panel consisted of 208 students of various ages, and roughly equal cohorts of men and women, whose only qualification was that they consumed wine at least once a month. After a warm-up flight, they were given wines in a random order to be judged according to how much they liked the wine and then were given a list of 26 emotion words from which to choose the emotions elicited by the wine.
Here is a summary of the results
- 22 of the 26 emotion terms showed a significant correlation with the wines.
- “good”, “happy”, “joyful”, “mild”, and “pleasant” were associated with fruity and floral aromas
- aromas/flavors of vanilla, clove, and licorice were associated with “aggressive” and “guilty”.
- Astringency, the drying sensations caused by tannin, was associated with “aggressive”.
- Subjects grouped wines differently based on sensory analysis vs. the emotion analysis.
- Men and older adults scored the emotion words higher than women or younger adults but women were more discriminating regarded the emotions elicited.
- Young adults scored the two white wines and the rosé higher for the emotions “good”, “happy”, and “pleasant”; the 2013 Rioja Tempranillo scored lowest on these emotions for this cohort.
- Older adults identified “mild” as the distinguish characteristic between the white wines, rose and the 2013 Tempranillo.
- Negative terms such as “guilty” or “worried” were more prominent for younger adults.
The gender and age differences are interesting but I have no idea how to explain the results so I will ignore them.
I have no training in reading statistical analyses so I’m not sure I have a sophisticated understanding of the paper. But here is what I find puzzling.
If I’m reading the charts correctly, liking a wine was positively correlated with the positive emotions. But the negative emotion terms such as “aggressive” or “guilty” were associated with aromas of vanilla, clove, and licorice, and with astringency. These are all descriptors associated with big, red wines such as at least some Tempranillo. The positive emotions were associated with white wines.
But surely we can’t conclude from this that tannic, red wines with vanilla and clove notes are unpopular because they evoke negative emotions. I looked up data for wine sales in Spain and they show a decided preference for red wine especially Tempranillo which is the signature grape of Spain.
The consumers were asked to assess their degree of liking a wine before identifying the emotions so these results can’t be easily explained by the emotion biasing the judgment about the wine’s likeability. The only explanation I can come up with is that consumers outside the laboratory don’t make the connection between likeability and emotion. Only in the laboratory when the test subjects know they’re expected to make the connection is the association salient thus leading the subjects to have an experience unlike that of ordinary consumers.
But there is one more hypothesis that is worth mentioning. The authors of the study state,“If a wine conjures up negative emotions for an individual, that person is probably not going to buy that bottle of wine in the future.” Whatever the relationship is between wine and emotion, I doubt that wines “conjure up” emotions. As I have argued elsewhere the association between wine and emotion is typically metaphorical. We associate astringent wines with aggressive emotions but they don’t make us feel angry or afraid. It’s an association, not a direct causal relationship between the wine and an emotion. “Conjuring up” may be the wrong way to describe this relationship. Similarly, a piece of music may express anger or fear, but we don’t feel angry or afraid when listening, and it’s that expression that we find enjoyable despite the fact the emotion may be classified as “negative”.
If in conducting the test, the experimenters were encouraging the study participants to think of wines as causing emotions rather than metaphorically expressing them, their experience of the wines might be quite atypical. A wine that causes one to feel aggressive or guilty might indeed be unpleasant; a wine that expresses aggression or guilt might be interesting.
I have no idea how much plausibility to assign either of these explanations.
On the surface, the study seems well done and the results are certainly interesting. But the fact that the results of the study seem to contradict what we know about wine preferences means that much more work will have to be done to tease out the factors that explain this relationship between emotion and wine.