Appreciation of wine appears to be a multi-sensory experience, rather than just our senses of taste and smell. For publication in the week starting 19 November 2018.
Consumers in a wine shop or supermarket usually cannot taste wine at the point of purchase. Their main assessment of its quality and thus the choice to buy is invariably based on external factors such as brand name, price, advertising or the label, combined with what they know from experience.
Other factors may also come into play, such as the weight of the bottle or the number of stickers indicating success in wine competitions.
The ‘flavour’ of a wine is an integrated interpretation by the brain of a range of sensory stimuli. Until recently people believed the stimuli mainly related to what we taste and smell.
Recent research suggests that drinking is a multi-sensory experience affected not just by taste and smell, but also by sight, sound, touch and cultural expectations.
Professor Charles Spence from the University of Oxford has conducted a range of research projects looking at the factors that influence how people perceive what they are tasting. Music is one key factor. “A growing body of scientific evidence now shows that what people taste when evaluating a wine, and how much they enjoy the experience, can be influenced by the music that happens to be playing at the same time.”
His latest research shows that by playing the “right” music one can influence the perceived acidity, sweetness, fruitiness, astringency and length of a wine.
The great French wine scientist Professor Emile Peynaud – often called “the father of modern oenology” and the author of The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation – always advocated for total silence during wine tasting.
Noted chef Heston Blumenthal, who runs Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK, this month told a Sydney newspaper how taste perceptions could be manipulated. The trick to making any wine taste better was to picture someone “you love dearly” while sipping it. To test the theory, Blumenthal said, people should take another sip while thinking of someone they disliked. In the latter case the wine would have a bitter taste.
Blumenthal believes the differences in how people perceive wine are because of the link between taste and memory, which he discovered while researching the relationship between the brain and the gut at the University of Marseilles. “It might be the single greatest discovery that I’ve ever made,” Blumenthal told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Oxford’s Professor Spence recently wrote that high-pitched music enhances the flavour of sweet and sour foods, while low-pitched sounds enhance bitter flavours. He’s developing his findings into the concept of “sonic seasoning”, where flavours are matched with certain sounds to enhance the taste experience.
Passengers on some long-haul flights with British Airways can access musical pairings via the in-flight entertainment system. Professor Spence devised them to complement the food and wine on offer.
Dr Adrian North also showed that background music can significantly alter the taste of wine in an article in the British Journal of Psychology. In 2011 Dr North gave 25 students a glass of wine and told them to drink it while listening to four different kinds of music and then asked them to rate four different characteristics of the wine out of 10.
He found that playing Carmina Burana by Carl Orff (which contains the melodramatic O Fortuna) made the Cabernet 60 per cent more “powerful and heavy” compared with no music. And playing Nouvelle Vague’s zippy cover of Just Can’t Get Enough made a glass of Chardonnay 43 per cent more “zingy and refreshing” than without music.
“These results indicate that the symbolic function of auditory stimuli (in this case music) may influence perception in other modalities (in this case gustation),” Dr North wrote.
Other recent experiments and inventions challenge the traditional idea that taste resides solely on the tongue.
Dr Alan Hirsch of the Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago maintains that 80 per cent of what people perceive as taste is actually smell. Other related research from the University of Chicago has shown that mineral water tasted worse from a flimsy rather than a firm cup.
I suppose the latter is similar to the sensation of trying to drink beer or champagne from a plastic cup rather than a long-stemmed glass. It just does not cut it.
Scientists in Singapore have developed a futuristic Martini glass connected to an app that transforms water into a virtual cocktail (“a vocktail”) using electric pulses, scent cartridges and LED lights. The device digitally simulates multi-sensory flavour experiences.
Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe developed the glass and the app while at the National University of Singapore. Drinkers chose the colour, aromas and flavours of their virtual cocktail via the app which connected through Bluetooth technology. Dr Ranasinghe also invented the Digital Taste (a.k.a. Virtual Flavors) concept.
Does this mean that complex flavours can be reduced to electrical pulses, smell and colour? A confronting prospect for someone who loves the sensory joy of tasting wine.
Professor Charles Spence from Oxford University has conducted research into how colour can affect people’s enjoyment of whisky, and these results could be extrapolated to wine tasting.
In an experiment in 2013 Professor Spence created three different sensory rooms to highlight different aspects of whisky. In the “Nose” room green lighting, real grass, deckchairs and the sound of a lawnmower made the whisky significantly grassier on the nose. In the “Taste” room, which was completely red with lots of rounded edges and tinkling music, people found the whisky tasted much sweeter.
And in the “Finish” room – with creaking floorboards, assorted clocks and piles of books – the whisky had a significantly woodier aftertaste. The participants liked the whisky significantly more in this third room, probably proving that clichés about the joys of sipping whisky in deep armchairs in front of a crackling fire are true.
Consider your environment carefully next time you open a bottle of wine or pour a glass of whisky.