Wine Words 3 

Perceiving is deceiving

by Prof. Alan F Harrison

IWFS Food & Wine, June 2014, p 17

Lisa is unknowingly tasting white wine coloured red. She describes it using wine words associated with red wine.

     Alcohol is the primary factor in dictating a wine's weight and body. Typically the higher the alcohol level, the more weight the wine has. An increase in alcohol content will increase the perception of density and texture. 

     Acidity is a dominant player due to the pronounced and complex ways that it can heighten the perception of flavours. In wine tasting, acidity is perceived by a mouth-watering response by the salivary glands. This process applied to the right wine can also serve to stimulate the appetite.  Applied to the wrong wine and perceptions can go haywire.

     Thinking wider, psychology has much to offer in terms of insights into our relationship with wine. It can help us understand how our sensory processes work and why we have such varied responses to different wines. It can also help as to why being told a wine is more expensive can increase our enjoyment and why experts sometimes make mistakes when tasting wine.

     You detect fruit in today’s wine but is it strawberries or blackberries?  Are you predisposed towards one of them and does it affect your perception?  Someone tells you it’s a cheap wine.  How does that information affect your perception and, consequently, your appreciation? 

     Pour a small amount of wine into a glass - one where the bowl is larger than the rim - and swirl it around. Examine the colour, but think beyond simple red, white or rosé. Is it brownish or pale cherry red? Is it the colour of straw or apricots? Think opacity next - is it watery or dark or are there burnt-orange tinges which denote an older wine? Does it stick or leg  to the glass?  Thick viscosity denotes high alcohol. 

     Swirl again really well and inhale the aromas. What do you smell: freshly mowed lawns or old leather? Vanilla ice cream or lemon zest? Close your eyes for this wine and keep them open for the next.  Summarise your perceptions.  Evaluate.  Were you deceived?

     Take a decent sip and swish it around your mouth and gums. You should first sense tannins, sugar and acidity or freshness, rather than specific flavours. Then your mid-palate should pick up tastes like spiciness or fruitiness - but what kind of fruit: apples or pears? Strawberries or blackberries? And spices: cloves or black pepper? You might get other tastes, such as honey or tobacco, even chocolate.  At the early stages of systematic tasting, deceptions might dominate. note for Pam

     Allow the finish to develop. How long does the wine linger on the back of your mouth and throat? A long finish, with flavours evolving and changing usually denotes a good, complex wine like an aged red. Think about other factors - was the wine a good balance between, say, fruit and spices or dominated by one flavour? Did the tannins pucker your mouth? Was it overly sweet or acidic?  How is your mouthfeel?

     A lot of thinking can go into serious evaluation of wine.  A tasting-note refers to its author’s written testimony relating to the colour, aroma, taste identification, acidity, structure, texture, and balance of a wine. It can be difficult to describe tastes and smells in the formal tasting context as you’re on your own. In the social situation, comparing perceptions and deceptions is generally enjoyable.  Many wine words, after all is said and done, are just agreed perceptions.  Until scientifically-designed scratch and sniff patches that work for wine are available, tasting-notes are but another attempt at conveying our impressions about wines. 

     And even experts are impressionable.  An experiment, in which the smell of a white wine artificially coloured red with an odourless dye was carried out unknowingly by a panel of 54 tasters.  They used  words only associated with red wines. Because of the visual disinformation, the olfactory information went unnoticed by the tasters.   However, another experiment showed that as far as taste buds are concerned, we differ markedly.  We might be nontasters with 96 taste buds per square centimetre.  Medium tasters  have 184 and supertasters  have 425.  At our next social event, let's stick our tongues out at each other!

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