wine flavour an objective property?
A response to an article by Professor Barry Smith
I have been thinking a bit about Barry
flavour perception, and whether or not flavour is an objective
property of a wine. Smith asks the question in his standfirst: ĎIs
flavour an intrinsic objective property, or a subjective experience
that varies from person to person?í This is an important
question, because it touches on the theoretical underpinnings of
what many of us in the wine business do for a living.
If wine tasting is entirely subjective,
then every opinion about wine has equal validity, and expertise is
of little value. Everyone is their own expert. Critic
recommendations are rendered so personal as to be redundant.
Smithís argument presents (what I
interpret to be) a three-part model of flavour perception. Here I
will explore this arguments using wine as an example, although this
could equally well apply to other foods and drinks.
State 1. First of all we have the
chemical properties of the wine. This is an objective property of
the wine: we can measure the wineís chemical composition, and when
we share a bottle together, the liquid in each of our glasses will
have the same chemical composition. Some of these chemicals have
tastes and smells.
State 2. Second we have the flavour of
the wine as an objective property of the wine. The sum of the
flavour active chemicals, working together, produces the wineís
State 3. Finally, we have our own
perception of this flavour, which is subjective. This is because we
each have different biology, and different experience.
The neat trick here is the creation of
this second state Ė the flavour of the wine as distinct from its
chemical composition. This allows us to regard wine flavour as an
objective property of a wine aside from its perception by
This chimes with the way all of us in the
wine trade work. While it might seem democratic to insist that wine
tasting is subjective (so people are free to like what they like),
the way we behave indicates that we consider wine assessment to be
We take part in wine competitions, where
scores or medals are awarded. We share our tasting notes, often with
scores attached. We take wine exams where tasting is part of the
examination. We sell our expertise. We recommend wines to others. We
discuss wines we taste together.
And what about how we approach tasting
wine itself? I pour myself a glass and take a sniff, followed by a
mouthful, and I contemplate it. I am trying to Ďgetí the wine. I
am interrogating it. As I come back to it on repeated occasions, it
reveals itself to me. Some days I seem to taste with more clarity
than other days; the wine shows more of itself to me. My behaviour
indicates that I believe the wine possesses flavour that I then try
All of these activities indicate that we
consider the flavour of wine to be an objective property of the
wine. According to Smithís view, the taste is in the wine, and we
try to Ďgetí this when we taste.
The three part model is also quite good
at dealing with inter-individual differences in flavour perception.
We all differ in our olfactory receptor repertoire, and also our
sensitivity to different smells. A great example here is rotundone,
the chemical responsible for the peppery smell found in some red
wines. One-fifth of people canít smell it, so their experience of
a peppery cool climate Syrah will be quite different to mine. The
three part model deals tidily with this by saying that these
individuals are not experiencing the whole flavour of the wine.
But do we need this three part model in
order to salvage some objectivity for wine tasting? And, more
importantly, can it be defended as a concept?
The answer to both questions is no.
Letís deal with the second first.
The taste is not in the wine. Flavour is
not a property of the wine, but rather of the interaction between
the wine and the taster.
Consider the earth as it would have been
gazillions of years ago, before animals existed. Chemicals existed
then which we would now call flavour chemicals. But before animal
life evolved, did any of these chemicals have flavour?
So is the flavour of, say, salt, a
property of salt? Salt cannot have had a flavour before animals
evolved. The sea would not have been salty because saltiness is a
property our perception of the taste of salt conveys on the sea.
Chemical senses evolved because there was
utility for organisms to respond in some way to the chemicals in
their environment. Initially, bacteria with the ability to move
(through possessing a flagellum) could move towards or away from
chemicals in their environment; fast forward a long, long time and
we see the development of sophisticated chemical senses such as
those found in humans.
Our perception of flavour has been shaped
through evolution. Chemical entities smell and taste because there
is selective advantage for us to be able to smell and taste these
chemicals. Our perception has been shaped by evolution. The flavour
of chemicals is a property conferred on them by us.
Letís consider colour perception. This
is clearly subjective. While a red object has certain physical
properties that make it look red to most of us in most conditions,
we can change the context or lighting so that we donít perceive
red as red. I have a pair of sunglasses that have a very strong
orange tint to the lens. When I first put them on, the world appears
very odd indeed. But after a while, my vision adjusts and while
thereís a slight orange warmth to what I see, itís all a lot
I take my glasses off as I head indoors,
yet rather than return to normal, all the colours are just as
distorted as when I first put my glasses on. A spectral shift has
occurred in my vision: I know that my shoes are brown, the grass is
green and my pen is blue, and so the higher-order processing in my
visual system makes an adjustment when faced with a change in the
quality of the light. Somewhere between our eyes and our conscious
experience of colour, some interpretation is going on. Thereís an
automatic white balance at work in our brains that is surprisingly
It is almost as if we learn what red is,
rather than red being a fixed property of red objects.
Wine flavour is a property of the
interaction between the taster and the wine. What we experience as
we taste wine is a perceptive event, created somewhere in our
brains, prompted by the chemical properties of the wine, but
interpreted by our subconscious and conscious processing of this
information. It is impossible for you and I to have identical
experiences as we taste wine together, because each of us is
genetically different and has different past experiences of wine,
which help shape our current experience. There is inevitably,
therefore, some subjectivity in the flavour of wine.
If this is true, how can we rescue some
objectivity for wine tasting? There are two ways. Knowledge
influences flavour perception, and our sense of taste is plastic,
designed to be able to learn to appreciate particular novel flavours.
influences perception, and we have knowledge in common
I argue that a large component of our
understanding of the flavour of wine comes from our knowledge of the
wine. This shared body
of knowledge helps to remove some of the difficulties caused by the
fact that we can never have exactly the same experience of flavour.
Consider your first attempts to write
tasting notes. Mine were very bad, and incredibly short. I learned
to write notes by reading those of others, and discussing wine with
others more experienced. I began to develop a language for wine; a
cohort of descriptors that I could marshal in my attempts to
describe my sensations, and which undoubtedly acted as hooks that I
could hang my perceptions on as I attempted to get to grip with the
wines I was tasting.
I tasted wines considered to be fine by
others, and thus developed sensibilities for what constituted
fineness in wine. This shared aesthetic system of wine is hugely
important, and isnít subject to the problems of subjectivity that
bedevil the actual perception of flavour.
Knowledge itself modifies perception of
flavour, and something we can share in common is the body of
knowledge concerning wine. This helps compensate for individual
differences in perception.
is malleable: we learn to like
Now to the issue of the malleable nature
of our sense of taste. Taste and smell, in large part, function to
steer us towards foods that are good for us and away from those that
are bad. There are reward systems, also: we gain pleasure from
eating. It is not just a question of eating to alleviate hunger, but
also eating because it is a nice thing to do. Certain smells and
tastes are aversive, because we need to keep bad things out of our
bodies, and avoid hanging around unhealthy places.
There is a selective advantage gained if
we can make use of novel food sources that arenít bad for us.
Therefore we are able to develop a taste for something that is
aversive the first time we try it. If we eat something with a
distinctive flavour that makes us ill, then the smell or taste of
that gets logged as something we should avoid. But if we taste
something with an unusual flavour that doesnít make it ill, we can
develop a liking for that odd flavour.
This means that we have the capacity to
change our tastes with time. Wine is a complicated flavour and
interesting wines often taste quite challenging. As wine drinkers we
develop a taste for wines. It is often these acquired tastes that
are most enduring and appealing. This development of a shared taste
can offset some of the problems of different taste worlds.
So I would argue that we canít defend
the three step model of flavour perception, where the flavour of
wine is in some way separate from its chemical composition, and is
then sensed differently by different tasters. But to reject this
model doesnít mean we have to take flight to utter subjectivity.
We can salvage a good deal of objectivity. We acknowledge that each
personís biology, knowledge and prior experience will be important
factors in shaping their perception of flavour. But we understand
that where there is shared knowledge (an aesthetic system of fine
wine appreciation which can be shared among many individuals) and
shared experience (our malleable Ďtasteí changes with
experience; we learn to like the wines we are presented with that
are highly regarded by experts), these help offset the differences
in perception that would otherwise render the practice of wine
tasting and assessment a very personal, private act.
philosopy of wine