Tasting is a relationship

When we taste wine, we aren’t acting as measuring devices

Before we get to look at wine in detail, please forgive me for another theoretical digression. I can’t help myself…well, actually, I think it’s important. As with any venture like this, the foundations matter. Sink good foundations and you can build higher. It’s a worthwhile investment to put in place a good theory of wine tasting.

One thing that we must always remember about wine tasting is that we are not acting as measuring devices. That is, as we taste a wine, we are not giving a read-out of the properties of that wine. Let me explain why I think this is such an important point.

If you ever decide to embark on some formal wine training, for example, though a WSET (Wine and Spirit Educational Trust) course, you will be taught a structured form of tasting, in which you attempt to describe wines as accurately as possible. You will first look at the colour of the wine. Then you will smell it, and taste it, trying to identify the different aromas and flavours, giving them names. You’ll have to decide whether the acidity is low, medium or high, and whether the tannins are firm, or smooth, or rough, or light. [I have been at sessions where students have discussed at length whether a particular wine had high or medium acidity.] And so on. It’s a good way to start, but it has its limitations.

The first of these limitations is that this reductionist tasting technique—breaking the wine down into components—is useful but impoverished. Wine is more than just the sum of its parts. Second, the presence of one component in a wine alters the perceptions of the others. A wine might have high acidity, but the fruit sweetness and even actual sweetness will make this seem like lower acidity when you taste it. Third, differences exist among individuals in their ability to smell and taste certain wine components. This is biology, and it’s now becoming quite clearly documented in the scientific literature. Yet in a wine exam, the way it works is that there is a ‘correct’ perception of the wine, and how close to this correct perception you get will determine how successful you are. The wine has certain properties, so the story goes, and you have to learn to detect and describe those properties as accurately as you can.

It’s hard to think of doing wine exams in any other way, but it just seems a bit of an intellectual compromise to assume that there is a single correct answer about a wine, not recognizing that the reality is a bit more complex.

The truth is: we are not measuring devices. In effect, what we describe in our tasting notes is not the wine, but our interaction with the wine, a process in which we bring something to the tasting experience. Our perception is focused on the wine (in this sense I suppose you could say it is a property of the wine), but it involves information we get from the wine that is then moderated by and coloured-in by our own input. This input stems from our own experience, our expectations, our mood, our biology. It’s a complex business.

I guess what I am saying is that our perceptive experience as we taste wine, which we then try to encapsulate in words (as we write tasting notes), is actually a property not of the wine, but of the interaction we have with the wine. This probably sounds rather philosophical and a bit abstract, but it matters. When you stick a pH meter in a sample of wine, the measurement of pH takes place at the interface between the wine and the probe. The probe then sends an electronic signal to the body of the metering device, where it is turned into a number.

But when our sensory apparatus meets the wine—that is, the receptors on our tongues/mouth and olfactory epithelium encounter wine, an electrical signal is then generated that is but the start of some rather clever processing in the brain, which turns the initial signal into something much more complex, with the help of other inputs that are from us. The result is the conscious perception of wine. This is what we describe in our tasting notes, and it is quite personal to each of us, even if we are sharing the same wine together. That’s very different from the way that a pH meter works.

This understanding is important. It helps explain why even experienced, competent critics disagree on some wines.