Wine Lovers Masterclass: #1 The Neuroscience of Wine Tasting


Another Wine Wednesday post that should appeal to wine lovers generally as well as students pursuing qualifications in wine studies. It examines the way our brains process wine tasting, and specifically the pathways to the amygdala, the thalamus and other brain centres. Do hang in there with it even though it’s a bit scientific, because you will discover something called “retronasal smell” that will help you to taste and appreciate a wine in much more detail.

Taste Isn’t Everything!

Wine tasting

The professional wine fraternity seem to have completely glossed over some key findings about wine tasting by Gordon Shepherd, professor of neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine in his recent book Neuroenology. In fact they have been almost frivolous in their reporting with “headlines” about “how wine tasting isn’t all in your head” or “how tasting wine stimulates brain-maths” or “how wine tasting stimulates your brain more than any other behaviour such as listening to music”. They have missed a great opportunity to help all of us wine lovers to not only enjoy wines more, but to understand how we can better choose wines to drink, how we can “find the right language” to describe a wine or even to relate better to wine waiters or sommeliers. Wouldn’t you like to know some of these things? Shouldn’t the wine profession have acted more openly and responsibly?

Well, maybe I’m being a little harsh, but I suspect that most of them haven’t even read Shepherd’s book at all or in any depth. The core of the book is complex, naturally, but I bought it as not only a wine lover but also as a psychologist. But don’t worry, I’m not going to review here the neural pathways and brain centres involved! It’s all about the wine.

Wine tasting and neuroscience

Book Review-Key Points

  • The book begins with sections on “The Fluid Dynamics of Wine Tasting”. If you thought that just getting a mouthful of wine, swirling it around a bit then swallowing is the be-all-and-end-all of wine tasting …. think again! Between lips and gut there is a flow of liquid and aromas involving 7 steps and multiple muscles, cavities and organs such as tongue, soft palate, vallecula, epiglottis, esophagus , and numerous receptor cells. The image gives you an indication of the complexity …… that’s all you need to remember!
img_9142

Credit: Neuroenology Gordon Shepherd 

  • The most significant element of the Fluid Dynamics section is that there are TWO types of “smell” the Orthonasal (breathing in through the nose) and the Retronasal (breathing out through the nose). In a simplified way, orthonasal occurs just before we take a sip of wine and retronasal occurs just after swallow. The latter is hardly noticeable, almost an unconscious action. Try it, sip some wine and see if you can sense each happening? They each play a part of differing significance in our tasting experience.
  • Did you sense a retronasal breath after swallowing? Did you experience any aromas? Were those aromas different in any way from the orthonasal inward sniff? The aromas involved from the retronasal breath are quite different from the orthonasal for several different reasons including how the wine has now been agitated around the mouth, how it has been mixed with saliva, and that new volatiles have been created. Professor Shepherd highlights this as MOST significant!
  • Wine taste is not actually taste, it is retronasal smell that we mostly experience and identify as taste! I’ll say that again but quoting Shepherd’s own words: “{once the wine is swallowed} retronasal smell dominates ….. the aroma burst and the finish”, and “there is a clear implication that retronasal smell is the prime driver …… in the after-taste period”. Staggering isn’t it, most of our sensory experience of a wine comes from nasal receptors after swallowing and NOT from the tongue or palate or throat!
  •  Is this why the “experts” taste a myriad of things that a humble amateur like myself never gets? Cherry, tobacco, mushroom, citrus, gooseberry, even leather and sweaty saddle! It has been quite frustrating at times to attend wine tastings and to say “it tastes of Chardonnay” and then to be asked “but what do you taste, do you get butteriness or honey ….?” Utterly infuriating, because when I taste a banana ….. that’s what I get, not notes of a, b, c, and overtones of x, y, z …… its a bloody banana!
  • Professor Shepherd does explain this too saying “it’s our brain that creates the “taste” ” and that each person is different in terms of things like amount of saliva produced as well as previous stored memories of tastes etc. But the difficulty we have is moving from perception to language, the words to describe that taste. Description is different from evaluation or judgement, so saying “honey and oak” is different descriptively from saying “acidic I don’t like it”. I saw this on a wine tv show recently where a UK wine expert was trying to guide a group of Chinese people through tasting some Burgundy Pinot Noir wines. They couldn’t identify with cherry, raspberry, earthy etc. But everything changed when the discussion switched to perceiving the wine taste as types of Chinese tea flavours such as puerh, oolong, keemun, etc. Chinese memories NOT UK wine expert memories using so many brain centres each with their own function and the diagram should simply help you to understand why each person would experience taste differently.
img_9144

Credit: Neuroenology Gordon Shepherd

  • There are many other significant features of Professor Shepherd’s research described in his final chapter relating to how our perceptions are also influenced by Priceof the wine, Alcohol content, Personal expertise. Hopefully his book helps many wine lovers to improve their expertise as in my own experience highlighted below:

Now take a look at some of the views from within the wine profession for comparison: Click the images to access the full article.

1. Wine tasting engages your brain more than any other activity

Any good wine snob knows that, despite the term’s intended negative connotation, the label should really be worn like a badge of honor. Sure, some beer lovers or, even worse, casual wine drinkers might find that snobbery worthy of derision, but they clearly don’t understand the difficulty, dexterity and dedication necessary to reach that level. Thankfully, however, a scientist has finally tossed us wine snobs a life preserver—a Yale neuroscientist nonetheless.”

Credit: Magalie L’Abbé / Getty Images

2. Tasting wine stimulates your brain more than maths

“From the first sight of the wine bottle to manipulating the wine in your mouth and then swallowing it, there is a ‘tremendous range of sensory, motor and central brain systems involved in a wine tasting’, says Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd. Taken all together, these processes involve more brain activity than listening to music or solving a complicated maths problem, he argues in his book, Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine.”

img_3389 Credit: Cath Lowe/Decanter

3. The taste of wine isn’t all in your head, but your brain sure helps

“What do listening to music, hitting a baseball and solving a complex math problem have in common? They all activate less gray matter than drinking wine.”

img_3390 Credit: Alex Reynolds/NPR

So what does all of this mean and how does it add to our enjoyment of wine and wine tasting? Personally I now focus a lot more on a slight retronasal “out breath” after the first sip, taking my time to understand, describe and evaluate my perception. By doing this I sense far more aromas and flavours and for a longer period than ever before.I focus my sense of smell on only three things..Fruitiness, Floweriness, Earthiness. I focus my sense of taste on Fruit, Acidity, Tannin. And finally I evaluate the wine in terms of Finish (short, medium, long) before giving it a score 0-100 related to how much I liked it.

Not everyone has this “Jedi-like” mind or perceives a myriad of aromas on first sniffing or tasting a wine and are constantly baffled at the cherries, lemon, cigar box, chocolate, leather, kiwi fruit, list of descriptions of particular sensations. It’s a personal thing, like the Chinese subjects in a wine tasting session who were also utterly baffled at the western tutor’s use of fruits, flowers etc in describing a wine. But when the Chinese assistant started to add in some descriptions related to different teas and their tannins, all of the mental light bulbs came on! Professor Shepherd’s book helps us to understand the whole wine tasting process better and can add a great deal to all wine lovers and wine travels.

 



Categories: Masterclass, Wine

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10 replies

  1. Can you recommend which wine gives the highest sense of drunkenness or is it simply attained through quantity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So many different factors as with any intoxicant, including quantity, but also personal susceptibility at any given time or mood. It’s probably more a question for a philosopher than a neuroscientist 😂

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  2. I’ve had this book sitting on my shelves for a couple of years now! You’ve given me the incentive to finally crack it open. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Not going to be so clever and say I understand all this but perhaps it goes some way to explaining a wine drinking issue that always puzzled me 🤔. Why does wine drunk at its place of birth taste so different than back in England. With Sancerre it is so apparent- I spend a decent sum in England. I open it and my wife and I smile happily at the first aroma and sip. But then after a couple of minutes it has gone and transformed into an ordinary wine. So maybe another chapter required to explain how the brain does that. Rick Stein made the same point recently on his French series about Provençal wine. You can tell I just want to GO BACK. 😐😊🍷 – must hang on in there 😷

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve got a few more of these scheduled, one on the chemistry of wine tasting and …. one I know you’ll love……. “taste the terroir”. What you describe we’ve experienced for 33 year since our first forays into Burgundy in 1987. Here’s a postulation: When in Chablis we are besieged with Chablis microbes, pollens, etc in the air. Our olefactory and gustatory systems respond. Then we drink a Fourchaume which is in turn besieged with our infused saliva, giving a completely different experience. This would accord with what it says in the Neuroscience book about saliva but not explicitly. 🤔🤔

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  4. “when I taste a banana ….. that’s what I get, not notes of a, b, c, and overtones of x, y, z …… its a bloody banana!”…. great line 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting! Obviously, I’ve been drinking wine the wrong way for years.

    Liked by 1 person

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