I have met many people and have a number of friends who feel intimidated by wine! Well, maybe not the wine itself, but by wine waiters, sommelier, winemakers, even by myself. I’m not saying that these people are wrong, but most waiters, sommelier and winemakers are helpful and willing to go out of their way to provide information, advice and help. I WILL say however that this fear and feeling of intimidation is relatively irrational. Let’s face it, this is not a phobia where someone can have a fear of spiders, snakes, or even of dogs as my wife has. It’s a fear of the unknown, just like a fear of water until you can swim, a fear of heights until you’ve had some training, or a fear of going to a gym until you’ve given it a go maybe with a friend or as part of a group. The issue in many cases is about experience, knowledge and some understanding. Turning the unknown into the known is the issue.
So, let me ask a very specific question to help people move from the unknown to the known: “What good is knowledge when it comes to the experience of drinking wine”?
Let’s start with some basics about a wine such as knowledge of what grape it was made from, where was it made, when was it made, who made it, and maybe why the label says what it does? Take a look at this label, what does my knowledge tell me about the wine in the bottle?
The first thing I know is that because it’s a Chablis, it is made solely from the Chardonnay grape in the village of Chablis. I also know that this village is in Northern Burgundy. Next I know that Fourchaume is the name of the “field” in which the vines are planted. I also know that even though it’s a Premier Cru wine, it it usually very good value for money because that field is right next to all of the fields of Grand Cru wine that cost a lot more money. Lastly I know the name Chablisienne, which is the name of the “winemaker” a cooperative group of winemakers in the village, and that I have visited them several times and tasted most of their wines, and also ……. that this is my best value favourite Chablis. So, does having this selective piece of knowledge make me feel more confident in a restaurant, a wine bar, or a winery? You bet it does! But this is not Masterclass level, so let’s move on.
All of the things I have listed above come from my memory, the cognitive part of “wine tasting/collecting” before I have even opened the bottle, never mind tasted it. But what if a different bottle were covered, then opened and poured into a glass for me to taste, a “blind” tasting? I now have no visual cues from the bottle or it’s label (except maybe the shape of the bottle which gives me a clue). What other clues do I get now, and this is where it gets interesting. I have my nose, mouth and brain to help me ……. and my eyes of course regarding the colour of the wine. But, as soon as I taste the wine the cognitive part (memory) kicks in too, it’s virtually impossible to block it out so there’s a tension or battle going on between the sensory and the cognitive, what I smell or taste vs what I think it might be from previous experiences. However, let’s start with the sensory, actually sensing certain “elements” of the wine you are tasting.
You take a sniff and get an aroma of flowers, something floral, maybe grass ………. Can that be right? So far so good. You take a sip, and ……. it’s cold, chilled even, then your tongue prickles a little and you sense it’s slightly acidic. You swallow and are convinced you can taste lime…… what!? The prickle on your tongue disappears but the taste of lime lingers and disappears very slowly. So, what sensations did you experience …… cold, floral, grassiness, slight acidity at first but fading, lime which lasted a few seconds then faded slightly. Now it’s time to return to my original question “what good is knowledge when it comes to the experience of drinking wine?”
As these sensations described hit your brain you are certain to begin a process of identification and discrimination. If you have tasted it blind …… what grape is it, where is it from etc, but if you know what it is there will be other questions rattling around …… how does it compare with other wines of the same “type”, do I like it, is it good value? All of these questions follow on from the sensory experience of tasting the wine and are part of the cognitive aspect of wine tasting, all of them based on knowledge stored away from other tasting and learning experiences. You cannot answer these questions unless you have HAD such experiences! Fair enough, but …… there is a slightly DIFFERENT question ….. can this extra knowledge actually ADD to the tasting experience and make it MORE enjoyable?
The important word in the previous paragraph is “COMPARE”, and I am asserting here that being able to compare certain elements or properties of a wine with others previously tasted DOES add something to the enjoyment. Comparing is a “discriminating” skill, the ability to discriminate between one wine and another from the past requires good long term memory. Discriminating between several wines tasted in a horizontal or vertical tasting session requires good short term memory. Also however, discriminating between how a wine tasted an hour ago and currently, or how it tasted before and after food also requires good short term memory too. All are cognitive skills, all are based on past experience, some recent experience and some further in the past.
I will go even further …… this act of comparison is not only an intellectual pleasure it is part of the aesthetic pleasure of drinking wine too, but more on that in one of my my upcoming posts. Remembering previous wines as you drink what is currently in your glass stimulates thought and conversation, maybe about a bottle previously opened and tasted at home with your partner one winter’s evening, or sitting on your patio on a warm summer’s afternoon. Maybe you’ve opened a wine with some dinner guests one evening, and after that first sniff someone says that it reminds them of a wine from a particular village in France tasted when we shared a holiday together. The conversation continues about that holiday, buying the wine and drinking it together sitting in the shade outside a particular brasserie. It continues further as we all note the specific flavours and qualities of this wine and compare them with those of the holiday wine. We all laugh as we remember moving on from that brasserie to visit a chateau in the next village and wonder when we will next take a holiday all together. The knowledge here has definitely added to the enjoyment of drinking the wine.
There is one final issue about knowledge to mention before closing, and that is knowledge about the QUALITY of a wine, how to consider, assess and measure quality, not as a professional, an expert taster, but as an “appreciator” of wine, someone we would call a connoisseur. By comparison we all measure the quality of photos we take, we look at focus, brightness, white balance, and colour in terms of hue, saturation and intensity. We listen to an orchestra over some expensive speakers and measure the quality of sound in terms of pitch, loudness and duration. These are all dimensions of quality …….. of a visual image and some music. So what about wine? What dimensions of taste might be useful to help improve the enjoyment and pleasure we experience in tasting and drinking wine? To discover those you’ll have to read my next wine post on Wednesday next. In the meantime take a look at how Danell over at Vinthropology is launching her new wine club which focuses on Wine and Culture, where there is a clear interaction between the sensory and cognitive experiences which has made wine a part of culture across the world for millennia.
Vinthropology is born from a passion for wine and a desire to understand, or better, get closer to understanding its enchanting enigma. In as much as wine can tell the story of a season, a territory, a tradition and a people, it is also elusive, resisting any absolute definition and inviting you to look deeper. Vinthropology is for the curious. It is for the novice, the enthusiast and the expert alike. It is for those who see learning as a lifelong journey. It is for those who believe that to perceive is to know, to understand and to love.VINTHROPOLOGY Exploring Wine Through Art and Culture
Many of these concepts and experiences are also described in my recent book, It’s Not About The Wine published on Amazon, find it on the Amazon site of your own country.
If you are interested in a more detailed insight into this topic then I suggest you read Questions of Taste, edited by Barry C. Smith (ISBN 978-1-909930-21-6) which inspired me to write this article regarding my own views and experiences.