Wine Masterclass #7 What use is knowledge in the enjoyment of wine?

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.




Categories: Masterclass, Wine

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32 replies

  1. Isn’t it strange too, how so many people like to boast about how cheap the wine is that they bought on holiday. I can’t recall how often friends have said things like “I think you’ll like this, we picked up a crate of it at a tiny place in France, absolutely delicious, and only cost 50p. a bottle” and you’re expected to agree, but they would never say “I think you’ll like this lamb, we picked up six legs at a little farm in France, absolutely delicious, and only cost £1 a leg”. They would never dare as that would be an insult to their guest. What is it with wine?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha , my next door neighbour is like that, they come back from France with 2 litre plastic bottles of wine costing €2 and want me to taste it, and he has a stack of brown plastic barrel shaped things containing red wine that contains around 5 litres for €5 he keeps in his garage. It’s a complete contrast with people like you or I, they would see us as wine snobs. It’s a matter of inquisitiveness and curiosity that some people have of not even trying to explore wines of different types, from different countries, different prices. Then again we often meet the Anything But Chardonnay brigade, a decision taken after an experience of one glass of heavily oaked Australian Chardonnay in the 1990s, and now won’t try a Chablis or a Meursault or a Puligny Montrachet. I know I haven’t directly answered your question, maybe it’s a form of insecurity that wine brings out in people?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Or inverted snobbery? I’m happy to drink plonk when the occasion calls for it and I’ve drunk some terrible wines in France, Italy and Spain, but the locals didn’t try to convince me they were good, just good quaffing wines – and they have a place. Yes, that Aussie Chardonnay has a lot to answer for!

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  2. Such an informative post Dr. B. Wine really is very sensory. And as you say, is understood via the context of some specific definitions. Yet I find there is something more beyond those definitions. I look forward to reading more of your MasterClass posts.

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  3. This is fascinating to read and highly applicable. I like wines of all kinds, but I know little to nothing about choosing a good wine. I do seem to prefer Cabernet – rich color, bold taste, smooth finish, in a proper glass, preferably in good company. Lately, I have been trying to analyze my preferred flavor profile by using an app called Vivino. It helps me choose a wine within a price point that I can afford, with a reasonable expectation that I will like it. Why buy a $100 bottle, when a $35 will satisfy? I am sure to a ‘refined’ palette such as yours, you must instinctively know from the label whether you will like it. I am a long way from being there. Thanks for contributing to my very limited base of knowledge on this topic. I look forward to the next installment.

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    • Hello,Suzanne, thank you so much for your very open comment which I really appreciate. It is quite rare for “novice” enthusiasts to even read some of my wine stuff, never mind commenting on it. I know the app Vivino, but I guess it’s really merely playing back to you a prediction based on the wines you’ve already bought or reviewed. Ideally you need something to understand your personal tastes and WHY you have those tastes. And …. there IS a way! Take a peek at the book by Tim Hanni called Why You Like The Wines You Like. In it he has a questionnaire you fill in and within 10 mins it will predict wine types you will almost certainly prefer! Also in the book he tells you how to,actually change the taste of a wine with food by adding either lemon juice or salt to the food, because these two ingredients alter the interaction between the wine and food in your mouth. Sometimes it improves the match, sometimes it makes it worse. But it’s a really fun experiment to do with friends with say 4 different wine types and several small items of food such as shrimp, charcuterie, beef, chicken etc etc. Second there is my own book, It’s Not About The Wine, available on Amazon. It describes how I first learned about wine as a student, then incorporated wine into travels with history, philosophy, art …. and then began building a collection. You might also like to read and follow posts from my friends blog at Vinthropology. So, keep commenting, and why not start blogging on some of your wine experiences?

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    • Oops I forgot, Tim Hanni’s questionnaire is online at https://www.myvinotype.com/en/ so go and give it a go 🤞🍷

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  4. OK, my problem, it seems is that I have not tasted enough wine to experience all that can be enjoyed! And, I do not know all the grapes! Or, where they like to be grown or the difference it can make to a grape and the end product….More learning and paying attention….Cady

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  5. Well, there’s a lot to unpack here! The more I think about it, the more difficult it becomes to separate the sensory and the cognitive. As you’ve mentioned, even in a blind tasting you will be relying on your memory to identify what you are sensing. However, I think we can make a distinction in terms of an aesthetic experience of wine- aesthetic engagement and aesthetic judgement. Aesthetic engagement involves a particular way of directing one’s attention to an object, such as wine, and contemplating it in-itself. It is necessary for an aesthetic experience. Aesthetic judgement, on the other hand, may happen at the end of this process, but it is a product of an aesthetic experience and we could still have that kind of experience whether we make a judgement or not at the end of it. Bence Nanay, in his book “Aesthetics, A Very Short Introduction” argues that the pleasure we take from aesthetic judgements is in communicating them with others and sharing experiences, however it should not take precedence over the value of the experience itself. “If an experience is worth having for you, it thereby becomes a potential subject of aesthetics. You can get your aesthetic kicks where you find them… Aesthetics is a way of analysing what it means to have these experiences. [It] is, and should be, completely non-judgemental”. I’m sure you will discuss aesthetics in a future post, it just seems relevant to the effect of knowledge on your experience of wine. Does knowledge help you order wine in a restaurant, make comparisons and judge quality, certainly. Does knowledge help you have a more intense, more meaningful experience? I’ll have to think about that one!

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    • An insightful and helpful comment as usual. 🙏. At last we agree on the instantaneous effect of sensory and cognitive inputs on our immediate perception of a wine. I understand the difference between aesthetic engagement and aesthetic judgement, but I would suggest it takes an immense amount of discipline to stick with the engagement before judgement. I suppose it’s “existence before essence” and I have tried this, notably in Malaga as I tasted one of their sweet red wines in Pimpi’s wine bar looking up at the Alcazaba. Very difficult! Maybe you need to have more experiences of drinking wine in a social setting or environment to experience the subsequent increase in intensity. For example if you joined us in Chablis for a weekend and I took you around a few places for tasting, and say we met Richard at Domaine Malandes, I guarantee that each time you tasted a Chablis in the future the memory of our tasting at Malandes would pop into your head. It would be unstoppable! Anyway, I’m pleased I set you thinking about it 🙏🙏🍷

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      • It certainly would add to my enjoyment! Knowledge of wine not only helps you make more articulate aesthetic judgements, it also may help you notice the subtle differences between wines and their nuances by knowing what to look for. So, knowledge does add to your enjoyment of wine, no argument there. It’s sort of the chicken or the egg, I’m continually getting trapped thinking about it, but maybe Bence Nanay’s point was that sense we are so accustomed to making judgement s and maybe focusing on essence, we should not forget about the value of the raw sensory experience and existence too. Looking forward to your post on aesthetics! 🥂

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        • I think in a way we’ve trapped each other, because in the last couple of years I’ve become more aware of and focused on the sensory. You know my attitude towards the “fruit salad bingo” brigade and approach, but that was borne of frustration because I just don’t have the trained palate. That’s why I say “it’s a Chardonnay” because that’s what I taste, then I am considering where it’s from etc etc. I’ve been having a laugh with Champa recently in the kitchen. Three neighbours in our street have all bought a book about cooking curries restaurant style, so Champa joined in and …. it’s driving her crazy having to follow recipe books to make variations on her ethnic natural foods and way of cooking. Anyway, each time a curry is served up, I sniff the thing and say “hmm, hints of black cardamom here, a little jeera coming through too. Ahh, I taste some green cardamom and definite overtones of turmeric. etc etc” It comes across better when you see it happening! Anyway, there’s another factor here which is whether one is drinking alone or with others. It’s the being with others that leads to a dialogue down the cognitive route …. with me anyway.

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        • Yes, absolutely! It means the conversation can go beyond “It’s good” or “I like it”. Poor Champa must be cringing at the restaurant style adaptions. I myself make a simple curry with chicken, pre-mixed curry spices and coconut milk 😂🤦‍♀️ I do miss eating curries in London though, hard to find here in Italy!

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        • That’s why you need to visit us then! See ….. it’s not about the wine ….. curry every day of your visit 👨‍🍳👍👨‍🍳👍

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  6. I’ve always found sommeliers to be knowledgeable and helpful

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Trackbacks

  1. It’s Not About The Wine! By Brian Metters – Vinthropology
  2. Wine Masterclass #8 How do I know this is a quality wine? – Buddha Walks Into A Wine Bar ….
  3. Wine Masterclass #7 What use is knowledge in the enjoyment of wine? – Vinthropology

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