One of the questions that really baffles novice winos is “how do I know whether this is a good quality wine or not?” which is a completely different question from “how do I know whether I will like this wine or not?”. The second question is a purely personal and an aesthetic question with a purely personal subjective answer. Nobody else can decide whether you like it or not! There is no “external” measure or judgement to help you. The first question is quite different and connects back to the final paragraph (shown below) of my previous article, Wine Masterclass #7, which you should read in full before battling the Quality Conundrum:
“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 necessarily 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?”Wine Masterclass #7
Issues of Quality
The Quality Conundrum in wine tasting is based on three issues.
- The first is whether our determinant of quality is a sensory reflex, a cognitive process (thought/knowledge based), or an affective response (emotion based). This is referred to as a psychosocial effect by Kent Bach in Questions of Taste, The Philosophy of Wine (Ed. Barry Smith)
- The second issue is whether there might be any common elements of judgement that can be used from person to person that would bring a degree of consistency if we all knew what they were.
- The third and final issue is whether quality assessment can have any validity via external measures, in other words can it be objective rather than subjective. A simple example here is when a person says “oh that tastes quite acidic”, so I suppose the pH of the wine could be measured using a pH meter! So, to have any chance of solving the Quality Conundrum we need to address these three issues.
1. Sensory, Cognitive or Affective?
There has been much debate and almost as much disagreement in this area from both philosophers and psychologists. The startpoint is to consider taste as an aesthetic experience in a similar manner to that involved in looking at a work of art, listening to a piece of music for example, and then to “weigh” the contribution of sensory, cognitive and affective inputs. Voltaire considered the experience to be an emotional one, Edmund Burke viewed it as intellectual, and some modern philosophers have interpreted the work of Kant as classifying aesthetic taste as a sensory issue. Psychologists also disagree as to which is the primary element in “judging” a wine during tasting, and as a psychologist myself I agree with their disagreement! But I’ll stick my neck out here and say that I believe that all three contribute, immediate sensory perception, plus intellectual thought ………… especially memory, plus emotion especially “pleasure/displeasure” triggered by a past experience which may have been good/bad with the same/similar wine. I suppose you’d call that interactionism, but to go one step further I really believe that the weighing of whether sensory, cognitive or affective inputs gives a greater contribution or not actually varies from one person to another. In my own case all three count, but it is the cognitive/intellectual/thought/memory element that seems to have the greatest weight and influences my judgement. Within a minute of tasting something I am comparing it with past experiences, thinking back to identify it, remembering when or where it was etc etc. (See previous post).
I recommend that you actually leave my post at this point (for just 10min🤞) and read a connected post from Danell at Vinthropology in which she expands considerably on the aesthetic experience of wine tasting and it’s “pleasure giving quality”. Here’s a key paragraph from her post:
We all seem to instinctively know what pleasure is. No philosopher, psychologist or guru needs to explain it to us, we know it when we feel it. It is that which pleases us, that which causes feelings of enjoyment, happiness and liking. It is the opposite of suffering. It is that which makes our lives worth living and that which we spend our time and energy pursing. However, the question of whether the experience of pleasure is merely a sensory pursuit, confined to the world of sensation, rather than an intellectual one is less obvious.VINTHROPOLOGY Pleasure: From Water to Wine
2. Subjective or Objective, External Measurement and Validity?
I’m jumping now to the third issue of the Quality Conundrum, whether assessing the quality of wine can be made objectively, externally, by chemical analysis for example. My example above of measuring acidity with a pH meter would typify such an approach, though I expect that the acidity differences that we would experience in our highly sensitive mouths from one wine to another are less than significant on the full pH scale of 1-14! At a much more detailed level a US company, Enologix has designed a computer programme they claim can measure the quality of any wine. They have created a database of constituents and components of existing wines relative to the market value of a wine, so they are equating quality with price/value and have chemically analysed different price band wines. They define wine quality as the “colour-flavour-fragrance intensity of a given wine with respect to all the other wines in its appellation”. Here’s a quote from their website:
“Since 1995 Enologix Terminal is a computer software system provided by Enologix® that enables professionals in the wine growing and winemaking to access the Quality Management System (Version 7). Users can track the company’s quality from grapes to bottled wines. The system’s most considerable benefit is to scale the quality of luxury wines to 30,000 case batches in the Napa Valley and consumer batches to over 1-million cases.”
There’s another, and I believe more exciting company in England, called VeriVin which uses Raman Spectroscopy to non-destructively test a sample of wine for the 1000+ molecules present in that 1-2% of wine that isn’t water or ethanol. Simply put, each molecule would vibrate/become excited at a particular frequency or wavelength of light so you could get a “fingerprint” of any wine you choose. The technique is the brainchild of Dr Celia Muldoon, a wine loving physicist, and uses Raman Scattering to identify each molecule. When I first read about it she was due to test it out in Argentina and there is a more detailed description of the approach on Jamie Goode’s website at Wine Anorak.
For those of you interested to read further on the whole issue of wine and chemical analysis I suggest you take a look at the VeriVin website, and also browse to their Knowledge page where there are some excellent articles on taste and aromas in wine and also on wine faults. I especially liked the one entitled Does Wine Really Smell Like Blueberries and the wider article Beauty in Analysis.
3. Common Elements of Judgement
There is general agreement amongst the professional wine fraternity that there is a need for some common elements, “dimensions”, with which to describe and even to evaluate the quality of wine, although there may be some slight disagreement over what those dimensions are. I certainly am not one to quibble over some slight variation from one persons choice of dimension to another, particularly since I am a psychologist and have used extensively George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory simply stated as:
“Personal construct theory suggests that people develop personal constructs about how the world works. People then use these constructs to make sense of their observations and experiences.”
Kelly proposed that all humans CONSTRUCT their own inner worlds based on their own perceptions of events. Each person is a free individual, free to construct their perception of something as they wished or saw fit. So for example one person hears a piece of music and perceives it as a wonderful harmony of peaceful sounds but another person hearing the same piece of music thinks it is just an awful noise. One person sees a dog and thinks it a nice fluffy friend, but another person perceives it as a dangerous animal. Each person has constructed their perceptions quite differently, often on the basis of previous experience. The second part of Kelly’s theory is that all of our constructs are bi-polar. Look at the two examples given above; a piece of music which is a peaceful sound or awful noise, a dog which is a fluffy friend or dangerous animal. These are “opposites” and are examples of bi-polar constructs as defined by Kelly. In essence though, a construct can be used by a person to “judge” different animals on the construct fluffy friend – dangerous animal dimension so that the person who perceives a dog as a fluffy friend would see a lion as a dangerous animal!
At this level PCT is very simple, we are all constantly perceiving our world as a flowing stream of constructs, a warm shower in the morning, clean clothes which look nice or business-like as we dress, tasty food for breakfast, a dusty noisy road walking to work, a warm friendly office when we arrive, a group of teachers who look nervous but excited as they wait for their course to begin, a chart pen which has got too dry, tables which some people think are too high but which you think are ok, the smell of incense burning from outside which you think is horrible because your nose itches but which others like etc etc etc. the stream is endless! All examples of personal constructs.
It is Kelly’s PCT which is at the heart of the dimensions used to evaluate a wine, whether it’s the professional set used in the WSET qualification, or a personal set created by you or I. Sweet-Dry is a clear and easy example, though not everything is clear cut, sweet OR dry in wine terms, so Kelly went further and added something called a Likert scale, say 1-5, for each of the bipolar dimensions. So now for a wine we have 1=Very Dry, 2=Slightly Dry, 3=Neither sweet nor dry, 4=Slightly Sweet, 5=Very Sweet.
More specifically for instance, the WSET’s “Systematic Approach to Tasting” encourages tasters to evaluate the quality of a wine in an objective way, by using a method in which points are awarded for a wine’s balance, length, intensity, complexity, and typicity. Although this might give a level of internal objectivity there is no way it is totally objective from one taster to the next. However, let’s not split hairs again, it’s a step in the right direction. However, one needs to know what “typicity” means, and what “length” means etc for each of these dimensions related to quality to have any meaning at all.
I’ve written this article as much for novices as well as for more experienced wine drinkers. I have tried to answer the massive question “how do I know whether this wine is good quality or not” and it would help if readers replied whether I have got close or not, one way or the other. Silence doesn’t help! So, let’s summarise all of my verbiage from above:
- Assessing the quality of a wine is a complex mix of the wine’s aroma and taste, your knowledge and memory of earlier tasted wine for comparison, and the emotion and feelings arising having tasted it.
- I believe that most assessment of a wines quality is subjective, having a number of people rigorously trained to taste and score a wine equally the same from one person to another doesn’t give their assessment validity. It gives reproducibility within that group but not validity. There are examples of expert wine tasters being “fooled” by colouring white wines with a tasteless red dye which resulted in them judging that wine against characteristics typical of a red wine grape! However there are now several organisations seeking to develop scientific techniques and instruments to objectively identify and measure specific molecules and compounds that would contribute to quality.
- Dimensions of quality are common now and a good way to bring about consistency reasonably well, not only across trained professionals but also within a single person from bottle to bottle. If you personally always use the same 5 dimensions to assess a wine and store those notes in a book or a digital app then you are on the right track to develop your own store of knowledge, which cycles back to #1 in this list.
My own set of dimensions are shown below, very similar to the WSET dimensions, and I use them whenever I taste a wine, anywhere in the world! Most times I enter the wine in the VinoCell app on my iPhone for future reference, even if I’m in a restaurant, a vineyard, or at home. Essentially they are all sensory inputs but then followed by judgements. But I also accept that as I taste and consider what “score” to give, my mind is automatically accessing that database to remember past occasions when I tasted that wine, or something similar. Then something else happens as I remember more about the occasion, the place, the time, who I was with, were we eating, were we travelling? Memory (cognitive) and feelings (affective) have now added to my immediate experience. And so in conclusion, I go along with those academics who suggest that the quality perception process is more complex than a mere either/or dichotomy (subjective or objective) and involves both concepts jointly, in fact I’m damn sure it does!
My Quality Dimensions
- Balance (between fruit and acidity or tannin)
- Complexity (multiple layers of flavour)
- Finish (the length of time the flavour stays in your mouth)
- Typicity (how typical is the wine of that grape and that place of origin)
- 🌟 Undrinkable
- 🌟🌟 Drinkable but I don’t like it/not my style
- 🌟🌟🌟I like it, an everyday wine
- 🌟🌟🌟🌟I like it, a special occasion wine
- 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟A special occasion wine that will improve over x years
If there’s one thing you should take away from this post it is that you will never be able to judge the quality of a wine if you always drink the same wines, same grapes, same countries, same price range. My book shows you how to get this experience for yourself and is available from Amazon in your own country.