Tuesday, December 02, 2008

How we learn to smell and the use of wine tasting notes.

I have been reading a lot of posts (NYTimes, for example) lately about wine tasting and its related art - tasting note poetry.

I will be the first to admit that tasting note poetry can go overboard, stepping into the realm of ode, or possibly love sonnet. But there is a profound usefulness to tasting notes: They provide a vehicle for sharing an inherently personal experience.

Like sight and sound, each person has a slightly different genetic makeup coding for the proteins and receptors related to smell. Each person has a unique-to-them experience when evaluating the flavors in the glass (See Thorngate, 1997).

Just like any language, in order to communicate wine tasting experiences effectively, there needs to exist a shared set of rules under which the communication takes place - the grammar and vocabulary of wine tasting notes. As young children we took vocabulary tests, an exercise designed to associate words with meanings by rote memorization. A similar vocabulary test takes place when learning to communicate wine experience. Odorants (smells) and their identity are associated with one another through rote memorization.

In order to pull strawberry, blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, or olallieberry aroma out of a wine, a firm representation of the aroma of these berries needs to live in the brain. To form this association, aroma standards are produced according to various recipes (Noble et. al, 1987) and then repeatedly smelled and identified until the association sticks.

Therefore, if the appropriate work is done to learn the aromas, the learn the vocabulary of wine, then tasting notes become quite useful. The assumption required for usefulness is that the note writer and the note reader are speaking the same language.

The photo above was taken during the final exam of "Sensory Evaluation of Wine" taught by Dr. Heymann at UC Davis. This is a required course for all graduates of the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology program. The students in the class have to identify approximately 50 aroma standards out of numbered, black tasting glasses. As a graduate of the program, I can say that it is not an easy task. But, for all of the work it takes to learn the aromas, I am confident that when I speak to others about wine aromas who have had the same wine language training, we are communicating effectively a shared wine tasting experience.


Anonymous said...

You know I had a heart palpitation when I saw that photo...oh that was a hard test...I could never pick out nutmeg, it got me every time. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting post! Thank you!