Questions of Taste

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What can you taste in a wine? Is taste and the perception of flavor purely subjective?  Are there actual physical components that trigger our taste buds?

This was the essence of the event that was held at the Astor Center last night. Philosopher Barry C. Smith has compiled a series of essays from fellow philosophers, wine makers, and wine critics that explore the mental and mechanical machinations of how we taste.  The book is called Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine, and he brought along two of his philosopher contributors with him last night: Ophelia Deroy and Roger Scruton.

The discussion was anchored by the tasting of 4 wines: 2 wines from the chardonnay grape, one made in Chablis, France, and the other in Santa Barbara, California and then a vertical tasting of the 2004 and 2002 St. Romain Rouge “Sous Roches” Burgundy.

The two chardonnays were both from 2006, Dom. Ste. Clair, JM Brocard and Au Bon Climat Chardonnay.   Walking us through the basics of tasting, sniff before swirling or agitating, then swirl and sniff, then taste, he made a strong point that for the average, non professional taster it is difficult to evaluate a single wine, but it becomes easier if you are comparing one wine to another.   So, we compared, and it was hard to imagine that these were the same grapes. The Chablis was lean, clear, crisp, some described it as isolated, while the Chardonnay was soft, round, plump, buttery, as sunny and open tasting as its inhabitants and climate.  Ophelia Deroy explained how the vanilla that we tasted in the California wine could physically come from the oak barrels or the grape stalks themselves that create a vanilla shaped molecule found in the wine. So, you really are tasting something vanilla like in that wine.  But, was the Chablis tasting like its creators: lean and cautious, while the Chardonnay was redolent of its carefree inhabitants? 

Next we tasted the two red Burgundies, and here the descriptions of what we were tasting became more ‘philosophical’: could we literally, actually taste the terriore?  The leaf mold that occurred during the heavy rains of 2004?
For me, the 2004 was too tannic to be enjoyable, my tongue felt all dry and tight, not at all pleasant. But then as we discussed the mechanics of tannins, it was suggested that served with a steak, which is protein, the wine would then taste delicious. Not having a steak in front of me, I reached for a bite of a protein-laden piece of parmigana. Un miracolo! The tannins were softened and the wine tasted and felt delicious.
Now, I’m thinking that the way wine tastings are conducted might be off track. If you accept that wine and food go together, and I do, why bother with wine without food; there are quicker and easier ways to get alcohol into your system.   Shouldn’t a wine be tasted and consumed over a meal and then evaluated? Or at the very least, shouldn’t some sort of protein be offered with those tannic wines? 

Which led to a discussion on the “cross modal” effects of tasting, or how our senses are not separate senses but are holistic, integrated. Our eyes set up the expectation for a wine, beginning with the label on the bottle or box, whether we are drinking from a lovely crystal glass or a paper cup, and even the color of the wine in the glass preps our other senses. The nose is a powerful component of tasting, and what the eye has seen, sets up the nose to smell, which prepares the taste buds to taste. Think about how a smell triggers your saliva glands, gets your mouth ready for chewing and tasting.
Heston Blumenthal, creator and chef of The Fat Duck in London, is doing some interesting experiments on how we perceive flavor.  An oyster is split in half, first one half is eaten, and then the sound of the ocean was played into half of the subject’s headsets, while the control group listened to music.  The ocean listening group consistently reported that the other half of the same oyster that they tasted was ‘saltier’. 

All of this is kind of scary when you think of the marketing implications of sight and sound on our taste perceptions. Or it’s kind of exhilarating when you contemplate how you can manipulate a diner’s experience. And of course I mean manipulate in a positive, flavor enhancing way, not in a McDonald’s has figured out the music that will make you buy more way.   Although I’m sure they are already working on that.

I’ve never thought about taste and flavor as having a philosophical bent, but now whole new paths to thinking about flavor have been opened. Thanks again to the people at the Astor Center for hosting this thought provoking evening.

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