Neuroenology

In general wine tasters and especially wine drinkers spend little time thinking about how we generate the taste of wine. Normal drinkers just decided whether they like the wine or not, obsessed wine tasters have one hundred and one other questions but rarely this one.  But at least for curious, how human beings can make the fine distinctions that we take for granted in wine tasting, how they get every last drop of interest from their favourite drink, is a rarely discussed. It is this gap which Gordon M. Shepherd’s Neuroenology. How the brain creates the taste of wine, Colombia, 2017 aims to fill.  

I have a bit of a pet hate thing about book and subtitles. In the effort to sell books, titles and subtitles regularly promise more than they can or do deliver.  A good case in point was Lisa Perotti-Brown’s book Taste like a wine critic which should have been called ‘Wine Quality – how wine production affects the wine in your glass’.  But paradoxically Gordon Shepherd’s book actually does rather more than demonstrate ‘how the brain creates the taste of wine’, his main point. In a fascinating chapter, he explains first how the mouth, tongue and nasal passages have been developed to enable human beings to manipulate food and liquids in the mouth so that we can extract the aromas and flavours in all the subtlety and range that we experience.  This is the most approachable and perhaps the most helpful chapter in the book.  

The main chapters of the book are given over to a detailed description of the mechanisms whereby the brain ‘creates’ the taste of wine.  The subject matter makes for a very challenging read for non scientists but the book is basically clear, concise and comprehensive – as confirmed by a neuroscientist reviewer elsewhere (The World of Fine Wine, issue 56, 2017, p. 62) However, most readers of this books are basically going to be wine lovers and the issue is that the implications for wine tasting drawn out here are very limited. In the end the book is therefore informative but frustrating.  

But there are many good things along the way. Here for example are the tips for tasting based on the different phases of the tasting experience: wine on its own as it enters the mouth; mouth mixed with saliva; getting the most from the retronasal smell; wine as you swallow it: 

Tips for tasting 

  • start with moderate sips to keep wine in front part of mouth to experience with and without saliva
  • agitate vigorously to maximise stimulation of mouthfeel to sense stringency and the release of volatiles
  • keep back of the mouth open to facilitate retronasal smell
  • let wine leak over valleculae (grooves just behind the root of the tongue) in order to get hint of aroma before swallowing/spitting

These procedures make up to some extent for loss of swallowing tasting, p. 47

To pick up this very last point, I am surprised just from personal experience that the claim is made that ‘swallowing exposes the wine to the greatest possible extent to internal smell’ (p. 3). This phenomenon is called the aroma burst (p. 53), that moment at the end of the act of tasting where the aromatic character of wine is most powerful. Perhaps this is the difference between wine consumers and those who have had a lot of experience or indeed training in wine tasting. For me the aroma burst post-spitting is as powerful as post-swallowing.  

If you love knowing how things work – including the extraordinary business of wine tasting – and you have a strongly technical bent, this could be the book for you.  

 

 

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