Philosophy, wine and an old pub
Had lunch today with Ole Martin Skilleas, a Norweigan academic philosopher who is currently writing a book on wine and philosophy with a colleague of his, Douglas Burnham. We didn't go anywhere grand - just round the corner to the Dover Castle, a pub like they used to be 20 years ago before they all went gastropub and started charging restaurant prices - but we did have an interesting discussion about the philosophy of wine tasting, over a pint of beer.
I learned a lot from Ole, and among the insights he offered was an interesting take on how we taste. 'Wine is a vague object', Ole told me, ' and we bring conceptual knowledge to it. We try to fit it with a template'. What he means (I think) is that the senses of smell and taste are rather imprecise, so wine is vague, and to say much about it we need to bring something to the tasting experience, namely our experience and understanding. When we know what it is we are drinking we are then able to say much more about it. 'We know what to look for in a great wine', he continued. 'If you don't know what to look for you don't notice the qualities that made this a great wine'.
He illustrated this with an experience of blind tasting, which he regards as an extreme version of what happens in most tastings. With his tasting group, which includes wine critics and enthusiasts with excellent knowledge of wine, he lined up three wines blind, with a common theme: a 1999 Chablis 1er Cru, a 1999 Village Meursault and a 1999 Macon. At an early stage in deliberations a senior member of the group said, 'At first I thought the theme was Chardonnay, but I don't think it is.' No one went on to guess Chardonnay: the members of the group just put the Chardonnay template away. 'The qualities of the wines, once they were revealed, were so obvious', recalls Ole, 'it was staring people in the face'.
Coincidentally, when I got home Fiona had poured a mystery glass of wine for me to taste blind. I was thinking about this template business: this is what makes tasting blind so difficult, I reckon. I spotted it as a Sauvignon, but could get no further. It was cleanly made and modern, but it could have been from the Loire or the New World. Turned out it was from Yalumba in South Australia.
Labels: Philosophy of wine