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Missing the point: how reductionism doesn't work for wine

Reductionism is the process of understanding a whole system by breaking it down into component parts and then studying these smaller, more manageable units. It has been a tremendously successful approach in science. Indeed, many of the great advances in biology over the last 40 years or so have some from using the highly reductionist techniques of cell and molecular biology.

The way that wine tasting is commonly taught is also quite reductionist. Most 'introduction to wine'-style courses teach people how to identify different smells and flavours, and identify components such as tannin, acidity and alcohol. In writing a tasting note, we are taught to use descriptors such as fruits (e.g. cherry, berry fruit, blackcurrant/cassis, plum, damson, gooseberry, peach), spices (e.g. cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper) and other, often more esoteric terms (e.g. tar, flint, minerals, earth, cheese, honey). Some writers seem to revel in stacking up descriptors and using weird, novel tasting terms. It makes for interesting reading, but how much does it really tell us about the wine?

The 20 point scale beloved by wine show judges and academic wine departments is also reductionist in the sense that the colour, nose and palate of a wine are judged separately, with points being allocated to each. I'm dubious about the use of this scale, with its implied precision and objectivity. I'll try to explain why.

The reductionist process fails for wine evaluation because you can't get to the essence of what a wine is about by assembling all these different components. The quality of a wine is what is known as an 'emergent property'; one that is a characteristic of a system but is not evident from its isolated components. For example, consciousness is an emergent property of the brain; it's hard to get at it just by examining the neurons and other cells that make up the brain. However much information we have about neuronal signalling (and we already have an impressive set of data), it's unlikely we'll be able to assemble all of this together in a coherent whole that then gives us an understanding of consciousness.

Let me use a further analogy; that of an old-fashioned spring-wound clock. When I was a child I discovered quite quickly that it was a much simpler process to dismantle one of these timepieces than it was to put it back together again. And looking at the numerous cogs, screws and springs spread across the carpet didn't tell me much about the functioning of the clock.

What makes a great wine? Yes, you need good 'components', but perhaps more importantly the wine as a whole must be complete and balanced. These components must synergize to produce something that is more than a sum of the parts. It's perfectly possible for a wine to score highly on the nose, for it to have lots of interesting 'bits' on the palate, but for the whole not to work particularly well together. Inronically, wines like this frequently win gold medals in shows. 20-point scoring is dangerous, because practitioners are often beguiled by showy wines that have pronounced characters on the nose and then on the palate -- the problem is, this scoring system often leads people to forget that the key property of a wine is that it works as a whole. Balance is crucial. Textural characteristics and acid structure are often overlooked in these reductionist assessment procedures.

So by all means, be reductionist in your assessment, and feel free to identify different flavour and aroma properties in a wine. But don't forget that what matters much are the emergent properties that come from having all the components work together. Consider the wine as a whole.

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