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Are reductionist approaches useful for understanding wine?

Reductionism, the splitting down of a system into its component parts, and then studying these in isolation, has been a tremendously useful way of doing science. Most science is in fact done this way, but researchers are now beginning to realise that what the philosophers of science have been saying for a while – that there are limits to reductionism – is actually true. Reductionist science has allowed biologists to unravel the human genome. But making sense of this genetic code is another matter altogether, a process that will require more than reductionist approaches. And while neurobiologists have uncovered in minute details the working of the nerve cells in the brain, how much does this tell us about consciousness?

In a similar vein, how useful are reductionist approaches in yielding understanding about wine? Advances in wine flavour chemistry mean that we now have a large body of knowledge about many of the specific chemical components that are important in wine flavour. However, doubts are being expressed in certain quarters about the usefulness of this knowledge, and whether this is a fruitful avenue of research for improving wine quality.

Why is this? It is because wine quality is what is known as an ‘emergent’ property. It is a characteristic of the whole system—all the various components of the wine working together to yield a sensory experience that is not evident from studying these components in isolation. Let’s imagine you have spent years honing your analytical skills and are expert in identifying specific aroma and taste sensations in wine. You could write a list for me of all the compounds you can spot in a particular wine, and demonstrate that they are actually there by analytical chemistry techniques. But does this really tell me much about this wine, and the experience I will have with it?

Bear in mind that the sensory experience of wine depends on both that nature of the wine and the physiological and mental response of the taster to this wine. The understanding of wine yielded by chemical analysis is just one part of a complex picture, and our brains don’t work in a similar way to analytic chemistry devices such as a gas chromatograph or mass spectrometer. When we taste wine we are doing much, much more than chemical analysis. This is quite a complicated concept, but it is an important one.

Trained sensory analysis of wine is useful in that it facilitates a way of measuring, in a scientific and statistically analysable way, some of the properties of wine. But in reality it is rather crude and there is noise in the system, introduced by inter-individual variance in perception, taster skill and the difficulty of expressing flavour sensations in words. Sensory analysis is a vital tool for wine research, but it is a blunt, limited tool when it comes to telling us useful information about what really matters in a wine.

In the mid-1990s Vinovation’s Clark Smith expressed some of these ideas in a witty, thoughtful and highly controversial article in Vineyard and Winery Management, entitled ‘Does UC-Davis have a theory of deliciousness?’ [the figure to the right is Smith's spoof of the Wine Aroma Wheel from UCD.] In this he takes the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis to task for failing to recognize a 'paradigm shift' that has taken place in the world of wine surrounding definitions of wine quality. In essence, he suggests that Davis was stuck in a reductionist rut. He advocates a fusion of the Davis analytical approach, often responsible for clean but dull wines, with an ‘older, visceral, holistic method of assessment’, to produce an integrated view of what makes wine ‘delicious’. Smith uses an analogy. ‘I find myself facing similar dilemmas in the health industry. I’m in pretty good health; I just want advice on how to live to be 100. My doctor, schooled in western medicine, checks my blood pressure, cholesterol, bilirubin and so forth, and tells me to come back when I’m sick. He thinks wellness is the absence of disease. So I try an acupuncturist. I find out he’s got a theory of wellness. He looks me over, gives me a tune-up with the needles and some herbs, makes some useful suggestions. I feel good. I ask him for some advice on prostate cancer and it turns out he doesn’t know what disease is. Just as western medicine has no conception of wellness, UC Davis offers no theory of deliciousness. What it does offer is just as vital.’ He concludes, ‘the Davis approach, like Western medicine, is analytic, and their counterpoints are holistic. What we need is a synthesis that integrates both approaches.’

One of the problems has been that scientists notions of ‘improving wine quality’ have been at odds with those of people who make and drink the stuff. Consider the following scenario. One by one, scientists identify a series of wine faults – brettanomyces, reduction, poor sulphur dioxide usage, ‘green’ flavours and aromas, and so on. They set about instructing winemakers about how to correct these faults. They also identify flavour molecules that have a positive effect, and instruct winemakers how to maximize these by, for example, vineyard interventions, maceration techniques or the use of specific yeast strains. The result is often a perfect, fault free wine, but one which doesn’t excite the senses; which fails to thrill. The weakness of the reductionist, analytical approach is that, in Smith’s words, ‘It does not by itself contain the tools for a sophisticated appreciation of wines as a whole’. There are concepts that relate to the properties of wine as a whole that are important for wine quality, or ‘deliciousness’, but which cannot be understood by a reductionist approach. If wine science is to progress properly in aiding out understanding of wine quality, then it will have to break free of the shackles of a purely reductionist, analytic approach and seek to integrate this with a holistic view of the wine experience. Easier said than done!  

The philosophy of wine

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