Does our relationship with a wine – or, indeed, a type or class of wines – change as we get to know it or them?
I think it does, and this is one of the reasons that I think of the practice of wine tasting as an interaction between us and the wine – one in which we bring quite a bit to the process. We are certainly not acting as scientific instruments when we taste.
Think of the parallel situation of getting to know a piece of music. You have quite a different experience hearing a song the first time than you do when your are coming back for the 20th listen.
When I was at school, in the sixth form (ages 16-18) you were allowed out at lunchtime. It took about 20 minutes to walk down the hill to the centre of town, and one of my favourite ways of killing a lunch hour – apart from playing football with a tennis ball in one of the quads or wading through old Wisdens in the library – was to wander down to Scorpion Records, a second-hand shop.
Once I’d splashed out (much of the time was spent simply browsing) I relished the chance to get home and listen to my purchases. There was real anticipation. But many of the albums were a bit disappointing first time round. The good ones often took several listens before they really grew on me.
I guess what is happening when you listen to a song you know well is that in your mind you are playing through an internal version of the song at the same time as listening to it. You know how you get a song in your mind? It’s usually buzzing round, but in an incomplete or distorted form. When you play the mental song at the same time as listening to the real thing, there’s a richness and satisfaction that comes from having the details filled in. Of course, you can get to know a song too well, and then it can become annoying.
Some songs are easily accessible, but you tire of them. Others, you don’t seem to tire of at all.
The parallel with wine? I wonder whether, when we taste a wine or type of wine we know well, this sort of thing is going on. Our previous experience highlights flavours to look out for. We interrogate the wine, asking it pertinent sensory questions. We are reminded of aspects of the wine we had forgotten about. It adds to the richness of the experience.
It could well be that previous experience or even book knowledge about a wine will change our actual perception, just as I reckon that possession of a certain vocabulary for smells and tastes commonly found in wine might alter our perception of the wine. That is, the words we have for wine act like pegs on which we can hang our otherwise fleeting and faint sensory experiences.
It all sounds quite complex, but in this complexity lies part of the thrill of wine.