Is the taste of wine a property of the wine?

A philosophical point, but an important one. Is the ‘taste’ of a wine a property of a wine? Here are my thoughts.

A wine has physical properties, which can be measured. These are ‘real’, in that the wine has a chemical composition. If several researchers examine the wine using analytic tools such as spectrophotometry or GC-MS we can expect them to get the same results. (Any differences in the measurements will be because of the calibration and accuracy of the tools they are using.)

It follows that wine has a large number of aromatic compounds which can be detected by the human olfactory system. It also has chemicals that elicit a taste response.

But while this chemical composition is a property of the wine, the ‘taste’ of a wine is not. It is a result of an interaction between the taster and the wine, with the taster bringing something to the encounter that significantly alters the wine’s perception.

Humans do not ‘taste’ in the same way that measuring devices such as spectrophotometers or pH meters work. Instead, the sensory information gained during tasting—encoded as electrical signals by the olfactory receptors, taste buds, touch receptors and visual photoreceptors—is then subjected to some complicated processing by the brain, before an edited version of this reality (the conscious perception of the wine) is generated.

Our context and experience, as well as our expectations, shape this perception. Researchers have demonstrated that experienced wine tasters process sensory information related to the taste of wine quite differently from novice tasters. And information, such as the price of the wine or its quality level, also affects perception.

So what we refer to as the taste of wine is something that cannot be called a property of the wine. It is very much dependent on brain processing. Because we all differ in our olfactory receptor repertoire, it is certain that we are all, to a degree, living in our own unique taste world.

It would therefore be more accurate to say that the taste of a wine is a property of the taster, but one that is based on the chemical composition of the wine.

This is not to say that wine tasting is totally subjective, and that ratings and tasting notes of wines are useless. Although taste is a property of the taster, there is a surprising amount of agreement about how wines taste. This is because much of wine appreciation is learned. For example, we use taste descriptors that to some extent are a code, generated by the wine trade and taught in wine education.

And when we taste the same wine together, we are sharing a good deal of common experience. But this does not mean that the taste of the wine is a property of that wine.

Critics frequently disagree about wines. Even experienced, competent critics can disagree. There is not one ‘correct’ interpretation of a wine (although there are numerous incorrect interpretations). This is only to be expected if we have a proper understanding of the nature of human sensory perception.

8 comments to Is the taste of wine a property of the wine?

  • Steve Borthwick

    The taste is a property of the interaction between the wine and our various sensory systems, which are themselves affected by temporal and transient things like mood and ambiance etc. We assume (a posteriori) that most humans will have (roughly) the same sensory systems and therefore will taste (roughly) the same things when drinking the same wine, this assumption is only an approximation of course, hence the biological imperative for the evolution of wine critics ;)

  • Tom Bexton

    Its all very complicated! Breaking down the taste of wines into their component parts is analytical and – a little boring! Although perhaps sometimes necessary for teaching and learning purposes.
    If your brain percieves a wine to taste in a certain way, then surely this must be right! There are many things in life that go beyond mere verbal descriptors (art, music, love etc). When I taste a wine I just ask myself, why do I like this wine? How does it make me feel and what does it make me think of? To me – these questions are all you need to taste a wine properly.

  • william beavington

    I think one is missing out on the “wine experience” if one doesn’t have a go at identifying the flavour profile of a wine – constituent flavours are a key quality of “fine wine” compared to “poor wine”….and we all know “Life’s too short to drink poor wine” !!!

  • Perhaps this is taking the analogy too far – But – If I go and watch a film with Scarlett Johannsen as the main and I go home thinking it was Meryl Streep – because that is what the interaction between my eye balls and brain told me – am I right or wrong? Of course I am wrong. Though I may still have been moved by the performance and enjoyed the experience. Equally when you taste a wine there are chemical compounds their, playing their part, whether you can smell and identify them is another matter.

  • Samuel

    Perhaps taste is the property of the taster, up until the point they are wrong.
    When a winemaker sets out to produce a wine, it is with a clear understanding of what it will taste like.
    The fact we cannot taste these flavours, does not stop the the fact the wine does in fact, taste of it.
    A mass produced international blend like Blossom Hill clearly tastes like cherry (albeit a one dimensional confectioners version of cherry) but cherry none-the-less.
    Whereas the wines of Pomerol also clearly have identifiable cherry notes.
    Whilst the label ‘cherry’ is a learnt experience the flavour exists whether learnt or not.
    However I concede that whilst the flavour of this Pinot Gris did not change with its colour, clearly its taste did.
    Turning white wine into red http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11044090.

  • Hi Jamie,

    Fun stuff and I think you have it perfectly sorted out. My take is that a ‘property’ of wine is as defined following:
    Property:
    - an essential or distinctive attribute or quality of a thing: the chemical and physical properties of an element.
    - a quality, attribute, or distinctive feature of anything, esp a characteristic attribute such as the density or strength of a material

    TASTE is a sensation (in the case of wine FLAVOR would be more useful) and the perception of the qualities of flavor by any individual would be dependent upon the factors cited: physiological variables and the psychological interpretation of the information from sensory receptors.

    Breaks down as the physical nature of an object and the sensory interpretation. COMPONENTS of taste (flavor) are the properties of the wine, taste (or sensory capability) are a proerty of a human.

  • Components are the property of a wine, as you point out. But what about the emergent properties that occur when there are a number of aroma compounds that act synergistically, for example with a subthreshold level of one aroma compound affecting the perception of another? Is that a property of the wine?

  • Simon T

    thought for a second that edward was referencing 3 points to his decision making process, but clearly not – very funny (in a schoolboy sense) for a second or two !!

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