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.