Music and wine (2), a practical session with surprising results

joburzynska
At Pegasus Bay winery earlier this week, as part of the summer of Riesling event we experienced a wine and sound tasting session with wine writer Jo Burzynska. It proved to be interesting and also a little disturbing.

I wrote a bit on the topic of music and wine just before Christmas, reporting on a research study on the topic where some significant differences had been found. This time, it was the turn of those of us in the room to experience this for ourselves. I approached the session open-minded but sceptical. I was also aware that it was a pretty unscientific set-up. After all, people have been taken in by the purported effect of magnets on wine when they’ve been coached by a salesperson in a non-blind setting. With these caveats in mind, we sat and tasted.

A quick video of Jo introducing the tasting:

The first wine was Waipara Hills Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013. We tasted in silence, and then with two pieces of music: Nouvelle Vague Just Can’t Get Enough, and Skeptics AFCO. To me, the Nouvelle Vague made the wine taste fresher; Skeptics made it taste richer with more weight. The wines certainly
did taste a bit different to me, and I was surprised.

The second wine was the fab Bel Canto Riesling 2011 from Pegasus Bay. Three different sound tracks were played: Vivaldi’s Summer, Scott Walker Such a Small Love and Iannis Xenakis La Legende d’Er (which was like intense feedback screetch, quite alternative ‘music’). The Scott Walker made the wine taste richer and more intense than the Vivaldi, while the Xenakis made it taste angular and unintegrated, with some bitterness.

Finally, we tasted a red: Black Estate’s Pinot Noir 2011. The musical tracks: Mussorgsky A Night on Bald Mountain; Brian Eno Discreet Music and Vashti Bunyan Just Another Diamond Day. The second made the wine taste a bit fresher and livelier, wwhile the third brough cherry and mineral notes to the fore.

‘The balance of the wine changes with the different musical conditions,’ said Jo. ‘Quite a lot happens with the aromatics.’ I wonder whether it might be that the music alters the way that we attend to different things in the wine (that is, we look for different things in the wine, and thus experience the wine differently), rather than there being a synesthetic jumbling of the senses. Either way, a lot is happening to the information from our senses before we are consciously aware of them, and this experiment seems to highlight that.

‘We have done enough trials now to show that this isn’t just the product of a wine-addled musos imagination,’ claims Jo, and from this rather unscientific trial (it was of course never claiming to be anything other), I tend to agree. Although we try our best, our perception of wine is influenced on many subtle levels by external cues, so we need to remain humble in the face of wine, particularly when our ratings are made on the basis of a brief encounter. The mood of a room, our own internal mood, the company we taste in, and even the weather are the sorts of factors that can influence how a wine shows, I suspect.

4 comments to Music and wine (2), a practical session with surprising results

  • Kwispedoor

    It’s true that many, many things influence how we perceive taste. Perhaps the effect of music on taste has more to to with how it alters our own moods. Of course it’s also true that contact with oxygen changes a wine and listening to different pieces of music while tasting the same wine takes time (and a degree of oxidation).

  • Patrick

    Never quite sure about pan-sensory interaction, with hearing affecting taste etc… Your descriptions of the wine sound almost too exactly like how one would describe the music. Love drinking wine with music, but its just that…

  • @Kwispedoor perhaps the effect of music on taste is that taste is in fact mostly olfaction, and both the olfactory and vestibulocochlear nerves are rooted pretty deeply into the brainstem and as such are very primal senses; you can’t turn them off, they work 24/7. had you considered that? as for oxygen, there’s not a lot that changes in my glass over a minute or two of listening time, and the finding is repeatable: if you return to the earlier track, the wine does not remain as it did with the later track.

    @patrick maybe if you knew something (anything!) about neuroscience then your opinion that “its just that” would be worth something. of course the description of the wine change in a similar fashion to the musical stylings. anything else would be bizarre. somehow you think this disproves something? give it a go, man! it’s easy to do at home, and then you can make some sort of informed comment, cos yeah, well………

  • Kwispedoor

    @hughthewineguy: I’m ashamed to admit that I did not consider the proximity to the brain stem of said information transmitters. ;-)

    I’m only half pulling your leg. I’m open to the idea that this physiological relation might play a significant role. I just reckon that the effect of all the contributing factors here is mainly driven by emotion/psychology and possibly changes to the wine in the glass. I could be wrong: it could chiefly be an undeniable physiological thing, which would mean that anyone can significantly manipulate someone else’s taste of not only wine, but all things edible and drinkable, remotely through audio – even if said subjects have no emotional reaction to this audio.

    In my experience, wine often changes quite a bit in one’s glass over some minutes. This change is amplified if the ambient temperature differs significantly from the wine’s temperature. Either way, I generally don’t put much stock into any hasty tasting judgments and prefer reading wine reviews where the reviewer spent ample time with the wine. I’m assuming the latter in this case, as two or three songs take up quite some time, especially considering the high probability of much discussion etc. in between. This particular tasting procedure is not explained in enough detail to conclude much regarding back-tasting and it would’ve required replaying the songs as well, in this context.

    I suppose we’re all just guessing over this interesting subject though, as the science on this is rudimentary indeed.

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