By Nikki Goddard
What if I told you that I could change the taste of wine—using only my mind? You’d probably think I was eccentric, a liar, or just plain delusional, or, perhaps, that I had seen The Matrix a few too many times.
But picture this scene: You and a connoisseur friend are visiting a winery together, both enjoying a taste of the same Sauvignon Blanc. You scribble down some descriptors on the menu. “Mango, kiwi, guava, pineapple, lime,” you write, struggling to come up with any other tasting notes. Then, your friend across the table says, “Whoa, this wine tastes so much like passion fruit!” Lifting the glass to your nose and taking a long, deep sniff followed by a sip and a swirl, you realize, “Oh, yeah, of course!” Suddenly, you can’t smell or taste anything but passion fruit.
So, what just happened in this scenario? There are a handful of possibilities:
1. You noticed the taste your friend identified as passion fruit. Still, you could not connect your memory of previous passion fruit experiences to the taste you observed in the wine (although you got close with mango and guava). The ability to describe aromas and flavors in wine depends a lot on your familiarity with aromas and flavors in general, and connecting the dots might take more practice than you’ve had with this particular descriptor.
2. You didn’t notice the taste at all before your friend’s comment—perhaps you haven’t tasted passion fruit enough times to have a clear memory of its flavor, but your friend’s comment triggered your recollection. Maybe, when you first started learning to describe wine, you found it easier to jump to guava and mango when you recognized tropical fruit, so you rarely ever notice it until someone else points it out. Your friend’s comment didn’t trick you into perceiving something you otherwise never would have. Still, it allowed you to revisit the wine and pay closer attention to its subtle nuances while combing your mental catalogue for relevant reference points.
3. You didn’t get the passion fruit before your friend’s comment, and you don’t entirely get it now, but maybe you’ve convinced yourself that your friend has an excellent palate and is more likely than you are to be “correct,” so you’re straining as hard as you can to convince yourself that you can see what they’re seeing. It’s human nature to second guess ourselves, and the social stigmas surrounding wine can significantly exacerbate those insecurities.
4. You don’t get it now. Not even a little bit. But you really want to impress your friend, so you say you do.
Ideally, you wouldn’t choose option four. Taste is highly subjective, and there is never a right or wrong answer—even if a wine contains verifiable components that contribute to its flavor profile, like the lactic acid that gives many Chardonnays their buttery taste, or the terpene linalool, found in aromatic white grapes like Riesling and Muscat, that lends a rosy perfume. Individual perception varies significantly based on several factors.
Biologically speaking, different people have different thresholds for different scents and tastes, which can explain why those who are especially sensitive to the sensation of sweetness find cake, cookies, and ice cream sickeningly cloying. At the same time, their sweet-toothed friends say, “great—more dessert for me!” Likewise, while your friend always picks up on passion fruit immediately, perhaps they consistently miss the notes of mango that reliably jump right out of your glass.
When we smell and taste, we aren’t only using our noses and tongues—just as when we see color, we engage more than just our eyes. The varying wavelengths of light reflecting off the colored objects trigger the neurological process of perceiving color. When we sniff and sip wine, the brain takes cues from the sensory cells on our tongue and the olfactory bulb in our nose. It gets right to work on converting the contents of the glass to a coherent taste analysis based on our memories, expectations, and even our mood.
These factors impact our experience of wine on a given occasion. It explains why someone can fall in love with a wine first tasted during a honeymoon trip to Italy but then be underwhelmed by the very same wine (the second bottle you brought home) after a tough day at work. And if you were anticipating that the second bottle would be just as revelatory as the first, it might compound that effect, as you’ve set your expectations way too high.
Your body chemistry, and subsequently, your palate, are constantly changing in subtle ways that can alter the way you experience wine. When (or what) you’ve eaten, when you last brushed your teeth, whether you’re coming down with a cold, or feeling depressed, whether you had too much to drink, or not enough sleep—each one plays a part. Even your saliva gets involved—it contains compounds that dilute and interact with the wine in your mouth and create brand new compounds. Saliva varies from person to person in its composition and quantity, making your experience of any given wine slightly different than anyone else’s.
There’s also experience itself to consider—was your oenophile friend raised in Brazil? Did that person grow up enjoying passion fruit for breakfast every morning, while your childhood in Alaska meant you only tasted it once or twice on vacation? The more we’ve encountered a fruit, a spice, an herb, or a flower, the more likely we are to recognize it when it shows up in a wine.
None of us is entirely immune to the power of suggestion, but when we feel ourselves being influenced by another taster’s opinion, it’s helpful to acknowledge it and make an effort to understand where it’s coming from. In the first hypothetical scenario, it may be that you need to work on fortifying your mental catalogue of scents and flavors by going out into the world and familiarizing yourself with the ones you struggle to identify. In the second scenario, using a tool like an aroma wheel can be a great aid in simply remembering the possible descriptors that exist.
In the third, a combination of the two can be useful, but, more importantly, you’ll want to work on trusting your instincts and remembering the high degree of subjectivity and personal variance involved in the perception of wine. In wine education, tasting groups—blind or otherwise—are an invaluable study tool and a great way to spot gaps in your tasting threshold (which we all have) while sharing your unique insights with others to help fill their gaps.
Often a debate will spring up about whether that note in the Syrah is black pepper or white, or whether the Chenin Blanc tastes like beeswax or lanolin. But at the end of the day, as long as your analysis is thoughtful and thorough, these tiny nuances are largely irrelevant. On an exam, you’ll never get dinged for writing “blackberry” instead of “boysenberry,” but you would certainly lose points for using either of those as a descriptor for a Pinot Grigio. And when you’re sipping wine with your friends, the only impact of this slight variability in perception, if any, should be a friendly acknowledgment of the differences that make us each unique.