How to improve your wine-tasting ability

Author: Max Allen

Drinking wine is more than a matter of taste, writes Max Allen, so put on some tunes and fill a fancy glass.

Spend more money on wine glasses. Drink lower-alcohol wine. Pay more attention to the playlist at your dinner parties. And breathe out through your nose.

This isn't just a list of random tips on how to improve your wine-tasting ability. These practical lessons have all emerged from recent rigorous research into wine appreciation. Scientists are increasingly focusing their attention and machines-that-go-ping on how the brain perceives flavour, and what they're discovering is enormously useful for us wine lovers: a deeper understanding of the tasting process can help us get more enjoyment out of every wine we drink.

In a paper published in Flavour in March, Yale neurobiologist Gordon Shepherd even coined a word - "neuroenology" - to describe this field of study. In the paper, titled "Neuroenology: how the brain creates the taste of wine", Shepherd argues that wine tasting is a particularly attractive activity for researchers because it involves so many neural mechanisms: sensory, motor, cognitive, emotional, language. Indeed, he claims, "more brain systems are engaged in producing flavour perceptions than in any other human behaviour".

I changed the way I taste wine after reading Shepherd's work, particularly thanks to his focus on retronasal smell. Let me explain. Rather than sniff a wine intently before I take a sip, I now just tip a little wine straight into my mouth and, using the back of my tongue as a kind of bellows, breathe in and out through my nose. This way, the aroma molecules from the liquid are carried up through the retronasal passage at the back of my throat to the olfactory receptors in my nasal cavity - smelling from the inside, if you like - where they combine with the taste signals registering on my tongue to deliver a vivid, three-dimensional "picture" of the wine's flavour to my brain.

Try this technique next time you're tasting wine and you'll see what I'm talking about. And if you don't, try again. And again. Because, according to Dr Alex Russell of the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney, improving your wine-tasting ability requires repeated effort over time.

In the course of PhD research completed last year, Dr Russell discovered that students tended not to learn much during an hour's wine tasting, but if they persisted for an extra half hour they started to improve, and if they stuck at it for four hours, they began to really get somewhere. Which is just common sense, but it sounds so much better coming from a psychologist.

Another example of research contributing to a decidedly unscientific argument came in a paper on wine flavour preferences published in March through the Public Library of Science. Using functional MRI brain scans, a team of scientists showed that tasting red wine with moderate alcohol - about 13 per cent - activated more of the grey matter associated with flavour perception than similar red wine with 15 per cent alcohol. In other words, we pay more attention to, and therefore derive more pleasure from, the tastes of lower-alcohol wines, which supports the many winemakers and critics who claim that high-alcohol wines can be one-dimensional and unsubtle.

In studies at Oxford University's Crossmodal Research Lab, professor of experimental psychology Charles Spence, Heston Blumenthal's longtime scientific collaborator, has found the sound, colour and tactile sensations of the tasting environment - light level, the type of music playing - can also affect how we perceive the flavour of wine. Abrasive music, for instance, can make a wine taste sour, while playing mellow, round, smooth music can enhance it.

Earlier this year, meanwhile, the Royal Society of Chemistry published results of a study that used video-imaging techniques to show how the shape of a wine glass really does influence how we appreciate the flavour of the contents, by releasing different aromas at a different rate at different temperatures. Which lends considerable weight to what those posh wine glass manufacturers have been telling us for years.

Then again, you only need to pick up a good mouth-blown glass and feel its breathtaking lightness, its fine lip and stem to understand how aesthetic and tactile pleasure can enhance the wine-tasting experience.

Just remember, though, once you've taken a sip, concentrate on that retronasal passage and breathe out through your nose. The doctor recommends it.

Illustration Tom Bingham

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