Wine tasting: How to master the art of the sniff test

The wine expert gently lowers her nose into the glass, closes her eyes and takes a slow, thoughtful sniff.

“Ah,” she says, smiling. “Apple. A hint of wax. Some lemon.”

Another sniff, another smile.

“And … the beginnings of some secondary characters. Toast. Freshly buttered. Rich but savoury. Lovely now, but should age well for a few years yet.”

The normal person sitting across the table looks at the wine expert, looks at the wine in his glass, sniffs at it, looks at the expert again and says, “Just smells like wine to me,” before taking a big gulp.

Wine tasting is easy to lampoon. To the layperson – to the many millions of people around the world who just drink wine because it tastes nice and makes them feel good – all the flowery descriptors that the professionals use can seem far-fetched at best and downright ludicrous at worst.

Different tastes

So what’s going on here? How can two people smell and taste the same wine and have such widely divergent experiences? The wine doesn’t change: it’s the same collection of aromatic molecules being sucked into the nostrils of each person when they take a sniff; the same jumble of taste compounds flowing across the tongue of each person when they take a sip. How can the flavour be perceived so differently?

Professor Barry Smith is director of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, and the founding director of its Centre for the Study of the Senses. He has written and lectured extensively on this topic.

On a recent visit to the Wine Innovation Cluster at the University of Adelaide, Smith gave a talk entitled “Why wine tasting is harder than you think”.

“Can experts taste things that everyday drinkers can’t?” he asked his audience. “Do they have more acute perceptual capacities? There’s lots of evidence that actually there isn’t much difference.”

Smith says when novices and experts are given the same wines, blind, and asked to group them according to how similar or different they taste, people perform the task at a relatively similar level.

The key, he says, is that the expert brings knowledge and experience to the tasting and, by paying attention to the sensory stimuli, is able to interpret it and extract useful information – such as identifying the grape variety, assessing the wine’s maturity, and so on.

Sporting knowledge

He explains this using a football analogy.

“You could be someone who knows nothing about football,” he says. “You go into a bar and it’s the last few minutes of a game on the TV, and you see a player score a goal and you just think: I’ve just seen some activity.

 “But if you know about the game, and you know it’s a final, and you know one side is losing, and you know that this is the remaining five minutes and that everything rests on this, you will see something different. You will get more information [than the person who knows nothing about the game] from what’s been given to you – even though visually what you’re seeing is the same.”

Of course, it takes time and lots of experience to build up that knowledge and to develop a vocabulary to express it. And this is something many novice wine drinkers find intimidating. They feel bamboozled by the jargon, and lack confidence in their abilities to identify what they taste.

One way to demonstrate that people are more tapped into their senses than they realise, says Smith, is by making them think about the sound of wine.

Fizzy drinks

During his talk, he played short recordings of three different fizzy liquids being poured into a glass. One was soda water, one champagne and one prosecco. Could the audience pick the difference? Surprisingly, yes. There was some disagreement over which was the champagne and which the prosecco – but unanimous agreement over which was the soda.

“When you ask people [before the exercise] if they think they can do it their confidence is very low,” Smith says. “Then you play them the sounds and they judge correctly and they have very high confidence.”

This is a good example, he says, of how our brains take in far more information than we realise. Once we are made aware of that vast store of data, we are more confident about using it to help us make sense of new experiences.

But there is still the problem of the ludicrous descriptors wine professionals (like me) use. Surely there must be another way for what Smith calls “social drinkers” to communicate what they’re tasting, to help them become more interested in the tasting experience?

Turns out there is. By using Play-Doh. Seriously.

Shaping experience

“We had a wonderful experience at Tate Modern,” Smith says. “We were given four days to take the public through a series of experiments on tasting. I was looking at tasting shapes … we asked people to taste a white wine and a red wine, and then with their hands to describe the shape the wine makes in their mouth.”

Just for fun, Smith and his colleagues also gave people some plasticine and asked them to make those shapes in 3D.

“Something really interesting came out of that,” he says. “We found that even though people weren’t looking at each other, they were breaking down into groups … if they were similar to people with their red shape they were similar to people with their white.”

In other words, how we perceive the flavour of wine may be hard to express verbally but is easier to represent visually – and in a manner that other people who taste in a similar way to us can understand.

Smith thinks this might be very useful in training wine tasters: if the trainers can match what they know about a wine – its chemistry, its physical properties – to generalisations about how people experience the shape of that wine in their mouth, it can help the tasters’ confidence and concentration.

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