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Taste Of Wine – Engineering Approach

November 13, 2010 17 comments

You might be baffled by the title of this post, but I promise to explain. I even expect that it will make sense in the end and will not be boring. No, this post will not be talking about kinds of machinery necessary to properly taste wine.  Wine, in its seeming simplicity, has a mystic aura surrounding it. Perceived taste of wine is definitely one of the areas where mystery of wine unfolds – and this is what I want to discuss.

Quite frankly, blog post by W. Blake Gray “Why expensive wines taste better: Psychology 101” prompted me to think about subject of taste of wine, and the factors which affect the perceived taste. Being a computer engineer by education, I like to use an orderly approach when a phenomena needs to be analyzed. But wine has nothing to do with computer engineering you contend? True, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t use some interesting tools to put the thoughts in order. As a side note, I want to mention that I have experience successfully using engineer approach in totally non-engineering subjects – in college, together with my friend Alexander (Sasha) we converted whole semester course of philosophy into block-charts, one night before exam. It worked!

Please relax – there will be no block-charts or algorithms in this post. For putting the thoughts in order I would like to use tool from the Mind Mapping category, called FreeMind – you can find it on internet, and if not – send me a message and I will help. This tool allows you to put your thoughts in order, and then do the analysis. How? Let’s see. So here is the group of factors which affect the perceived taste of wine (good/bad, tasty/disguising and so on): Organoleptic (smell, color, taste and so on), Tools which can alter the taste, Expectations and Environment – note, that these are only my thoughts, though. Here is the same – but in the format of the mind map:

What are this “Expectations”, or what does “Environment” means, and do I include screwdriver into the “Tools” and why, you may ask? Let’s add one more level of details and then talk about it. So here is the expanded picture:


Now, there is a lot more we can talk about. Let’s start with expectations. There is a lot of factors which might influence our opinion about the wine by setting our expectations prior to opening the bottle. Do Ratings affect perceived taste of wine? You bet! “Robert Parker gave this wine 97 rating, I’m sure it should taste amazing”. “This wine is rated at 95 by Wine Spectator – I’m sure it will taste great!”. And then it does not – for you personally, it doesn’t. And there is nothing wrong with you – may be you are just in bad mood, or may be this magnificent Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley simply doesn’t work well with Chinese sweet and sour chicken, or may be this is just not the wine you like. Those critics who rated the wine 95 points have to be objective ( this is their job), but you, consumer, don’t have to – like/don’t like is the best rating (we will discuss this in the future).

Where the wine was made (“I love the wines from Napa”, “German wines are the best in the world”…), who made it (“ahh, it is Petrus”, “oh my, this wine is made by Screaming Eagle”) and the price (“I paid $100 for this bottle!”, “yeah, I only paid $10 for this bottle”) – all will (or at least, might) influence the perceived taste. Do other people opinions affect our expectations? Absolutely. What about books, articles and advertisements? Yep, most definitely. However, it is very important to note that the more you learn about wines, and by learning I mostly mean trying different styles of wines coming from different regions, the less “affecting” these factors become.

Will the temperature affect the taste of wine? Of course. Will proper (or improper) decanting affect taste of wine – yes, in many cases. Some of the factors, such as decanting, might affect the taste in the two different ways – one is simply aesthetics, with the expectations are set with the sheer “wow” factor of the proper decanting, and another one is a physical effect, by allowing the wine to “breathe” , open up to reach the optimum flavor profile (yes, there is more to the decanting, but this is not what this post is all about).

We can go and discuss the factors one by one for a long time – it will make this post very long – and probably equally boring. But as we have an advantage of playing with the mind map, let me simply give you more food for thought – here is fully expanded version of this mind map. Remember, it is just a momentary snapshot of your thought process, and it is as fluid as thoughts themselves:

Before we conclude, I would like to touch on of the important factors which is hiding there in the “Environment” group – blind wine tasting. Of course there are different levels of “blindness”. When you taste the wines as part of the Master Sommelier exams, you have no information about the wine, outside of what you can see, smell and taste. In many other cases, you know only a small piece of information – for instance, tasting the wines during the Windows of the World Wine School classes, we knew the region (Bordeaux, California…), but nothing beyond that. Why it is important to taste the wine blind? It eliminates most of the influencing factors which get in the way of you establishing very simple relationship with the glass of wine you have in your hand – I like it, or I don’t.

Well, I think it is enough for this post. I would love to hear from you – was it boring, was it interesting, am I totally off in my thought process. If you want more information on the mind mapping – I will be glad to send you links. If you want the mind map file for the Taste of Wine – drop me a note, I will be glad to send it to you. And most importantly, tell me your wine tasting stories – and keep learning about the wines!

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