I have asserted for years that just as there is a terroir for wine, there is a terroir of wine tasting as well. Now just because I feel or believe something to be true doesn’t make it true, so I'm going to prove it to you with facts and science.
First, what is terroir? Terroir has been defined in many different ways by many different people. I have seen it described as everything from the most important element of wine making to the epitome of bullshit. For the sake of our discussion let’s use Webster’s definition which states that terroir is “the combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character”. When I break this definition down it has three components. First, that terroir is a combination of factors. Second, that there are some defined core components of terroir. Third, that these terroir elements creates the distinctive character.
I believe the elements of wine tasting meets the all the elements of terroir we outlined above. First, when we taste a wine there are a combination of factors. Second, there are core components involved anytime we are wine tasting. These include the wine, the location, and the company. Lastly, these components will define the tasting experience. Based on this I believe we can say by definition, wine tasting has terroir. What I like to call a tasting terroir.
In 2015 Mark Matthews, a professor of viticulture at the University of California at Davis wrote a book titled Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing . In his book Mark discusses and attempts to debunk many elements of winemaking that cannot be backed by hard science and data. I respectfully do not ascribe the Professor’s assertions. While winemaking relies heavily on science, great winemaking needs so much more than just a laboratory. There is a reason we hear people speak of the art of winemaking. In many cases the sum of a thing is more than its parts, so it is in winemaking as well.
If you believe that the concept of the terroir of wine is closer to “the most important element of wine making” than the other end of the scale, aka “bullshit”, then most likely you also believe that all the elements that create the taste associated with a terroir cannot be scientifically measured or empirically proved. Two bunches of grapes from diverse areas may have the same brix, the same PH, as well as the same totally acidity.
A winemaker may process them exactly the same, but based on when and where those little grape clusters grew, the wine will taste different. So what are these intangible and unmeasurable items that make up wine terroir? Is it the minerals, the soil bacteria, magic, feng shui? Well, I have no idea. I have no idea, but unlike Professor Matthews I believe and have faith they exist. My faith along with my observations and experience reinforce this belief. This same faith tells me that these same types of intangibles exists for the wine tasting terroir as well.
Faith is all well and good, but can technology help us in identifying these unique terroir compounds? Maybe. A nose by any other name would smell as sweet… Yes, you read that right, I said nose. There are now electronic noses and electronic tongues that can identify various chemical compounds in wine. Simply put in layman’s terms, an electronic noses and electronic tongues contain sensors that can detect specific chemical compounds, but they do not have the ability to smell or taste. There are many studies on the use of these tools in evaluating wine and they include an amazing amount of information on the chemical compounds they can detect. There is a great article entitled Electronic Noses and Tongues in Wine Industry if you want to go deep into the scholarly details of this subject.
Another article entitled Electronic tongue taste-tests wines so you don’t have to describes how a group at the University of South Australia has created an electronic tongue that can accurately determine the age of wine, the type of barrel it came from, and its overall quality. In addition to detecting specific chemical compounds this electronic tongue can analyze the overall combination of chemicals, simulating human tasting. In a study including 52 red wines from the Catalonia region of Spain, the chemical fingerprint of each wine was matched to specific sommeliers’ score of the wine. This created a model that can predict the taste perception of the sommelier. I said maybe technology can help us understand these terroir elements because while it is on the right track, currently it can only match a human’s taste to a chemical signature, not taste and have an opinion on its own.
In the article, Heather Smyth a flavor chemist and sensory scientist at the University of Queensland, Australia said that it is unlikely that an electronic tongues will ever be able to perfectly replicate human taste. “The human senses – smell, taste, touch, sound, and sight – all work together in a very complex way to deliver messages to our brain about the qualities of food and beverages we consume,” she says. “Emotion, psychology, past memories and experiences all influence these perceptions and contribute to our perception of flavor – no instrument can possibly replace that.”
I have just opened a bottle of wine, please join me and pour a glass of wine for yourself. What did you open? A bottle or box? A red or a white? Sparkling or not? All of these are elements of our tasting terroir. Do you believe you would feel different opening a hundred dollar bottle from Napa than you would feel opening a bottle of 2 buck chuck? I know I would. And do you think how you feel about a wine could affect how that wine tastes to you? I know I do, I believe Heather Smyth agrees, and there are others that not only feel the same way I do, but they have also done scientific studies to prove it.
In an article written by Amber Williams for Popular Science in 2014 titled 7 Factors That Change Your Sense Of Taste , 7 external factors were identified that are known to affect taste. Language, utensils, temperature, color, environment, expectations, and memory. These seem to match the elements Heather Smyth mentioned that influence the perception of flavor.
Language. People will believe food with more descriptive names taste better. I’m sure people believe any wine with the word Chateau in its name tastes better than any wine named table wine. If the wine with the Chateau label is in French, bonus points, and it will tastes even better.
Utensils. There are many examples of how specific wine glasses can enhance the taste of wine. I know my Riedel Sommeliers Burgundy Grand Cru glass can make a huge difference in the taste of wine from bargain basement Tuesday night sippers to a high end handcrafted bottle.
Temperature. The temperature of a drink can affect its taste. A wine may taste different warm than it will if it is served colder. There is a reason there are recommended temperatures for different wines.
Color. The color of drinking glasses has been shown to make people believe that a drink is colder than it is. As it relates to wine, the color of the wine can affect the taste and a colored glass hiding that color can really makes a difference.
Environment. The sounds and smells in an area have been shown to change the way we describe how something tastes. I know I have found that a wine tastes different in a wine cave than it will taste in a Total Wine store.
Expectations. If you are made aware that the wine you are tasting is a reserve wine or that it has scored 100 points, you may believe it tastes better than a standard or retail wine from the same producer.
Memory. Associating a taste to a pleasurable memory will make the taste experience more enjoyable. I think this is a big element of the tasting terroir. I read an article recently that really reinforces and highlights this.
That article was in the Drinks business written by Lucy Shaw , molecular chef Heston Blumenthal reveals that he has a trick to make any wine taste better. Chef Blumenthal states the way to make any wine taste better is to picture someone you love dearly while sipping your wine. He goes on to say that you can confirm this by retasting the wine while thinking of someone you actively dislike. Chef Blumenthal believes the taste difference should be very noticeable and that this difference in taste is due to a link between memory and taste. I wasn’t able to reproduce his belief by thinking of people, loved or hated. However, replacing thinking about people with thinking about places that I associate with wine that I love and don’t love as much, did have the described effect. I don’t know if this proves Chef Blumenthal’s belief in taste and memory or is simply a warning sign that I may like wine better than people, either way it is another intangible that reinforces my belief in the tasting terroir and that thought and memory can effect taste.
These effects don’t just affect casual wine drinkers. There is a study by Qian (Janice) Wang and Charles Spence titled Assessing the influence of music on wine perception among wine professionals.
This study built on previous studies that have demonstrated that music can significantly influence the eating and drinking experience. The added element in this study was using very experienced wine tasters. If you are a data nerd like I am you can read the paper to understand all the nuances of the studies. In short, there were 2 studies done. The first showed wine professionals rated the wines as sweeter while listening to the sweet soundtrack compared to the sour soundtrack. The second study showed that the soundtracks influenced wine evaluation significantly in terms of body, balance, length, and wine liking. Ironically the least liked music was associated with the preferred wine tasting experience. Based on this study I believe we can say that what you hear can affect your taste.
I first experienced this phenomenon myself when I was wine tasting with my wife and some friends in Sonoma. I’m sure there are some “wine colored glasses” involved in my look back at the memories of that day, but it was a perfect day. Great company, elegant tasting room, perfect fall weather, gorgeous views, and I seem to recall some light jazz playing while tasting some amazing wines. Perfect. So perfect in fact I became a wine club member. I remain a wine club member of theirs to this day, so my love of their wine wasn’t totally effected by the tasting terroir, but it also doesn’t disprove that the effect exists.
I hope I have been able to make you believe that there is a wine tasting terroir. More than just making you believe in its existence, I hope I have proved to you both emotionally and scientifically that a tasting terroir does exist. Lastly, I hope you use this knowledge to enhance your wine tasting experiences t the wineries, and in your own home.