Before I delve into my Old & Rare Show hoard, let’s go back to 2017 when on 6th December 2017, Professor Barry C. Smith presented a lecture titled ‘Why Wine Tasting is Hard‘, as part of the first in a series of wine talks at Plumpton College.
‘Barry C Smith is a professor of philosophy and directs the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. He is also the founding director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses, which pioneers collaborative research between philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists‘ [info]. Barry has appeared on TV & radio on such programmes as Jay Rayner’s ‘The Kitchen Cabinet’ and Masterchief.
Barry thinks fast and talks fast. I jotted down what I could, mainly snapshots/headlines/jists. If any of this piques your interest, you’re best to follow him/buy his book[s].
EXPLORING OUR SENSES
“Sight is sight, right?”. But you need to develop your eye as a photographer or train yourself to read an X-ray scan. Hearing is hearing? Listening to a symphony orchestra and picking out individual instruments or sections requires practise, training and experience. It is no different with taste.
Getting beyond liking or not liking
If you like something, ask yourself ‘why do you like it?’ Ask someone to describe their most memorable meal? Often people will discuss the experience surrounding the meal, the people they were with, what they were wearing, the attentiveness of the staff,… and maybe which dishes were ordered. Seldom do people actually describe those dishes in detail.
What can we taste in a wine? Ask yourself:
- What can you taste in wine?
- What can you taste in wine?
- What can you taste in wine?
Novices are sceptical, thinking wine tasting is a conspiracy shared between connoisseurs. See slide: ‘What are they tasting?
The puzzle with tasting objectivity is:
- If flavours are in wine, why doesn’t everyone taste them?
- Do experts smell & taste flavours that everyday drinkers do not?
- ‘Wine-tasting: it’s junk science’: Guardian
So how do novices & experts fair when tasting blind? In reality, novices can do it but they don’t know when or how they are doing it. Experts feel they know, even though they can still easily hit as well as miss. The main difference is confidence or lack of.
There are plenty of cases of experts getting it all wrong. For a famous example:
- Brochet [a wine maker] ‘,… dyed a white wine red and gave it to 54 oenology (wine science) students. The supposedly expert panel overwhelmingly described the beverage like they would a red wine. They were completely fooled.’ realclearscience.com
Barry tells us of a well-known [un-named] wine expert who analysed some wines blind, scribbled a whole load of notes, finally summarised his findings and guessed the wine. He was way off, down a rabbit hole. However, when he went back to his scribblings, he realised that he had been more accurate at the early stages of deduction than compared to his final conclusions – the moment where his learning, judgements and experiences had kicked in.
How many senses are we using when we smell and taste? Neuroscientists say around 22-33 and counting, and that they are all interacting with each other.
- Tongue – Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, as well as metallic, fatty acids,…. At the time of writing, scientists had discovered between 2-4 more palate centres than the widely accepted 5 [see pic].
- Smell – Receptors that pick up tastes of raspberry & peach, for example, are only found in the nose, not the tongue. This is easily demonstrated by taking the jelly bean test. Eat a jelly bean whilst holding your nose. The palate will detect sweetness. Only by releasing the nose do the fruit notes show. [Loosely related jelly bean article: Identifying jelly beans]
The smell and taste of vanilla gives a sweet response even though vanilla isn’t sweet. It’s akin to liquorice which is also commonly associated with sweetness though we know it isn’t. These are examples of association sensations that are well known to western palates early on thanks to Wall’s [ice cream], and Basset’s [liquorice Allsorts]. Other cultures where vanilla is combined with salty savoury dishes will evoke different associated reactions.
In essence, the brain combines all the active senses and experiences and adds them together [see slide: ‘How multisensory is wine tasting?‘]
More complex notes [smells/tastes] detected in wines lead to increased brain activity. Judgements over complexity are more likely to come from smell than taste. Wine tasting studies performed using MRI scanners show that novices demonstrate greater brain activity compared to experts. This is because the novice has no frame of reference and is firing off all manner of ideas and imaginations about the wine. The expert has pre-conceived, experience-geared ideas and reactions and is whittling down his/her options.
TEXTURE, TOUCH, TEMPERATURE
Texture and touch matters. Apparently, the Japanese have 408 words to describe mouthfeel. English has around 17 – crunchy, sticky, oily,…. for example. I’ll add sharp, ‘smooth’ and slimy.
We are typically conditioned to identify and describe odour from a direct source and textural associations. Vegetables, for example, are hard to read when puréed. ‘Orangey’ is an association with a round orange thing in your hand – looks like an orange, feels like an orange, smells like an orange – is an orange. It’s harder to pick up the smell of orange in a glass vessel. We begin to develop our senses away from direct source odours early on, from experiences with Terry’s Chocolate Orange for example, which is then reinforced with alternatively branded orange chocolate confectionary treats. But even then, the chocolate and packaging often resemble or depict real-life oranges.
Barry then talks rapidly [too rapidly for my brain & note-taking skills], about orthonasal & retronasal olfaction differences – the latter occurring through the nose from the mouth. Further reading:
- ‘Retronasal olfaction is the perception of odors emanating from the oral cavity during eating and drinking, as opposed to orthonasal olfaction, which occurs during sniffing’. jamanetwork
Three experiment result examples:
- Coffee on the nose simply cannot deliver on the palate and despite what barista’s will insist, whilst the nose can pick up many hundreds of orthonasal olfactory notes, you strip around 300 volatiles off your palate when you sip hot coffee.
- Coffee tastes more bitter when cool.
- Cola tastes far sweeter when warm. This is due to the trigeminal component. CO2 [the fizz in cola/beer/sparkling wine] is a trigeminal element. CO2 in Coca Cola suppresses sweetness when cold.
Trigeminal: ‘physical/biological reactions to flavour – onion tears, tannic mouth dryness and chill sweats for example‘ – as I learnt during a tour of the Holyrood distillery [WLP]
The way food is described has an effect on flavour experiences. Heston Blumenthal couldn’t sell his crab icecream. When he renamed it ‘iced crustacean bisque’, it went down a storm. We respond positively or negatively on the strength of our expectation. If you call something ice cream, we expect ice cream based on our perception of what we think icecream is/should be.
Michael Edwards says ‘tastes are based on prior knowledge which leads to great expectations’.
Barry provides an anecdotal example. He [Barry] was well known to a restaurant he frequented. One night the owner offered Barry a glass of champagne on the house. ‘That’s a terrible champagne’ he thought to himself. He took a moment, knowing that there is no way they would palm him off. He recalibrated his thinking and realised they hadn’t served him [inferior] champagne, they had served him a fabulous prosecco.
- theguardian.com ‘Why can the same dish taste fantastic to one person and awful to another? Eating is just about the only thing we do that involves all the senses at once. To comprehend how those senses work, we need to get away from looking at them as operating in isolation from each other – in fact, Dr Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University, has found that not doing so starves us of sensual development‘.
The sound of food
Experiments by Charles Spense & Qian Wang: ‘Sensory expectations elicited by the sounds of opening the packaging and pouring a beverage‘
Some result examples: Virtually everyone could decipher between soda, prosecco and champagne when they were poured from identical vessels into similar identical vessels at the same weight, speed and angle at the same temperature – just by sound alone. Barry said he got the prosecco & champagne mixed up but that the soda seemed obvious. He tells us we can even tell what’s hot or cold from sound alone. Once we’ve learnt to associate a particular sound/frequency with temperature, we are then victim to advertisers who play on our often subconscious observations, using very ‘cold sounding’ frequencies to advertise ice-cold beers or soda during the hotter months.
- Further reading: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s13411-015-0044-y
Whether we are a novice or expert taster, we have all got the same ability to judge smell and taste using an array of different senses that include temperature, texture, descriptions etc., – that is how the brain works. The question is: if we are all high-functioning individuals with ‘amazing powers of observation’ [Pink Floyd], then what is the difference between the novice and the expert?
The brain senses smell & taste in a complex series of multi-sensory levels and then pulls all these observations together. The tricky bit is deconstructing those series of events. Knowledge creates a hypothesises by which we use to confirm or deny, to categorise, to discern, to separate, and to understand.
- ‘Think wine connoisseurship is nonsense? Blind-tasting data suggest otherwise‘: The Economist
Lighting, mood, and sounds [distort perception]
Altitude and white noise [plane engines for example] reduce the brain’s ability to taste salt, sweet etc., by 20-30%. Palate sensations like umami [from say, tomato juice for example], are immune to these external conditions. Therefore, a Bloody Mary is highly recommended whilst flying.
Another wine & music tasting experiment at the South Bank utilised black wine glasses to disguise the colour of the wines in order to eradicate visual bias. Some results included:
- With different music played, the same wines tasted different.
- Softer music made the wine seem sweeter.
- Aggressive electronic music made the wine seem more bitter.
The Zampini and Spence Experiment 
Participants ate crisps whilst listening to various sounds through headphones. Some result of this experiment included:
- Stale crisps taste fresh or fresher if crunchy sounds are played.
- Volume and higher frequency also led to a belief that the crisps being eaten were crispier/fresher.
- Audio–visual simultaneity judgments – Zampini, Guest, Shore & Spence
Our perception of smell & taste is affected by the way volatiles bounce around, how agitated they become, the way liquids are poured or served and in what vessels. In the Charles Spense & Qian Wang experiments [mentioned earlier], Barry is cited:
‘Not only do we hear the sound of the liquid as it comes into contact with the glass or receptacle, we also hear the periodic sound as air makes its way into the bottle to equalize the air pressure. Smith (, p. 53) makes the intriguing suggestion that expensive wines generate a distinctive gentle glugging sound when poured from the bottle‘.
- Guardian article titled ‘Cheap fizz or luxury champagne: can you hear the difference?‘
So, is flavour a psychologic construct?
The slide reads:
Neuroscientific views typically answers yes: ‘…. flavor is in the brain, not the food. It is the brain that integrates the discrete sensory inputs from the food and drink we ingest to create flavor perceptions‘.
Barry objects saying flavour perception is in the brain, yet flavour is in the food.
The most important attribute in developing one’s wine tasting skills, over anything else says Barry, is all about building up one’s confidence. [At time of writing], a current study in London asks ‘are two tasters better than one’. The hypothesis is that pairs should do better than individuals at describing and de-constructing flavours.
Tasting wine at one moment in time, in one environment, gives us only a snapshot of the flavour profile of that particular wine. Ideally, we could taste the same wine in lots of different situations and environments, temperatures, times, seasons [a week later, a year later],…. collecting a multitude of snapshots and mapping a flavour profile over time. Then you may say you have an idea of what something tastes like, and may taste in the future.
Tasting impressions[/notes – see slide] are often a western construct based on western constructs and palates. Sensory experiences from the East would be very different. We are all selective and tasting notes need to be relatable to the audience, but why are many heads are better than one?
As an individual, you may not have the ability to detect certain things. You may not have coded them early on which means certain detectors will be missing. This doesn’t mean you aren’t objective, only selective. [Is this similar to the ear development cut-off point for piano tuners, I ask myself].
The Foz asked about those lacking experience and/or tasting vocabulary and the difficulties/disadvantages that may cause in detecting smells & flavours. Answer: The ability to be discriminating and develop discrimination skills are still possible over identification. Discrimination is maintained in old age whereas identification falls away. For Barry, being discriminative is far more important than identification.
Furthermore, comparisons are key in identifying flavours. Pairs or small groups of tasters did better than individuals because of the ability to pit one idea against another. It’s easier to go down a rabbit hole on your own [i.e. bad champagne/great prosecco]. Groups are more likely to avoid these pitfalls.
As mentioned before, the brain activity of a novice over an expert in a blind tasting is greater because they [the novice], have no imaginative barriers compared to the connoisseur who is not only narrowing things down very quickly, but using prior knowledge to aid them. See slide: What are experts tasting? In this tasting note example, the expert is using their knowledge of the location of the wine to describe the wine.
Even if the describer is off or unreliable, as long as they are discriminating then they are in the ballpark. Novices often get in the ballpark straight away, only lacking the confidence to feel certain/assured of their valid observation[s].
Very briefly, hedonic experiences are distinct from flavour perception against the overall experience, i.e. social/environmental considerations. Again, both the novice and expert has the ability to discriminate between what is environmental and what is wine, but experience and training help this skill no end.
Unfortunately, we had run out of time. Barry swiftly concluded with Martin Yeoman’s [Sussex University] ‘What are the parts of flavour experiences’:
The slide reads: ‘flavour perception is an integration of sensory information with past memory of similar stimuli predicated by visual qualities, and accompanying written descriptor,…
Food for thought!
5 thoughts on “Exploring our Senses: Barry C. Smith”
Impressive work, thank you! It seems to me that every glass of whisky is different – even from the same bottle. Never mind time spent softening or oxidising in the glass or bottle, adding water, tin mug or blenders glass, brands adjusting the age or cask mix. It’s about who you’re with, what you’re doing and why. Slainte.
And that is why my best whisky experience was in an outdoor hot tub with a bottle of champagne in one hand and a Bunnahabhain 12 in the other!