Wine-sensing. This somewhat odd term is what actually happens in ‘wine-tasting’. It is also what makes wine an interesting object to study in terms of taste and the senses while also a challenging one from an ethnographic viewpoint.
My point is simply that the term we all use – wine-tasting – gives priority to one sense, when in fact, tasting wine relies on multiple senses, particularly if you are doing a more analytic tasting, intended to evaluate or compare the wine. But even if you are simply enjoying the wine, multiple senses are involved. In what follows, I’ll be mentioning the steps for doing a formal or analytic tasting of a wine. But I’m not concerned with talking about that particular process. Rather, I want to draw parallels between such a process and just enjoying wine, and underline the multisensory experience of both.
The first thing you notice about a wine when you pour it into a glass is what it looks like. In analytic tasting, you can assess the clarity, get an idea of the age, and even perhaps rule in or out certain grapes based on colour. But even if you don’t care about those things, it is usually hard to avoid seeing the wine, and for some people, the vibrancy of a rosé or the particular hue and intensity of a red can be a source of enjoyment or anticipation itself. Swirl the glass and see how the ‘legs’ run down the side of the glass. That can give you an indication of viscosity, which in turn is linked to alcohol and/or sweetness levels.
Next, at least in formal tasting procedure, is the smell of the wine, or as it is known, the ‘nose’. Once again, you can learn a lot from the aroma, if that is your goal. Is the wine faulty? How old is it? Hints as to the grape. But again, smell is something that can (and should!) simply be enjoyed. Stick your nose into the glass and take a deep whiff. Let it be the centre of attention for a few moments. Savour the aroma of black cherries, or tobacco and old saddle leather.
So: sight and smell. These are relatively straightforward. Taste is different, since this is where different senses come together.
Take a sip of wine. There’s the actual taste, but even here, what we think of as taste is a blend of taste and smell. And in wine, there’s even more to notice. Is the red wine astringent, or seem to dry out your mouth? That’s the tannin. A refreshing, almost zingy sensation in a white? That’s the acidity. Does the wine have a sort of heat or burning sensation? That’s the alcohol levels. But once again, even if you aren’t concerned with these things, most people will notice the mouthfeel of a wine, which is actually what it sounds like – how a wine feels in the mouth. It can be silky, or round or big, or even spikey.
In other words, a large number of senses are deployed when drinking wine. They are all part of the wine-sensing experience, whether for pleasure or business.
It is precisely this blending and overlapping of the senses that makes wine useful as an object of research when thinking about the senses and taste. It is a multi-phased, multi-sensory experience, one that lingers on in the finish. From a sensory perspective, it seems to me that there is more going on in sensing wine than in, say, looking at a painting, or listening to a symphony, no matter how wonderful.
However, the blending and overlapping of the senses is also what makes wine challenging ethnographically. How do you convey this multi-sensory experience in the written word, the standard tool of the academic? This is something I think about a lot, and I don’t have an answer. Julia and I plan a book that will be heavily visual with accompanying – think of an educated coffee-table book, perhaps – which we hope will go part of the way to conveying the many layers to wine. But even this won’t really be enough, I suspect. But we shall keep searching, which, in the end, is part of the intellectual challenge of both research and wine.