Blind Tasting, Books, Research, sensory science, SOMM Journal, Wine, wine faults
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Thickheaded Somms: Examining the neuroscience behind expert wine tasting

Among our many activities, wine professionals devote a considerable amount of time to perception, the state of being where we become aware of something through the senses.  According to Neuroenology author Gordon Shepard, wine tasting engages more of our brain than activities like complex math and listening to classical music. Given that activation is how we learn things and sharpen our cognitive skills, it’s no wonder that tasters who spend hours every day activating the neural systems involved in perception make something as difficult as blind tasting look so easy.

Shepherd, a Professor of Neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine, is primarily focused on biomechanics and how the physical act of tasting wine informs our perceptions. His perspective is the flip side of the focus most tasters place on the factors that influence the quality and style of a wine. His work has inspired several columns that have appeared here on the perception of color and how our brains create perceptions of aroma and taste. Anecdotally, I’ve seen firsthand that even a basic understanding of the mechanics of sensory physiology gives students an advantage as they learn to taste analytically and to work more objectively. 

In my own work with a group of adult wine enthusiasts — many of whom have had formal wine education and hold trade certifications — it’s the study of wine faults that opened the doors to a far greater understanding of wine quality and to the molecular world of volatile aromas. Researchers agree that individuals who are adept at naming wine flavor descriptors are better at visualizing and recalling the memories of aromas which, in turn, makes it possible to recognize wines they have tasted previously. Because wine’s distinct taste relies in a large part on volatile aroma compounds and not on molecules that provide nutrition, Shepherd posits that it’s possible for wine drinkers to concentrate exclusively on perceptual details of flavor.

Meanwhile, in a recent study that compared Master Sommeliers’ brains to those of a control group, researchers found that the sommeliers had a “thicker” sensory area. The sommeliers’ brains showed “specialization” in the olfactory and memory networks and these differences suggest that sensory training might result in enhancements in the brain well into adulthood.

When it comes to expanding your perception of wine faults, Jaime Goode’s book Flawless: Understanding Wine Faults is an excellent reference.  One of the most challenging aspects of studying the processes that ruin wine is bridging the world of academic research with the firsthand experiences of winemakers. This is something Goode does very effectively when discussing the complex topics of sulfur and oxidation. Flawless is one of the textbooks I require for the college wine faults classes I’m currently teaching and students like those mentioned above are finding it particularly helpful.  

The 19th-century English artist William Blake wrote “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”  (Fittingly, Blake’s feelings about mankind’s limited perception of the reality inspired another author, Aldous Huxley, to explore altered consciousness in his book The Doors of Perception.) Throughout history, however, wine’s effect on perception has been most closely tied to a phrase in Latin, in vino veritas, “in wine lies the truth.” Expert or not, most tasters are inclined to agree.

See pdf here –

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