Sunday, March 16, 2008

Questions of Taste

Motion Picture & Television Photo ArchiveTaste noun

1. The sense that distinguishes the sweet, sour, salty, and bitter qualities of dissolved substances in contact with the taste buds on the tongue. 2. A personal preference or liking: a taste for adventure. 3. The faculty of discerning what is aesthetically excellent or appropriate.

I had been pondering the subject of taste as it relates to wine enjoyment and enthusiasm lately. Then, just today, I read a very good article titled Scents and Sensibility in the New Yorker that completely summed up and clarified this whole topic of taste for me. The author John Lancaster, illustrates why taste descriptions vary so widely, and more importantly, why that's perfectly ok. For one thing, taste is difficult to verbalize except by equating it to another known taste. So, someone who has experienced a similar taste in the past is better equipped to describe it later when they run into it again. Please, when you are done here go and read this article...

Les Triplettes de BellevilleScent Memory?
I recently tasted a South American Syrah that smelled exactly like someone ELSE’S grandma. In other words, it smelled like foreign grandma, which is to say, completely unfamiliar. When it comes to grandmas, familiarity is a desirable quality, therefore, this wine was quite unappealing to me. Have I ever smelled ‘unfamiliar grandma’? Perhaps, though I can’t say for sure—it was unfamiliar.

Romanticism vs. Science?
In his article, Lancaster quotes examples of “Romantic” tasting notes from Brideshead Revisited along with quotes from the pragmatic UC Davis professors Amerine and Roessler who seemed to be of the opinion that taste should be 100% quantifiable. To what end, I can’t be sure. Clearly, they are not tasting wine for enjoyment (granted UC Davis professors wouldn’t be sipping wine for enjoyment on the job). Evidently, the goal of this is to enable clear communication between wine producers and consumers as to what flavors will be found in the wine.

Yes…Do you have anything that tastes like The Last Unicorn? No? Ok, just give me a blueberry & cranberry with subtle vanilla notes--heavy on the blueberry and animali--with a finish of Ecuadorian dark chocolate (86% cacao), a wisp of smoke and a soupçon of cardamom...oh, and hold the brett, please.

Wine Tasters A group of men tasting wine in a cellar. Original Artwork: Lithograph by Jacott from a painting by JP Hasenclever (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) -- Image Date: 01/01/1800
From Scents & Sensibility

A trained nose can become very, very good at isolating these sensory experiences and matching them with the relevant molecules. Theoretically, every known odorant molecule could have an agreed descriptor. The descriptor wouldn't need to be in words: it could be a number, so that the wintergreen scent of methyl salicylate would be 172, say, and the garlicky odor of allicin would be 402. That would be the beginnings of a fully scientific language of taste - a joyless, inhuman prospect.

Lancaster also borrows some amusing quotes from a perfume critic which are wonderfully descriptive and I think, much more useful then a list of molecules--but, hey, that's me. So, what do you say? Is it time we 'agree to disagree' when it comes to taste?


Farley said...

Funny how 'taste' can be both an ability and a preference, as well as a state of perception. I think we all ponder these concepts, but thanks for putting this take on the issue out there.

And for the idea of 'unfamiliar grandma' linked to a shot from a great movie.


Taster B said...

"Les Triplettes de Belleville" is one of the great, odd animated films of all time--and it's a pretty good visual representation of the wine I described. :)
I hope one of these days to taste some wine that tastes just like "Howl's Moving Castle" so I can use that in a post.