My job has been for years to train people to use their five senses in order to analyze their perceptions when tasting a food product or a beverage, including wine! That's what sensory scientists do! These trainees (or panelists in our jargon) did not have exceptional sensory skills, they mostly had an interest in wine and the desire to learn how to perceive better all the flavors that create the complexity of an enjoyable wine. Let me share this experience with you.
Sensory analysis versus wine appreciation
First of all it is important to recognize that sensory evaluation of wine obeys to different rules and principles than wine appreciation, classically taught by wine educators around the world. I often describe sensory analysis as the analytical tasting and wine appreciation as the technical tasting. The first one enables the taster to break down his or her perceptions and share them objectively, i.e. without their personal bias of liking or not the product at hand. The second one leads the taster to assess the “quality of the wine” by judging their perceptions in relation to the potential sources, i.e. the grapes, the winemaking or even the soil where the grapes were cultivated. Eventually, the evaluation becomes highly intertwined with the tasters own likes and dislikes.
Can you see the differences between the two concepts?
Photos below illustrates the setting for an analytical tasting (left) and a wine appreciation tasting (right).
To become an analytical taster, one has to understand how wine perceptions are evoked through the five senses and what are the biases, aka tasting errors, that may affect them. This section gives an overview of how your five senses work and how we can train them to become more acute, hence how to become a more sensitive wine taster.
Five senses to maximize our wine tasting experience
Wine is made of 70% to 90% of water, 10 to 20% of alcohol, and the rest is made of various nutrients and compounds imparting color, aroma, taste and texture. Therefore the main senses involved in wine tasting are the vision, the olfaction, the gustation and trigeminal perceptions, the latter is often described as wine mouthfeel.
What about audition? This sense is quite important in the experience of drinking wine, not so much its analytical tasting. The sound of a popping cork is always pleasing to the ear.
How does a sensation becomes a perception?
Well, we don't want to become too technical here. Let's summarize the chain of events:
A sensation is created by a stimulus (a color, an aroma, a taste) and is perceived via some receptors that are specific and located in specialized organ structures. These receptors are cells that translate a sensation into a perception by creating an electric signal that will be conducted to higher regions in the nervous central system, your brain. There, the signal is decoded and may remain unnoticed by the taster if the stimulation is not strong enough. If it is noticed then the taster compares subconsciously the perception with the ones encoded in his/her memory to be able to react to the stimulation. These events happen quickly, fast enough so that you can react quickly; for example, if you placed your hand accidentally on a hot plate, you can remove it and don't get burned!
The five senses are categorized in two groups: the physical senses and the chemical senses. This categorization is determined by the nature of the sensation (or stimulus) stimulating the receptors that will evoke the perception.
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