O taste and see all that lives to the imagination’s tongue.
We live in two dimensions at once. The first is subjective—immediate and non-conceptual—and from this essential ground arises our objective world. Thus, in tasting, we begin with a concentrated focus of subjective sensory awareness on the palate—the nose, tongue and mouth—while intentionally bracketing, or placing in abeyance the objective or conceptual response. Following this, the conceptual or intellectual response cognizes a description of the pure sensory experience and communicates it through the gloss of wine evaluation. These two apparently separate dimensions of reality, and of the organoleptic evaluation process are, at the deepest or subtlest experiential level enfolded in a prior unity. Thus, the two occur spontaneously and simultaneously at the instant of an initial sensory impression. Then, there is an apparent unfolding of this sensory process in real time as the objective world of evaluation arises from its perfectly subjective source.
Experience is evolutionary. Change is constant. Our experiences have a beginning, middle and end. In tasting, “attack” is the initial sensory impression upon the mouth and orthonasal passage. “Evolution,” or middle palate, is the sensory response to mouth aromas in the retronasal passage and to touch, the wine’s tactile, taste and olfactory components. These include fruit, tannins, acidity, alcohol, extract, sweetness, glycerol, and complexity of flavors as they fan out and develop in the mouth and nose. “Finish” is the aftertaste of these components as they linger for seconds or even minutes in the mouth and retronasal passage. Then analysis, the mental and emotional interpretation of the experience unpacks it, and gives it personal meaning which may or not be communicated verbally.
The palate, our physical organoleptic apparatus, is a function of three sensory responses—taste, smell and touch—as well as an interpretive synthesis, the Synthetic Response. There are just four basic tastes—sweet, sour, bitter and salt. (Prove this to yourself by tasting anything at all while holding your nose.) Sweetness is detected toward the front of the tongue, sourness on the sides of the tongue, and bitterness at the rear of the tongue. All of the other nuances of taste are accomplished by the olfactory sense and the tactile/texture sense, our sense of touch. So taste, our organoleptic response = taste + smell + touch. Taste/flavor is reducible to smell/aroma plus texture/mouthfeel.
Thus the sensory complex that is the taste of a wine involves these Three Sensory Responses:
1. Olfactory: response to aromatics (the volatile esters and aldehydes);
2. The Four Basic Tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salt;
3. Tactile: the texture, or mouthfeel of astringency, alcohol, heat, velvety, smoothness, the prick of sulfur.
Then there is a fourth response, the Synthetic Response that is the cognitive/emotive synthesis of the previous three facilitating conceptual analysis and qualitative evaluation.
So the process of taste is multifactorial involving our complex sensory response to a wine’s aromatics, structure (the architecture of fruit, tannin, alcohol, extract, acidity and sweetness) and texture—the touch/mouthfeel of these structural components. Ideal response occurs at 60°/65° F.
We have seen that the purity of the tasting experience at the subjective level needs no objective analysis. It is pure, uncontrived, non-dual sensory experience given directly, as it is. This is the satori of the Zen of Tasting or of any experience—pure sensory enjoyment—prior to its emergence into the world of objective description and analysis. Alas, when holistically viewed, descriptive interpretation and explanation, while separating us from the immediate beauty of the direct experience, are necessary to complete the process. As human beings we have an essential need to communicate and share our intersubjective experience. Therefore, without further lamentation, we shall continue our systematic objectification and deconstruction of an essentially subjective process.
Now that we have unabashedly objectified the purity of subjectivity that is the gift of the grape, we shall add further injury by quantifying its wondrous qualities.
Analysis is not tasting. The psychometric difficulties inherent in the objectification and quantification of subjective experience are legend. Yet evaluate we must. As to wine, professional or highly evolved palates (usually embodied in actual wine tasters) will agree upon a numerical value of a given wine’s properties and overall quality rating at a high degree of statistical confidence. Panels of such tasters frequently differ no more than ½ point on a 20-point scale, and one to two points on a 100-point scale. The 20-point scales of U.C. Davis, Christies, IANO, AWS and the 100-point scales of Robert Parker and of the Wine Spectator will rate a given wine as shown in the Evaluation Form, below.
We’ve seen that organoleptic evaluation is the process of objectifying what a wine gives to the sense organs, but also to the heart. We have considered the senses of smell, taste and touch. But what of sight? What does the wine give to the eye? Besides beauty, much is revealed about a wine’s age, alcohol, sweetness, body, concentration, region, varietal type and filtering by its visual appearance. There are four visual components: clarity, hue (color), saturation (intensity and depth of color), and viscosity (thickness, visual weight).
•Clarity (limpidity) reveals quality data in that the winemaker may have chosen to lightly fine or filter, or not to fine and filter, indicating concentration and aging potential, but also the potential for malodorous microbiological odors.
•Hue or color reveals information on a grape variety type, region, body and concentration (extract).
•Saturation is seen in the glass at the meniscus, where wine meets glass, and reveals age (both red and white wines brown with age), body, concentration, variety type and even region.
•Viscosity reveals body as alcohol and/or sugar. When swirled in the glass, a sweet dessert wine or a dry ripe high-alcohol wine forms legs or tears as it streams down the column of the glass. This is caused by the viscosity or surface tension of the wine interacting with the interfacial tension between the wine and glass.
Now let’s put it all together.
Pour an ounce of a good wine into a wine glass. (Life is too brief to drink bad wine.) Always hold the glass by the stem. Now hold the glass at a 45° angle to a white napkin or white table cloth. View the meniscus against this white background. See what the wine gives to the eye. Amber color at the meniscus indicates degrees of age. Now swirl the wine and observe its viscosity—its legs or tears. Swirl it again to liberate its volatile elements—the aroma and perhaps bouquet, then place your nose into the glass. Smell what the wine immediately gives to the nose. (Note that one nostril is dominant.)
Now smell again and observe what arises. What things do you smell? Now taste the wine and roll it over your entire palate. Breathe, chew a little, and taste—but do not swallow. Now “trill” the wine to aerate and vaporize it in your mouth and involve the retronasal passage. Breathe, taste, and swallow or spit. As the wine finishes, breathe and taste but don’t think, speak, or write. Relax, experience and enjoy the purity and openness of this timeless moment of union of our two dimensions—subjective and objective—prior to any conceptual limit.
Let the wine speak. Now, what things do you dream in wine?