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Exploring Wine Perception with Jordi Ballester

Black Wine Glasses for Sensory Deprivation Tastingimage found: http://www.redcandy.co.uk/images/upload/productpics/artland-midnight-black-wine2.jpg

Jordi Ballester, professor at Université de Bourgogne, Dijon, led a special add-on seminar at International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) that happened this weekend in Willamette Valley, Oregon. Ballester has devoted his career to studying the perception of wine, and the cognitive processes behind it. The session highlighted the intimate influence of visual cues on our experience of aroma and flavor.

To open the session, attendees were presented with the following task. We were to smell the liquids in each of three black wine glasses (thus removing any visual cues for the liquid themselves) and then vote on whether or not each of the three liquids was a white wine, a red wine, or a rosé using only the aroma of the liquids (no tasting).

The black glass tasting we participated in was purposefully designed to remove the advantages or influences of our other senses, and make us focus only on our sense of smell. In previous studies, Ballester explained, it was found that both wine experts and novices judgments of wine are influenced by the appearance of the wine they are tasting.

It has been shown in studies that adding scentless red food coloring to a white wine will radically change the descriptors used by a panel of wine tasters (“The Color of Odor” Morrot et al 2001). In 2001, a study was done with a panel of 54 enology students tasting wine that they then had to describe. The first flight gave them all the same white wine. The panel members’ descriptors tended to hover around notes like lime, pineapple, and pear. The exact same white wine, except with the odorless red color added, was then served to them for the second flight. In that case, the exact same panel described the wine with descriptors like strawberry, or blackberry. In other words, when the wine looked like a white wine, hallmark white wine descriptors were used. When the wine looked like a red wine, classic red wine descriptors were given.

With such a study in mind, Ballester asked us to identify the color-type of the three wines just based on aroma. In our group of 49 participants the wines were largely identified correctly. Wine 1: 6 voted white, 35 voted red, 8 voted rosé. The wine was a Crowley 2012 Pinot Noir. Wine 2: 28 voted white, 13 voted red, 8 voted rosé. It was a Wooing Tree 2012 Chardonnay. Wine 3: 15 voted white, 5 red, 32 rosé. It was a R. Stuart & Co 2013 Big Five Dry Rosé. In formal studies, it has been shown that wine experts tend to succeed at such a task, predominately guessing the correct wine color-type based on aroma alone.

Ballester used this exercise to explain two types of cognitive processing that relate to wine tasting — Top-Down Processing, and Bottom-Up Processing. In Top-Down Processing, previous knowledge leads our expectations. So, in the case of the Morrot “The Color of Odor” study, it is as if seeing what appeared to be a red wine in the glass activated the participants’ knowledge of red wines, thus bringing to attention the range of descriptors for a red wine category. The range of fruits they could use to identify the wine, for example, went from hallmark white wine fruits like pear and pineapple to classic red wine fruits like raspberry and blackberry. In Top-Down Processing already established knowledge guides our interpretation of an experience.

Top-Down Processing appears in other ways through wine tasting as well. Ballester also gave the example of a tasting of chardonnay. The first flight the panel members were asked to taste and describe a young pale chardonnay. In the second the exact same wine had scentless golden color added to it. In that case, the taster panel went from giving the descriptors of a young chardonnay — fresh fruits — to giving classic descriptors for an aged white wine — secondary and/or tertiary aromas.

The second cognitive process mentioned is Bottom-Up Processing. In that case, knowledge is lacking, and thus cannot get in the way of how one describes a wine. One simply has the experience to describe, without expectations being informed by already established knowledge. As Ballester explained, there is no pure Bottom-Up Processing because any of us are always informed by previous experience. Still, the black glasses tasting experience removed layers of sensory information to lessen the ways in which such information can activate and direct our expectations.

To push the experience even further, Ballester then had us score a flight of five red wines in a simple way. We were to smell and taste each one and vote on whether or not the wine was from Oregon. The experience proved interesting for me for a couple of reasons.

First of all, the group vote was predominately wrong for the first wine, split for the second, and then predominately correct for the final three wines. Wine 1: 31 voted as from Oregon. 19 not. It was actually an Akurua 2012 from New Zealand. Wine 2: 29 voted Oregon. 21 not. It was Adelsheim 2008 from Willamette (Oregon). Wine 3: 8 voted from Oregon. 42 not. It was a Domaine de l’Arlot Nuits St George 2007 Clos des Forrets St Georges (France). Wine 4: 16 voted Oregon. 34 not. It was Kosta Brown 2006 Amber Ridge Vineyard (California). Wine 5: 13 voted Oregon. 37 not. It was a Domaine Michel 2005 Laferge Volnay Les Mitans (France).

The fifth wine at first look stood out as strange while fascinating. Once the wines were revealed, however, and thus the fifth wine had a context behind it, it moved from merely strange and fascinating, to also pleasurable. The wine being given its appropriate context of information helped shift expectations for it to more pleasurable. Two of the wine experts sitting beside me described a similar sort of experience.

As Ballester explained, for this sort of tasting test, experts tend to identify wines correctly to broad location categories, where as novices are less likely to do so. This makes sense as experts have more experience to draw from in order to identify such wines.

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Thank you to Jordi Ballester.

Thank you to Amy Wesselman, and all the people that make IPNC happen.

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