In Student Articles

The world wide web is a weird, wonderful and as it turns out, wine-filled place to browse. There are a bunch of interesting reads when it comes to wine, so I chose to share a couple of gems.

If you are anything like me, at one stage or another you have wondered to yourself: “ What is the world’s most expensive wine sold directly from a winery?” Well, I have the answer…it is from the Australian winery Penfolds…the Penfolds 2004 Block 42. This little piggybank-breaker (or crusher) will put you $168 000 in the red or approximately R1 731 208 for us South African folks. Yes, there are more than six digits in that amount.

This beauty is sold in 750mL glass ampules, of which 12 is produced. This wine is produced from a single vineyard, from vines claimed to be the oldest continuously producing Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the world. So obviously the biggest question is…what does R1 731 208 taste like? Research has proven that people’s perception of what a wine tastes like and whether they enjoy it or not, is influenced by the price of the wine. The exact same wine marked at a higher price than its retail value, is judged to be more enjoyable and pleasurable by consumers.

This could possibly be explained by the fact that our enjoyment of wine is not only influenced by the actual way our taste buds perceive it, but also by social context. This means that the simple fact that you are able to afford and at that very second enjoy something that very few people in the world will ever do, makes you enjoy your R1 731 208 glass ampule of wine even more. Another reason could be that we as humans are a suspect species. “Why is this so cheap? It must mean it is not as good as that more expensive one?” As a result, our brains have come to form an intrinsic link between price and quality, or in the case of wine, taste. Concomitantly, we use the price of a bottle (or ampule) of wine to anticipate whether it will be good or not. The psychologist Richard Wiseman purchased a variety of wines from his local supermarket, ranging in price from $5 to $50 champagne. In a double-blind taste test subjects were asked to identify the more expensive wine. Shockingly, the 600 participants could only select the more expensive wine 53% of the time. This percentage is even less for red wines.

Alas, we are also a pretentious bunch and as a result have a hard time deciding whether we like a wine or not…so we just let the price and peer pressure decide for us. So in the end it is all really simple…sip and swallow and decide if you like it or not, whether you paid R20 or R1 731 208 for it. As easy as that.

In the meantime, I will be here in the corner enjoying my very delicious bottle of wine that did not cost as much as a house, thank you very much. And I will be drinking it with the soothing, smooth sound of some music in the background. Why you might ask?

Just imagine the infinite number of sounds that your ear can hear, anything from 20 to 20 000 Hz. The human ear is capable of responding to the widest range of stimuli than any of the other senses. The amount of different textures and temperatures you can distinguish purely by the sense of touch. The human eye can distinguish perhaps as many as 10 million colours. In comparison to all your other senses and organs and their perception abilities, the tongue is quite embarrassingly crude in its simplicity. Five. That is how many different taste sensations your tongue is able to detect. Five.

The reality is that up to as much as 90% of what we perceive as taste, is in fact odour. Why else would that stupid cold and sniffles you walk around with make everything taste like cardboard? The aroma of a glass of wine prepares us for what is to come and whether it delivers or not is decided by the tasting experience as a whole…smell and taste.

A number of studies have shown the inadequacies of the tongue…wine critics confusing cheap and expensive wines, beer (unknowingly to the taster) laced with balsamic tastes better than the real thing and there is very little to distinguish between dog food and pate. Pedigree flavoured pate anyone? In a similar scenario, en experiment conducted by Frederic Brochet at the University of Bordeaux in 2001, wine experts were required to describe two glasses of wine, one red and one white. Of course the red wine was described in poetic language as having characters of “jamminess” and “crushed red fruit”. The catch? The two glasses contained exactly the same white wine, one ‘enhanced’ with red food colouring.

Because the tongue is so subpar in its ability, we require the input from other extrinsic factors, for instance colour, to help us make decisions (albeit misinformed at times). Another study by a group from the Heriot-Watt University, led by Adrian North, looked at the influence of background music being played on our perception of wine during a tasting. Two hundred and fifty students took part in the study, tasting a red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon) and a white wine (Chardonnay). One control group drank the wine without any music playing, while separate groups tasted their wines listening to the following types of music (described in a previous study): powerful and heavy, subtle and refined, zingy and refreshing, with mellow and soft as the final category.

After the wine tasting, the participants were asked to describe the wine using the descriptors given to the different music categories they were listening to. It was found that the music had a consistent effect on how the students perceived the wine. They tended to describe their wine according to the qualities of the music playing during their tasting. The students rated the change in taste by up to 60% depending on the melody heard. Cabernet Sauvignon was most affected by ‘powerful and heavy’ music and Chardonnay by ‘zingy and refreshing’ sounds. The white wine was rated 40% more zingy and refreshing when that music was playing, but only 26% more mellow and soft when music in that category was heard. The red was altered 25% by mellow and fresh music, yet 60% by powerful and heavy music. The music sets up the brain to perceive the wine in a certain way. This is the same group that conducted the supermarket research where the findings suggested that people were five times more likely to buy French wines if accordion music was played in the background. If an oompah band was played, the German product outsold the French two to one. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika playing in international wineshops anyone?

It is important to realise that tasting a wine is an experience…a sum of all the physical (the wine actually hitting your taste buds) and all that your brain adds (the sound of the music playing, the price on the bottle, the colour of the label, the annoying squeak of the shopping trolley as you were purchasing the wine and the chatter from the sales lady about the terroir and vineyard soil type). All of this just goes to show that enjoying a glass of wine is not just about the glass of wine, but the friends and family you share it with and your favourite music playing in the background.


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