Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – October 14th, 2017

How to Enjoy Wine More without Spending More, and Top Smart Buys
By John Szabo, MS with notes David Lawrason, Sara d’Amato & Michael Godel

As we head into the weekend with a VINTAGES release full of Napa treasures, our hearts ache for those affected by the numerous wildfires in the region. There is very little to say from the vantage point of our Ontario comfort zone except that despite these most challenging times, we believe the people of Napa and Sonoma will find their way. Stay strong California and remember, all of us at WineAlign are on your side.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Last week, David and Sara thoroughly covered the main themes of the October 14th release – Napa Valley and pinot noir from around the world – so this week I’ll allow myself a more whimsical focus on the best of the rest. But first, some thoughts on how to get more enjoyment out of wine drinking, without changing the liquid in your glass. Ever wonder why that bottle you enjoyed on your holiday didn’t taste the same when you brought it back home? Or why your favourite brand tastes subtlety different when you drink it with different people? It’s hardly news that environment conditions perception and memories, but we’ve finally gotten around to examining it scientifically. The new field of gastrophysics is filled with plenty of fascinating, and useful research to share.

Gastrophysics – The New Science of Eating (and Drinking)

Apart from agriculture, and the chemistry of cooking itself (read Harold McGee’s kitchen classic, On Food and Cooking), science as pretty much ignored our daily experience of eating and drinking. In particular, little research was conducted on how on how outside stimuli, beyond the substance being consumed – call it the “everything else” of the dining experience – change the way we perceive what we’re actually eating and drinking.

Anecdotally it was more than hinted at that external factors, such as knowing the price of a wine or the reputation of a chef or restaurant, as well as the lighting, music, company and even down to the physical weight of the cutlery or bottle and the quality of glassware used notably affect our perception and enjoyment of the food and drink at hand.


Celebrating Women in Wine – October 26th – Toronto

But now the emerging field dubbed “gastrophysics” attempts to scientifically examine and quantify such outside influences. Gastrophysics can be described as a smaller subfield of the large and recently pop science field that blends psychology and cognitive neuroscience, popularized by authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Kahneman and Jonah Lehrer, among many others. It has been source of countless books that attempt to explain everything from intuition to decision-making to seemingly random investor behaviour.

The term was coined by Professor Charles Spence, PhD, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory in Oxford, England. In his latest book, Gastrophysics, The New Science of Eating, Spence brings developments in psychology and neuroscience to bear on eating and drinking. And it’s not simply pure science to fuel dinner table discussions (although it does that, too) but rather useful applied science. In the book Spence reports on many of the clever experiments he devised in order to understand how consumers perceive and experience consumables. And while he doesn’t spend much time on wine specifically, many of the insights regarding the food experience arrived at are equally applicable to the wine experience.

(For similar books that directly address the perception of wine, look no further than Jamie Goode’s excellent I Taste Red, the Science of Tasting Wine, recent winner of the Roederer wine book of the year, or the drier and more science-y Neuroenology, How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine, by Gordon Shepherd.)

The experiments were funded for the most part by food and drink companies, hoping to gain insight into their own products, and in some cases, help them to formulate more appealing recipes, or even healthier recipes, without risking their brand-loyal consumer base and jeopardizing sales. Fascinating questions like, how do you make chocolate taste sweeter without adding more sweetener? Or potato chips taste fresher? Have been addressed and solved. (Answers: A) round the edges of the chocolate bar, since round shapes ‘taste’ sweeter than angular ones, and B) add more crunch, since we associate the sound of crunch with fresher taste.)

At the heart of the matter is the discovery that tasting is not only a multisensory experience, but also a crossmodal experience. The former simply means that many senses are engaged. In the case of wine, for example, when the liquid is in your mouth, not only are your taste receptors engaged in evaluating levels of sweetness, acidity and bitterness, and occasionally saltiness and umami, but also your tactile sense, checking on the relative smoothness or astringency, mouthfeel, body, etc., as well as your olfactory sense as aromatic molecules make their way up the retronasal passage to your olfactory bulb where smells are decoded and categorized. The ensemble of all of these sensory inputs are seamlessly integrated in the brain to create a multisensory experience of the wine.

Crossmodal, on the other hand, suggests that what is perceived by one sense actually changes the interpretation of the stimuli experienced in the other senses. As Spence describes, “changing what a person sees can radically alter what they hear, changing what they hear may influence what they feel, and altering what they feel can modify what they taste.” In other words, there is a lot more interplay between our senses that previously thought. Crossmodal influences result in a difference between the tangible product (what you can actually sense) and the total product experience – the combined effect of the senses mixed with their crossmodal impact. Simply put, change the environment, and you’ll change the experience. Like a river that you can never swim in twice, no single product is ever perceived in identically the same way on different occasions.

So aside from basic smells and tastes, consider some of these other sensory revelations not normally associated directly with any effect on the wine drinking experience, and how they might change our overall perception of wine.

Sight & Colour

A fairly common incidence of crossmodal interplay in the wine world is how the colour and depth of colour of wine affects what people smell and taste. Change the colour of the wine, i.e. add odourless, colourless red die to a white wine, and you will radically change the taster’s expectations, and thus actual perceptions. If you don’t believe me, try it at home, and observe how your unsuspecting experimental subject changes their aroma and flavour descriptions from citrus and stone fruit to red berries and purple flowers. Even more alarming is how difficult it can be to tell red from white wine while blindfolded.

Deeper coloured wines are also immediately and subconsciously associated with more intense flavours and fuller body, despite the effort of countless pinot noirs to alter that perception.

Similarly, Spence claims, food and beverage companies can change perceived sweetness “by up to 10%, by getting the colour of their product, or the packaging in which it comes, just right.” He has shown how colours like pink or red make things taste sweeter than the same product coloured green or blue. You might be thinking that this is merely a mind game, but the research shows that a psychologically-induced increase in sweetness is indistinguishable from a physical addition of sweetness. In fact, side-by-side tests have shown that people will sometimes rate an appropriately sweet coloured drink (think pinkish red for maximum psychological sweetness) as sweeter than a sour ‘coloured’ (green) drink …”even if the latter drink has as much as 10% more added sugar”.

Such discoveries go a long way to explaining why consumers fail to correctly identify Gik’s blue wine from Spain as a wine (it is made from grapes). It’s just so contrary to expectations. Gik co-founder Artiz Lopez told Vice’s Munchies: “Surprisingly, when we did a blind tasting, just one of 15 people said it was a wine.” Not so surprising, I’d say. In short, what you see conditions what you taste.

In a more practical, applicable discovery, Spence also learned that changing not the just colour of the product itself (no die in my wine glass, please), but also the ambient lighting can shift taste perceptions. In one of the largest experiments of its kind, Spence tested over 3,000 wine drinkers over a weekend as part of “The Streets of Spain” festival in London, England. Each person was given Rioja wine in a black glass (so that the colour of the wine was not identifiable), and asked to rate it under different lighting and while listening to different music (see below). The environment with red lights caused people to report a 15-20% increase in fruitiness, while a green colour enhanced the wine’s freshness and acidity.


You may have heard of music and wine matching. Is this just a party gimmick? Apparently not. Spence and other researchers have been able to show that what we listen to while eating or drinking does influence the taste, textures and aromas of a broad array of consumables, as well as the hedonistic rating (how much we like it). Just think of The Fat Duck Chef Heston Blumenthal’s famous “Sounds of the Sea” dish, served with headphones piping out the sound of crashing surf.

Often, but not always, “the more we like the music, the more we enjoy the taste of food or drink consumed while listening to that music.” That might not come as a surprise, but the fact that people rate specific tastes as more or less intense while listening to certain music may be more unexpected. “One recent study revealed that liked music brought out sweetness in gelati, whereas disliked music tended to bring out bitterness.”

Similarly, ‘sour’ music (usually rough, staccato, dissonant and high-pitched tracks- think fast-paced violins) will enhance the sensation of acidity and freshness, whereas ‘sweet’ music (smooth, flowing base tones – think cello or languid tenor saxophone) increases the perception of fruitiness.

No less esteemed a wine producer than Champagne Krug has seized upon the knowledge that sound affects taste perception. In 2014 they released the “Krug Shell” a porcelain device that looks like an old phonograph amplifier or telephone receiver, which sits on top of a champagne glass and enhances the pleasant popping of bubbles, so closely associated with celebration. Krug has also collaborated with many musicians, and their website also suggests a range of musical tracks to enhance the Krug drinking experience. Herbie Hancock’s Rock It with the Grande Cuvée anyone?

And what’s more, researchers have discovered that the style of music played while shopping, or eating and drinking, have interesting effects on purchasing patterns and the taste experience itself. For example, want your French wine to taste more French? Play some French accordion music. Oh, and the food you serve will taste more French, too and the overall experience rated more authentically French. If you want to sell more German wine in your restaurant, play some oom pah pah Oktoberfest music. If you want people to spend more, play classical, not Britney Spears. “Most people, when told about such results, are convinced that they wouldn’t be so easily influenced…However, the sales figures tell a very different story”, says Spence.

Music tempo, too, as well as volume, affect the rate at which we eat and drink. As you can probably guess, louder, faster music (more beats per minute) has been shown to cause people to eat and drink more quickly, while slow music extends the average length of time people spend dining in a restaurant (and slow music also increased the average bar tab by 1/3!). If you want to get rid of your guests, play fast paced music (and seat them in uncomfortable chairs).

What’s in A Name?

Marketers, and chefs, spend a great deal of time coming up with appropriate names for their products, and for good reason. Names go a long way to priming expectations and pre-disposing likes and dislikes.

In a famous example from the food world, the failure of the Patagonian toothfish (would you order that?) was remedied by changing its name to Chilean sea bass. Whereas nobody ordered the former, the latter had tremendous success, even though the fish are one and the same species. “The decline in popularity of everything from faggots to pollack and spotted Dick in recent years can, at least in part, be put down to their unfortunate names”, reveals Spence.

Wine names can also surely prime expectations, as I experienced when recently tasting the Oak Bay Pinot Noir from the Okanagan Valley, for example. The mere mention of the word “oak” in the name inevitably conjures up images of oak barrels, and thus oak flavour in the wine. It took all of my powers of concentration to identify this particular wine as in fact very minimally oak-influenced. Such discoveries make one wonder about the success of wines with names like Little Penguin or Goats do Roam or Mouton Noir (or that German riesling that comes in a cat-shaped bottle.)

Atmospheric Tasting

And so, all of this leads to a conclusion we already intuited. The name, the packaging, the glassware, and the atmosphere in which the experience takes place, in other words, the ‘everything else’ of the wine drinking experience beyond the liquid itself, is critical to our enjoyment of it.

With a few tweaks here and there, you can significantly improve the experience, and perhaps importantly, make lower quality wines more enjoyable. Select appropriate lighting, colour and intensity to enhance the aspects of the wine you want to showcase. Match the music you to your guests preferences and to also highlight the best parts of a wine.

If the name of the wine you’re serving is unfortunate, or the brand associated with poor quality, hide the bottle and pour it from a decanter, into stylish stemware, of course. Make sure it’s at the right temperature – cooler if you’re looking for freshness, warmer for sweetness and roundness. Spin an elaborate tale of the wine’s scarcity or pedigree or some unique point of production. All these subtle touches will prime positive perceptions in your guests. And as we know, perception is everything.

October 14th VINTAGES Buyer’s Guide:

Assorted Whites

La Chablisienne 2016 Saint Bris, AC Burgundy, France ($17.95)

John Szabo – I would swear this was Chablis tasting it blind. Although made from Sauvignon blanc by the excellent La Chablisienne cooperative, this has far more in common with stony chardonnay grown on the limestones of nearby Chablis than with the central Loire vineyards a short drive away. …

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Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

Coming to the show? Join me on VIP night for a sneak preview tasting on my latest book project (or at least part of it):

New World, Old Vines, Thursday November 16th

6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. $80; buy tickets!

Ancient grapevines are prized for the exceptionally concentrated, complex and naturally balanced wines they produce. These gnarled and twisted witnesses to history have stories to tell: tales of the pioneering families who have farmed them for generations, and the evolution of the regions which they helped establish. Join Master Sommelier and WineAlign critic John Szabo on his latest global adventure to track down the greatest wines from some of world’s most ancient vineyards in Australia, Sonoma County and South Africa. Think these are “New World” regions? These vines, some of which date back to the 1800’s, tell a different story. It’s one not to be missed.

Icons like Henchske’s Mount Edelstone Shiraz and Yalumba’s Tri-Centenary Grenache, and Boekenhootskloof’s century old Semillon are on the docket with some other suprises.

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

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Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
Sara’s Sommelier Selection
Michael’s Mix

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