Remember that famous map of the tongue? The one before we had a name for umami? Sweet, salty, sour, bitter each assigned its own geography on our mouth muscle. Turns out taste doesn’t actually work like that – our tongues detect different tastes pretty equally. But what makes one person’s impression different from another’s when they’re tasting the same thing, whether that’s a seafood stew or a glass of wine?
Wine tasting has its own taste vocabulary – acidity (sour), sugar (sweet), tannins (bitter), pH (alkalinity) – to describe a wine’s structure (the sum of all these, plus things like viscosity, alcohol, ageability). Throughout the winemaking process, winemakers can measure, analyse and exert a level of control over these elements to ensure that what you taste in the glass is consistent and, crucially, balanced.
Data: a recipe for balance
As Gusbourne’s Lab Manager, it’s Kylie Morris’s job to furnish the winemaking team with the ‘chemical facts’ from what’s in tank and barrel at every pre-bottling stage. Before Head Winemaker Charlie Holland and his team decide on a sparkling wine blend, for example, Kylie will have taken samples and analysed the base wines “so that they can play around with what tastes good. Then once they’ve decided on a blend, I’ll do the analysis on that and feed back the data. The winemaking team might make tweaks as we go along – it’s a back and forth of tasting, data and tweaking.”
But well before Kylie starts her work in the winery, the vineyard’s data calls. “When the grape berries start coming and while they’re still growing, we’re out there analysing the acid and sugar levels of the fruit. In the UK, where we have high acids and low sugar profiles, it’s all about looking for that perfect balance. And winemakers can achieve that by understanding the different flavour profiles of different grape varieties and how they can work together. At Gusbourne we grow the three classic varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. What’s fascinating to me is how the winemaking team can make those three grapes into six, seven, eight different-tasting products, depending on the year.”
Time, taste and tannins
What else influences the taste of a wine? How long it spends maturing, for starters. But that’s not the only factor. “It’s also what they’re matured in,” says Kylie. “Is it stainless steel or wooden barrels? Old or new wooden barrels? Little wooden barrels, bigger wooden barrels? A 4,000-litre wooden foudre or a 225-litre barrique?” Time in wood imparts different flavours and affects tannin levels. And tannins can be divisive in the same way that coriander and Marmite produce extreme reactions in different people.
The most basic way of explaining why some people detect flavours that others don’t is that we’re wired differently. That’s partly down to DNA (coriander haters know this) and partly down to environmental factors like weather and temperature, what you’ve eaten earlier, what kind of mood you’re in and even ambient factors like music and lighting and what you’ve previously heard or read about a wine – they can all have an effect on how your brain interprets flavours. In her 2017 New Yorker article “How Science Saved Me from Pretending to Love Wine” the writer Anne Fadiman recounts her experience of tasting a revered vintage Bordeaux whose tasting notes included “violets, sour cherries, white pepper, blue cheese, autumn leaves, saddle leather, iron filings, hot rocks in a cedar-panelled sauna, and earth… I sniffed the wine. I couldn’t smell any of those things, except earth.”
Shades of Chardonnay
In her previous career as a lighting technician, Kylie can attest to the power of controlling reactions through sound, light and visual stimuli. “Colour also gives people a perception of how they think something should taste before they taste it,” she says. “In the wine education world there’s a lot of sensory analysis using black glasses or by dyeing a white wine red – so you don’t anticipate, say, strawberry and black currant in a ‘red wine’ that’s actually a white wine full of apple and lemon notes.”
Kylie recalls some informal tastings she led at festivals that demonstrate the role of memory and previous experience on how different people taste. Some who declared a lifelong hatred of Chardonnay had to sheepishly admit to loving the Chardonnay they had just sampled. Why? Same grape, completely different wine.
It could be that previous Chardonnays were too acidic for the tasters. The same wine put through malolactic fermentation, for example, might have yielded a more positive response. “With malolactic fermentation, you’re creating lactic acid – the creamy, buttery quality that gives a wine roundness and body, and helps balance the tartness of the acids,” Kylie explains.
“Malolactic fermentation takes longer than alcoholic fermentation, so even if we start the malo just after harvest, I’m often still doing analysis into January. But even after a few weeks you can definitely taste that the wine’s more rounded, buttery, creamy. And because we keep the wine on its lees, that also helps to create body and the mouthfeel and texture we’re aiming for.
“That’s the kind of wine I prefer, especially in a Chardonnay. I know lots of people prefer that fresher, more citrussy style – and there are loads of excellent wines that fall into that category, it’s just not my preference. But the world would be a very boring place if we all liked the same thing.”
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