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The Music of the Grape

Scientists demonstrate that it makes sense to relate wine to music
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 15, 2012 1:50pm ET

As I composed a tasting note the other day, I called a particularly acidic wine “screechy.” For another wine, rich in dark chocolate character, I referred to those elements as “bass notes.” We tasters often describe wines as “harmonious” and individual flavors as “notes.”

This may not be as fanciful as it seems. A paper by two scientists in England confirms that the various smells associated with wine evoke strikingly similar musical associations in test subjects, according to an article in The Economist.

Anne-Sylvie Crisinel and Charles Spence of Oxford University let 30 subjects take whiffs of 20 different smells in the vials of a teaching kit for wine tasting. After giving each sample a good sniff (ranging from apple to violet to wood smoke), volunteers had to click their way through 52 sounds of varying pitches, played on piano, woodwind, string or brass instruments, and identify which best matched the smell, the report said.

It makes me smile that the volunteers thought all this made sense. The scientists also report significant agreement. Sweet and sour smells were judged as high-pitched, smoky and woody ones as lower. Berries reminded them of piano music. Musk called to mind trumpets, trombones and horns.

Those who have a condition called synesthesia (including the composer Olivier Messiaen) “see” music as various colors. This is different, but it might be related. Taste, the Oxonians believe, links more to hearing for the rest of us. In a 2009 paper, Crisinel and Spence found that we associate sour and sweet tastes with high notes. Turns out similar associations also apply to aromas.

Composers reflexively depict small things with high-pitched sounds and large objects with low notes. Think of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells, all piccolos and flutes, and the low brass in the Darth Vader theme by John Williams. Now, it turns out, those sounds have an association with what we taste.

I often liken a big, expansive wine of complex flavors to a symphony orchestra in high gear, and a wine with more delicacy to a string quartet or even a solo flute. Tasting with Vincent Leflaive at Domaine Leflaive some years ago, he described his Puligny-Montrachet as Mozart, evoking images of delicacy and clarity, and his wine from Bâtard-Montrachet as Beethoven, suggesting more power. Even today, if you click on Leflaive’s website, Mozart’s music plays in the background.

I learned of this latest research from my cousin Shawn Steiman, a coffee scientist, who had this to offer: “To think that background noises influence our organoleptic experience has huge implications. For one thing, I'll never dine in a noisy restaurant again without wondering if I'm missing out on the food."

“More professionally relevant, though, is that buyers and the folks who make descriptive labels may be tasting things that are influenced not just by the inherent state of the product but by the sounds (e.g. music) in their room. Let's be honest, few folks outside of science relegate their analysis to silence. So, when a wine or coffee drinker reads a label but can't recognize the flavor, is it because the taster was so good or because there was some Led Zeppelin in the background?”

I wrote Shawn to assure him that we do our tastings at Wine Spectator in silence. Not only does it improve concentration, but apparently it keeps us from finding phantom flavors.

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