The History and Evolution of Wine Tasting

With the earliest evidence of wine culture dating as far back as 7000 BC in ancient China, 5000BC in Persia, and 4000BC in Italy; one can unarguably claim that winemaking is an age-old practice that has birthed a wide mix of vintage that is enjoyed by wine lovers around the world today.

It is almost impossible to discuss the history of winemaking and overall wine culture around the world without mentioning wine tasting — which explains why there is so much buzz around the history and evolution of wine tasting.  Wine tasting is a sensory evaluation of wine quality either at the winery or at a wine-tasting organized event.

For immature wine lovers, wine tasting is all about pouring wine into a glass, swirling, sniffing, and sipping (or savoring as it is popularly called). While for a real wine lover, the globally practiced the 4s of wine tasting is a great technique to rank distinct blends of wine flavors.

The history and evolution of wine tasting

Wine tasting by smelling

What is the big deal with wine tasting?

Wine tasting of a winery is a predefined time for wine enthusiasts and consumers to visit the winery and treat their palates to wine produced there. Prior to the wine tasting event, the winery sends invitations to wine lovers to have a feel and taste of different wines produced in the winery.

During the tasting, the winery presents some of the wine produced at the winery while also encouraging them to take a bottle or two home — think of wine tasting as a strategy to attract people, showcase wines and potentially generate new customers.

As all wineries are distinct (in how they make their wines), they serve different kinds of wines; the wine experts decide which wine tastes the best and which does not. The fun part is that the wine experts get to experience and engage with the various wines without buying a single wine bottle.

Wine tasting is a formalized methodology based on the sensory evaluation of wine. Professional tasters of wine (such as sommeliers and those who buy for retailers) have come up with differing terminologies to describe the distinct characteristics of wine, such as the flavor and aroma.

While recreational tasting involves less use of terminologies and follows little or no analytical process, the aim of professional wine tasting transcends personal appreciation, and it requires extensive knowledge of wine production.

History of wine tasting

Sumerians in the third millennium proposed methods of ranking wines from popular wine-producing regions like Lebanon and the Zagros mountains. By the fourth century, the renowned philosopher Plato came up with a personal list to categorize main wine flavors based on their aromas. Plato’s list led to the proposition made by Aristotle to classify wines on the basis of sensory tasting.

Aristotle suggested that wines can be ranked or distinguished using the four elements — earth, air, water, and fire. Even though the term “wine tasting” did not come into common practice until 1519.[2] The wine tasting methodology was formalized by Linnaeus and Poncelet, among other early wine enthusiasts. The currently practiced wine tasting method was initiated by the wine community with the little knowledge that was available at the time in the 18th Century.[3]

The significance of sensory tasting, as suggested by Aristotle, is still relevant. The role in wine tasting has brought sensory research to global attention. In 2004, a Nobel prize award was given to Linda Buck and Richard Axel for their remarkable influence on the knowledge of sensory tasting and of smell.

The stages of wine tasting

The process of wine tasting can be broadly categorized into four stages, i.e., appearance, aroma, sensation, and finish or aftertaste.[4] The overall findings from these four stages produce a complete picture of the traits of the wine and its suitability for drinking or aging. Results from wine tasting also give a clue to the overall quality, the description, and how it compares with the other wines in terms of price range and whether it is vintage or not.

Wine tasting also gives an indication to the method or technique used in producing the wine — say, Malolactic Fermentation (MLF) or barrel fermentation, among other characteristics that are unique to every wine. Even though wine tasting is often practiced in isolation at the wineries, it is always best to assess the quality of the wine alongside other wines. That way, one is sure of presenting an unbiased analysis that will help people compare vintages; horizontal tasting, and vineyard or wines from just one winery (vertical tasting).

The judgment of Paris: How blind tasting came to light

One of the recent and the most famous records of wine tasting is the judgment of Paris; also known as Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. [5] The Judgment of Paris was a wine competition that was arranged to determine which wine is the best between wines from California and France.

Judges were served wines from France and California in a blind test, and the outcome was stunning because it went contrary to the expected results — the California wines bested their French counterparts. This result was particularly surprising because many wine experts believe that the results would have swung the other way if the circumstances were different and the judges knew beforehand about the origin of the wines.[6] This event was intriguingly captured in the 2008 hit movie Bottle Shock.

As people have biases and expectations for certain wines, they tend to make decisions based on what they already know about them, such as whether the wine is vintage or not, the price tag, its geographic origin, color, and the producer, among other factors.

These biases were proven by Frederic Brochet when he presented two bottles of wines labeled as “cheap” and “grand cru etiquette.” Brochet wanted to get reactions from the tasters to the same white wine dyed with different colors. The results from the experiment proved that people do have biases [7]

More recent experiments have shown that people don’t have general standards or yardsticks to differentiate cheap wines from expensive ones. This was proven in 2011 by Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Herefordshire, and the experiment conducted by the University of Bordeaux in 2001 where the participants failed to detect that both wines that were presented to them were from the same bottle and one was only colored red using dye.

Wine tasting is here to stay

Wine tasting will always be a central part of wine culture, and wineries around the world will continue to open their doors to tasters whose feedback will be used to improve the quality and wine-making process. Wine tasting, even though often regarded as a leisure activity, can also be educational and serve as an avenue for social recreation. And because wine tasting can be very scientific, it is expected for this practice to go further in time and spur wine enthusiasts to seek more knowledge on how to improve their wine-tasting skills. See more resources here

On this Day

24 May 1976 —  Steven Spurrier organized a blind wine tasting competition that was held at the Inter-Continental Hotel in the center of Paris. The best French wines were served to expert judges alongside the finest wines from California. To everyone’s surprise, the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay by Mike Grgich emerged as the winner of the event — this event is now known as the Judgment of Paris.

2001 —  Frederic Brochet conducted two experiments at the University of Bordeaux. The results from both experiments showed that people, including wine experts, could not differentiate good wines from bad ones if their expectations were altered. In one experiment, he got 54 enology students to describe two glasses of wine (one white and the other red) as much as their knowledge allowed them. What they didn’t know was that both wines were the same, and the difference was that Brochet added red dye to one glass to fool them. Surprisingly they described the red wine as if it was truly red — none of the 54 participants could tell it was white.

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References

  1. “The Taste Of Wine”. 2022. Google Books. https://books.google.com.ng/books?id=nzehk2Vu5K8C&pg=PA151&dq=wine+tasting+aims&ei=_9nIRvLrCJSS7QKiu9zfDw&sig=LmyRAwE8FKHf-N4Bz3rOWXEkGsY&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=wine%20tasting%20aims&f=false.
  2. “DEGUSTATION : Définition De DEGUSTATION”. 2022. Cnrtl.Fr. https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/degustation.
  3.    Peynaud, Emile, Jacques Blouin, and Feng Wang. n.d. The Taste Of Wine: The Art Science Of Wine Appreciation.
  4. “Wine Tasting”. 2022. Google Books. https://books.google.com/books/about/Wine_Tasting.html?id=n0z8XCvAS9EC.
  5. “”Doubtless As Good”: The Paris Tasting”. 2022. Americanhistory.Si.Edu. https://americanhistory.si.edu/doubtles/d00.htm.
  6. Mobley, Esther. 2022. “The Hidden Figures Behind The Judgment Of Paris”. San Francisco Chronicle. https://www.sfchronicle.com/wine/article/The-hidden-figures-benind-the-Judgment-of-Paris-13333299.php.
  7. “News: Wine Snob Scandal (Seattle Weekly)”. 2022. Web.Archive.Org. https://web.archive.org/web/20070930210308/http://www.seattleweekly.com/2002-02-20/news/wine-snob-scandal.php.

Photo attribution: William Lawrence, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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