What Influences our Perception of Wine Flavors and Aromas?
Winemakers seek to create ‘balanced’ and ‘harmonious’ wines, defined mainly by flavors which, when combined, produce the wine’s complexity or ‘structure’, as well as ’roundness’. When appreciating wine, those flavors interact with each other and modify the way they are perceived. This effect could have an impact on the wine’s balance itself.
A new study conducted by Laura Vonnez from the oenology school of Changinsin collaboration with EHL Lausanne set out to discover if aromas can influence our perception of wine flavors – in this instance a Chardonnay wine to which some sweet and acidic flavors were added in the form of essential oils and aromatic molecules.
Several factors were tested to determine if it is possible to influence the perception of flavor through aromas. For instance, tasters who drank wine less than once a month were more influenced by the aromas than those who consumed wine more regularly. These results show that aroma influences may be limited by expertise or training.
The findings of the study also showed that there were cultural differences with regard to acidic and bitter flavors between tasters from East Asia and Southeast Asia. For tasters from Southeast Asia, the aromas of lemon, grapefruit and coconut were perceived as not very acidic, unlike the pear aroma which was perceived as very bitter. The other aromas had much lower notes of bitterness.
These differences can be explained by the eating habits of these regions. Indeed, in Southeast Asia, aromas are often associated with a particular taste, for example, lime with acid, grapefruit with sweetness, and coconut milk with chocolate. In East Asia, dishes often comprise of a mixture of flavors, aromas and colors, which can limit the fixed associations of specific flavors and aromas.
Other factors like age, gender or the type of food frequently consumed did not reveal any influence statistically.
Overall, this study shows that the perception of flavors, especially sweetness and acidity, can be influenced by aromas. The aromas of coconut and rose helped increase the perception of sweetness while decreasing the acidity of the Chardonnay wine chosen for this research. The influence of aromas on the perception of bitter and salty tastes did not show any significant results.
Moreover, the study shows that the interaction between aromas and flavors can be limited by training and expertise, and cultural origins can influence perceptions.
What’s the connection between cultural origins and our perception of food and wine?
We do acknowledge now that our olfactory and gustatory perceptions are influenced by our history and cultural background. In her thesis, Laura Vonnez also underlined interesting cases where populations developed different levels of perception threshold according to their diet, which was impacted by their environment.
Just after birth, children naturally react to salt, sugar, acid, umami and bitterness. Their response to these stimuli tends to be the same for all of them at the beginning of their life. Their aversion to bitterness and attraction to sugar are easily detected (Chiva 1996). However, in Mediterranean regions, children regularly taste olives, influenced by their families and society. Therefore, they quickly get used to this type of food and, consequently, their perception threshold for bitterness will be higher (Le Breton 2006).
Consequently, the associations of smell and taste are going to be different since they arise from a person’s experience. Raw materials are prepared in different ways. For example, in Europe cinnamon is mostly used with sweet food, while in China it is used with savory food. Also, in Europe coconut is used mostly for sweet food while in Thailand coconut is mixed with spicy food.
Wine: How do food habits influence our wine behavior and the types of wine we enjoy tasting
So far, a few pieces of research have been conducted in order to determine the influence of food habits and cultures on wine tasting.
Most of the research conducted about wine focuses mainly on the extrinsic attributes of wine (e.g. label, brand reputation, health benefits) and less on the intrinsic attributes (gustatory aspects or hedonic aspects).
Some of the research conducted into the intrinsic aspects shows that there are some differences in terms of assessing wine aromas or flavors according to the culture.
Saenz-Navaraz et al. (2013) conducted a study where it appeared that cross-cultural differences were noticeable. Trained French and Spanish panelists were asked to rate 12 different wines. They found consensus on the description of the wine aromas but a difference in term of assessing the balance and sourness. Also, different linguistic terms were used to describe the wines’ characteristics. According to the author, different cultural histories explained these variations.
In 2012, Robichaud, Williamson and Francis asked Chinese consumers to taste wines available in the Chinese market (foreign wines and Chinese wines). Results showed that Chinese consumers rated Chinese wines poorly and preferred Australian wines. According to the author, familiarity could be part of the explanation. A lot of Australian wines are exported to China, while Chinese wines are not necessarily available everywhere on the market.
Tasting and appreciating wine is personal
When it comes to wine appreciation there is no significant evidence so far that cultural influence plays a role. However, we must take into consideration that people come from different cultures and have different food habits. This means that people react differently to the wine they taste because wine drinking triggers a hedonic response. Even for professionals using a more analytical approach, tasting wine remains something personal.
When we taste and smell, this generates an emotional response from our brain. There is a direct line between our nose and palate to our limbic system which is in charge of managing our emotions and memory. Consequently, the way we perceive wine is intimately linked to our emotions and memory, and both of them are related to our own culture.