Recently someone asked me what it is that makes wine so special. What are we going on about all the time? Why are there specialist wine writers and so many options to taste and pair and mature and why are we pondering over wine lists when it is so much easier to order a beer? Wherein lies this fascination with wine or is it only a bubble in which wine people live? And is this fascination a good thing for the industry? Should we not try to make wine more accessible and less mysterious? Is the best wine not plainly the wine in your glass?
Some of wine’s mystique might lie in its sense of history. There is evidence of ancient wine production from as early as c. 6000 BC. Some of the appeal might be in the fact that wine is unpredictable and not so easy to understand. Despite all today’s winemaking technology, a wine can differ significantly from one vintage to the next – just based on the conditions of a growing season. Some of wine’s intrigue might be because it is both accessible and aspirational. Wine is a partner to food and because of the lifestyle associations, it can be enjoyed at home or with a simple meal, but can also be part of a fine-dining experience or specialised tasting.
I believe we should make wine more accessible, make it easy to enjoy, get away from elitist perceptions. There might be room for oenophiles talking about all the particulars, but for wine to be a sustainable industry, we need to invite a new generation into the inner circle. Or perhaps make the inner circle much wider. When I read an article about how our minds influence what we taste, I realised, however, that so much of how wine people think about wine is set in their minds, that it might be just about impossible for us to change. Perhaps when it comes to developing products and selling them, we should give more weight to research, branding and marketing than what we perceive as the ultimate wine. Is it not all about quality? Perhaps, but what is your reference of quality and your experience of taste? Read David W. Brown’s article How Your Deceiving Eyes Can Change the Taste of Wine. While this article mainly focuses on how colour changes our perceptions of wine, it gives us a whole lot more to think about.
Does the red wine in your glass taste like red wine because you can see it is red? Surely we would be able to differentiate red and white wine even when we can’t see what we are tasting? You would think so! But have you seen MasterChef contestants being bowled out by a blind tasting of something as simple as a banana? Imagine what can happen when your blind tasting involves something with a much more varied and intricate flavour profile, like wine! According to Brown’s article, cues from our fingers, eyes and ears act as survival mechanisms and neurological shortcuts before we taste something. The wine might be the same as yesterday, but something in your environment or within yourself is not.
Who has not tasted a marvellous bottle of wine on holiday, then buy some and ship it home at great cost only to be bitterly disappointed? We know much of wine enjoyment is about emotion. We drink wine when we are with our loved ones celebrating, relaxing next to the ocean, comforting ourselves for some reason or another. All these emotions impact the taste of the wine, but an emotional experience with taste is not limited to wine. What is very interesting, however, is the role colour play when it comes to wine.
Much of wine’s persona lies in its colour. Without thinking about the style or the variety, you might easily ask someone whether they prefer a glass of white or red. We might talk about whether or not we like rosé and use the colour as reference even though there many different types of rose-coloured wines. A white wine with a deeper yellow tinge might not be as appealing to one person while it might be exactly the reason why another opt for that glass. The same goes for the lighter red or the glassful that’s almost black. Our minds are trained to expect a oaked or matured white when the glass looks yellow or a lighter, fruitier red when the colour is translucent. We attribute variety, winemaking methods and maturation purely based on the colour of the wine. We have been trying to share these special wine attributes with consumers, but is it not too much to expect of the average person just looking for a bottle of wine to enjoy?
This colour issue extends to more than the colour of the wine – even the colour of the bottle and the label can have an influence on your perception. While some of us might know what style of wine to expect from a certain shape or colour bottle, it might be more basic for the average wine drinker. David says, “Experiments suggest that red and black wine labels set a drinker’s expectation for the red wine inside: the drinkers expect the wine to taste tangy. Red and orange labels prepare the drinker for a fruity wine.” It might be somewhat more complex than that, but there is also something that supposedly happens when we use coloured stemware. The coloured glass’ influence on the colour of the wine might change your expectation of what the wine is going to taste like. This is the reason why serious wine drinkers prefer simple, clear stemware. (And of course there are even varietal-specific stemware, making the most of the flavours of each specific variety!) Perhaps someone can be suspicious about your wine choices when you have green wine glasses…
Just recently we were involved in a heated debate at work about the colour of a new product’s capsule. I remember thinking that we might be overthinking the whole colour issue, but perhaps not…. Perhaps we should all invest in research on consumer preferences when we develop new packaging. Associations are not limited to colour of course, research shows that the type of music playing while you enjoy a glass of wine can have a significant influence on how you describe the wine and even touching a velvet cushion while enjoying your Merlot, might have it taste smoother than when you are sitting outside on a wooden bench…
While for the wine producer, the colour of wine packaging might have the simple job of making the bottle stand out on the shelf, it might be worth our while to invest more into the whole subconscious sensory experience around wine. While hard to control, it might help us create associations that will result in the wine experience we intended.
All in all, this is just another reason why wine is such an interesting product. It may not be as simple as just enjoying the wine in your glass, as we often like to say, but perhaps it is exactly what we should do – enjoy what we are drinking, given the specific time, place, colour of your glass…