Monday, December 21, 2009

The Science of Wine

As much as we enjoy wine, and despite all the rapturous poetics penned by everyone from Aristophanes (“When men drink, then they are rich and successful and win lawsuits and are happy and help their friends...”) to Goethe (“Wine rejoices the heart of man and joy is the mother of all virtues.”), to the uber-descriptive lines of modern critics like Robert Parker (“This full-bodied, wide, thick, focused, harmonious, and intense wine releases amazingly powerful layers of candied black cherries and blackberries,” he wrote of the 1996 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache), wine, in the end, is science.

Takes the romance out of it, no?

Two recent articles made this clear. The first, reported widely around the world, indicates that even something as seemingly innocuous as the color of the room in which a wine is tasted can have an impact on how it is perceived. British paper The Telegraph reports that “Drinkers' brains are tricked into thinking a glass of white wine is better and more expensive tasting when exposed to the red or blue background lighting than those in rooms with green or white background lighting.”

This isn’t to say, of course, that bad wine can be saved by flattering lighting, or that bad lighting will ruin a perfectly lovely bottle, but it is food for thought: Context, like with so much else in life, is one of the keys to how an experience is perceived, wine included.

The second article ran recently in The Wall Street Journal, and is a very good follow-up to recent posts here about Champagne. It begins: “There are 20 million bubbles in a bottle of champagne and every one of them alters the taste, scent and fluid dynamics of the sparkling wine, say researchers studying the chemistry of carbonation and the physics of fizz.”

And while analyzing the bubbles in Champagne might seem akin to trying to wrap your mind around how the punctuation in Shakespeare’s sonnets affects meaning, it does have its benefits: Specifically, a greater understanding of what makes Champagne so special.

“[The] experiments, described recently in Science, the American Scientist and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveal the unexpected ways in which the microscopic and molecular behavior of carbonation make champagne tingle in the nose and tap-dance on the tongue. Champagne owes much of its magic -- its savor, scent and glow -- to the micro-mechanics of CO2 bubbles, they reported.”

It continues: “Every bottle of champagne is a blend of many wines, but it owes its signature sparkle entirely to pent-up carbon dioxide. In fact, an average bottle of champagne contains about five or six times its volume in carbon dioxide, so compressed that when the champagne cork pops, it typically kicks out of the bottle's neck at about 30 miles per hour, Dr. Liger-Belair says. The champagne will actually taste better, he says, if the cork can be released with a more subdued CO2 sigh.”

The lesson here? Enjoyment of wine is a personal and subjective experience, but it is not wholly separated from science. Which is a good thing: Understanding typically leads to greater pleasure in the long run. And that’s something to which we all can raise a glass--full of bubbles, of course.


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