This Is Your Brain On Wine

BrainwineWhen it comes to wine appreciation, so little, perhaps nothing, is set in stone. This is true for the simple reason that no two brains are alike. The brain, that focal point for interpreting and translating what flows over our taste buds, is as unique as a fingerprint.

This was brought home once again upon drinking an oldish Sauterne the other night. The 1981 Rieussec is the product of a vintage in that French region that ranks for many as among the poorer in the past 30 years or so. According to many who rank vintages, the collection of Sauternes from 31 years ago was middling at best.

This wine, given a score of 86 points from Robert Parker, was considered the pinnacle of wines from that year and place by a man who has tasted too many Sauterne to begin to imagine. Only 86 points.

And I absolutely adored this wine, thinking it was extremely well balanced and a well ordered collection of honey, orange peel, brown sugar, and asian spice sitting on a viscous but not cloying foundation. Intense to a degree only, but still a wine that would be enjoyed twenty years from now.

Put alongside other Sauterne from other vintages, this 1981 Rieussec has a lot going against it. It would be neither as pure or intense as some older vintages. Nor would it be balanced as other examples of Sauterne both older and younger. It might get forgotten in a vertical tasting of Rieussec. At an auction of Sauternes from the past 40 years it likely would hold little interest among collectors.

And yet I found it among the best wines I've had in months…and I've had a lot of good wines in these past few months. But here's where we get back to the brain thing.

I don't know why it is, nor am I all that curious to know, but I do know this about my brain's reaction to wine:

1. I am extraordinarily partial to sweet wines
2. No matter how complex and intense, I am turned off by sweet wines that cloy
3. Sweet wine in every instance tastes better to me after drinking dry wine first
4. I'm close to incapable of properly evaluating wine quality outside of a comparison tasting.
5. My palate responds well to wines that have developed the symptoms of age.

When all these things combine, my brain lights up in some sort of cacophony of pleasure-related triggers and I smile and reach for more of the same.

I'm willing to bet that no two brains ever react identically to the same situation, though we may observe similar reactions. This is so crucial and so foundational in the realm of wine appreciation that I'm sure it goes a long way toward explaining the variety of wines that exist in the world, the deep and never ending trench that is filled up with words about wines, and the obsessive pursuit of new wines that so many people embark on all their lives.

The 1981 Rieussec was brought to my home by a young man who attended a small dinner party we hosted this weekend. He shows very good taste and thoughtfulness in many things, not the least of which is wine, women and manners. I don't know what he thought about the 1981 Rieussec he brought for us to drink. Before we could discuss our impressions, we ended up talking about the impact too much youthful exposure to steak has upon our adult palate and preferences. But I'm positive his thoughts on the bottle were somewhat different than mine. It's all about the brain.


14 Responses

  1. SUAMW - February 21, 2012

    As a neuroscientist, I must dismiss this whole post because it starts out with the wrong premise: “no two brains are alike”
    They are VERY alike.
    Remember the old saying: “You’re unique. Just like everybody else”.

  2. Tom Wark - February 21, 2012

    How about “no two brains are identical?”

  3. Edible Arts - February 21, 2012

    Aside from 1 and 5, I would guess that most of us agree. (I happen to share 1 and 5 as well)So maybe your preferences are not far off the reservation. When Parker or other critics evaluate wine, they are comparing them to others of the same class. But when we are simply appreciating a wine for what it is, the comparisons are less salient. Evaluation and appreciation are two distinctly differents tasks.
    Quality Sauternes will be damn good regardless of vintage. If you enjoy the wine, why worry if it might perform less well in a hypothetical vertical tasting?
    Aside from sensitivity thresholds to chemicals, which are relatively fixed, our sensibility is formed from experiences–and we all have distinctly different experiences. Hence, the infinite variety of taste preferences that wine in particular is so adept at satisfying.

  4. SUAMW - February 21, 2012

    It’s not semantics. It’s the premise. It is both uniquely American and yet very un-American (but false nonetheless) to think that we are all so disparately different in our physiologic makeup and that this explains the differences in our experiences.

  5. JohnLopresti - February 21, 2012

    I wonder if TomW ever happened upon a well aged light dry marsala, the sort with cork closure.
    I tend to have a wide range of reactions to sauternes; the good ones can be artfully extraordinary.
    But I am not a dessert or sweet wine aficionado, preferring dry still tablewine. And those sauternes can be quite expensive!

  6. wine a month wedding gift - February 21, 2012

    I would have to agree. There’s nothing better than a sweet vintage that just gets better with age, especially when shared among friends.

  7. smilingdog - February 22, 2012

    It is interesting, as a winemaker in the middle of the country, the influence of something, wine critics, pop culture, wine department managers…has my customers apologizing for enjoying sweet wines. If I had my way, wine would be dry, coffee black, and bourbon neat. My friends like sweet wine, coffee with cream and bourbon with gingerale. I do not ever consider them defacing wine, coffee or bourbon. Wine’s purpose is just to make life better…

  8. Gerald Asher - February 22, 2012

    Edible Arts gets it spot on. Appreciating a wine is not the same thing as evaluating it. (I am not sure what purpose “evaluating” serves for most of us.) Why are critics and writers not helping consumers appreciate wine. I don’t spen d $25 for a bottle of wine to “evaluate” it.
    As for your own appreciation of old Sauternes, or any other mature wine, it is a pleasured by most because they are beaten over the head with tasting notes that are nothing but a retelling of primary fruit and are persuaded that such is the basis of a good “evaluation” of a wine. Who cares about enjoying it?

  9. Gerald Asher - February 22, 2012

    Sorry about the typo. It should ofcourse ne “a pleasure missed by most”.

  10. Jeff - February 22, 2012

    If I had a nickle for every time I’ve heard someone compare their wine experience with a Parker score, I’d be worth millions. Tom, you seem surprised by your discovery and for someone who has tasted many thousands of wines in his life, I’m curious to know why it seems that you lack a confidence in your own palate?
    One of the few things that I have come to understand about wine after tasting for a few decades is that scores, vintage charts, and appellation designations are useless benchmarks. There are delicious wines made every year, all over the world, by thousands of different grapes. There are so many wine exceptions out there. It’s the discovery of this that is truly joyful. Seems like the ’81 Rieussac is a perfect example.

  11. Tish - February 22, 2012

    Tom, your experience is a picture-perfect example of how ratings distract all of us — producers, marketers, retailers/restaurants and consumers — from the far more important issue of self-awareness regarding taste preference. Joy like this, especially in context of specific wine experiences, defies numbers. We would all benefit from the points made by Edible Arts and Gerald Asher above, and promote a return to appeciation over evaluation.

  12. Donn - February 22, 2012

    A few years ago in a classroom in Napa, we had the oppty to open and share a Madeira Sercial, I believe it was 1947. Best wine or 2 I have ever tasted. But I dont’ get around much.

  13. Lisa Duff-Khajavi - February 22, 2012

    Love this conversation because no matter how we define or dissect, no matter how similar our brain physiology may be,in the end our experiences are individual. So many interacting variables–our genes, our early sensory development, on and on…..

  14. Chocolate Wine - February 27, 2012

    You’ve some useful ideas! Maybe I ought to think about trying this by my self. thanks for this great post….

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