Wine and the Senses

Anybody who has ever consumed a bottle of Italian wine knows that the wine involves all of your senses. That’s a given. However, the effects of wine on these senses has never really been studied before. Something that involves everything that makes you who you are must surely have an effect in some way, but nobody really knows what that might be. Beyond the various sensations that you experience when you drink wine, of course.

However, all of that may have changed thanks to a study by Gordon Shepherd. A neuroscientist working at the United States’ famous Yale University, Shepherd believes that wine’s ability to activate all of the senses may make it better for stimulating your brain than music, or even solving complex mathematical equations.

Shepherd’s Study

Shepherd has dedicated much of his life to studying how various things affect the human brain, with his most recent focus turning to wine. His recently released book, Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine, takes an in-depth look at the reasons behind why we experience the various tastes that we do when we drink a glass of wine. In particular, he demonstrates the vital connection between brain and wine, linking it to the five senses in the process.

He calls drinking wine a “composite process”. This means it’s not as simple as doing something at point A to get a result at point B. Instead, several factors come into play to create the experience of drinking wine.

Shepherd notes that how you drink wine plays a huge role in how you experience. Again, this is something sommeliers have said for years, but Shepherd digs deeper. He says that something as small as the way you sip your wine can have a drastic effect on the connections you brain makes to create the taste you experience. The same goes for how your nose responds the wines aroma, and even the area of your mouth that the wine touches.

Shepherd goes on to say that the way you taste wine is a very individual experience. While there are some commonalities that we can all point out, how your brain makes the connections between the senses that you involve has just as much of an effect on the tastes that you experience as the wine itself.

As a result, Shepherd examined the drinkers, as well as the wines themselves, as part of his research into the book.

During a recent speaking engagement with National Public Radio, he expanded on his views, stating: “You don’t just put wine in your mouth and leave it there.

“You move it about and then swallow it, which is a very complex motor act.”

He believes that the way we experience wine is similar the way we perceive colours. You may know that some people have colour blindness, which makes it difficult for them to identify different colours. Furthermore, this colour blindness comes in various degrees, with most people who have it struggling with certain colour spectrums, but not with others.

He also goes on to say that the wine is like colour in the sense that we don’t see or taste the items themselves. In the case of colour, we see the object, but it is a combination of the light that bounces off that object and the workings of our own eyes that determine what colours we see.

As he puts it: “The analogy one can use is colour. The objects we see don’t have colour themselves – light hits them and bounces off.

“It’s when light strikes our eyes that it activates systems in the brain that create colour from those different wavelengths.

“Similarly, the molecules in wine don’t have taste or flavour, but when they stimulate our brain, the brain creates flavour the same way it creates colour.”

Some wine producers may rail against this. After all, many pride themselves on the individual flavours that their wines have due to the land that they’re produced on. However, we don’t think that Shepherd is saying that all wine molecules are the same, and that it is only our brains that create the flavour. Instead, he may be saying that our brains identify the flavour that is already in the wine, using our senses along the way.

The Sense Factor

It is in this use of senses that Shepherd believes that wine stimulates the brain in more ways than almost any other. Take music as the prime example. You hear music. You may even think that you feel it. Music stimulate emotional responses, which differ from person to person. You can even touch it and see it, if you play yourself. However, you can’t taste music.

With wine, all of the feelings are engaged. You can see the swirls of colour in the glass, and engage your sense of touch as you pour and hold the wine. Taking in the bouquet brings your sense of smell into the equation, and something as simple as listening to the wine being poured engages your ears. Of course, the most important sense is taste, but everything that you’ve experienced up to the point of drinking has already influenced why brain in several ways. In tasting, your brain puts all of the dots together, completing the experience for you.

Few other experiences quite match that, which is likely why so many people have dedicated their lives to chasing great wines. After all, if something can affect you that deeply, and with that much variety, it is certainly something worth exploring.

The Final Word

So, what can we learn from Shepherd’s work? For one, it appears that wine may have more of an effect on our cognitive function than we may realise. This links into several prior studies, which have noted that drinking a glass of red Italian wine per day may have you to improve your memory and fight cognitive conditions.

Secondly, Shepherd reinforces what sommeliers have always known. Wine is something for all of the senses, and should be enjoyed as such. Consider than next time you have a drink. Instead of drinking as you normally do, try to engage all of your faculties to experience wine in a way that you never have before.


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