If you’ve ever enjoyed a wine sipped in its natural habitat (say, a grippy cab at a Napa bistro or a grillo pulled from the cooler on the beach in Sicily) yet found it soul-crushingly mediocre when you brought the same bottle home and cracked it open in your kitchen, then you’ve experienced the Provençal rosé paradox. The truth is that salmon-hue juice is never gonna seem as good as when it’s uncorked in the sunny South of France next to a blooming lavender field.
A seminar at last year’s Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans, led by bartender Angus Winchester and Bacardí global advocacy director Jacob Briars, explored this abstract yet compelling topic of context in drinking. Dubbed “Contextulibation,” it intimated that perception can be split into two processes: processing sensory input (i.e. this is a glass filled with pink wine) and higher-level processing connected to a person’s concepts, expectations, knowledge and attention, all of which influence perception (i.e. because I’m in a gorgeous setting on vacation and my senses are being flooded, this is the best wine I’ve ever sipped!).
Winchester recounted how he loved a chilled plastic cup of ouzo in Greece but found it to be utterly undrinkable when he returned home to England and bought a bottle. But was it really the anise-flavored liqueur he was digging or the fact that he was on a beach in the Aegean on a lounge chair noshing on fresh seafood?
La Capilla regularly appears in lists of the world’s best bars, more for the fact that it’s in the Mexican town of Tequila than because of its ambiance or selection of spirits. The salt-rimmed Batanga invented there mixes mixto tequila, Coke and lime juice. Order this drink in the U.S., says Winchester, and the bartender will look at you like you’re ordering a dead baby.
And that perfect pint of Guinness from a pub in Dublin you declared was the most delicious ever? Newsflash: The Irish stout’s formula is the same all around the world. Our memory just gets more sepia-toned as time passes, says Briars, until we recall a bar (or cocktail or wine or beer) as our favorite.
So can we ever overcome that rosé paradox? Should we even try? “We do need to separate out ‘tasting’ from enjoyment,” says Winchester. “There’s a lot of science on how environment will affect tasting notes but not very much about how it affects enjoyment.”
At the forefront of this science is professor Charles Spence, a gastrophysicist and the head of Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University. He’s also author of the book “Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating.”
At the The Singleton Sensorium organized by Spence and hosted by Diageo and sound design agency Condiment Junkie, 500 scotch fans attended a tasting in London’s Soho. Three different rooms were decorated to bring out grassiness on the nose, sweetness on the palate and a textured aftertaste. In each room, people rated the aroma, palate and finish. Organizers discovered guests had vastly different critiques, even though they were sipping the same whisky in each room.
“Ultimately, we always drink somewhere, and wherever we drink, there are contextual environmental cues that can influence the experience. Our mood can change how things taste,” says Spence. “I don’t think you can ever ignore the environment.”
Even plain white walls, tablecloths, plates and silence set a certain expectation, he says. His current research is examining how the weight, texture, feel and shape of glassware can change a drink’s taste. (Oenophiles exalt the benefits of a thinly rimmed wine glass with a large bowl, and Riedel has has based its business model on the effects of glass size and shape on aroma, flavor and mouthfeel.)
At Weingut Messmer in Germany’s Pfalz region, would-be wine tastings undergo a total sensory experience unlike any typical winery flight. In 2008, a diploma thesis on the effect of music and taste on buying behavior and consumption stirred Martin Messmer to develop the Sensorische Lichtweinprobe (“Sensory Light wine tasting”). Twelve guests are given pours of wine and score sheets. As they are guided through the experience, the lights and music in the cave-like room change, as do the images on the monitor. At the end, they surprisingly discover that they only tried several different varietals, though their notes and critiques indicate they thought they sampled a lot more.
“Wines tasted in yellow or orange are fuller and more profound, the acid is less noticeable, and the sweetness somewhat stronger,” says Messmer. “Reds seem to polarize people, blues seem to remain relatively neutral, and greens promote slightly more acid in the perception.” The warmer the mood, the better perceived the wines too.
As for music, soft chords without a hectic beat or aggressive sound have the most effect. Classic and easy-listening genres give a favorable impression of the wines, while hard rock and free jazz result in lower scores. Regardless, Messmer likes to give guests a tasting of the first wine at the end. Their relaxed mood often changes their opinion for the better, he says.
Ultimately, says Spence, it comes down to us relinquishing control and realizing we aren’t imbibing in a vacuum. “We all think we can ignore the ‘everything else’—the lighting, background music, even glassware,” he says. “And yet a growing body of scientific research shows that all of these extrinsic factors influence what we taste and how much we enjoy the experience.”