Don’t let your mind trick the taste buds

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When drinking wine it is worth considering just how powerful your mind is and how it can override your taste buds and your perception. 

Have you ever drank a bottle of wine for a second time and thought, “That’s not as good as last time”? Or have you ever had a bottle and thought, “That doesn’t taste as good as it did at the cellar door when I bought it”? 

Most of the time this will be down to you and how you have changed since the first time you tasted that wine. 

Though wine does change in the bottle, it is a very slow process. Wines can be faulty, but this is rare these days with modern winemaking and screw-caps. 

It is more likely to be your mood, what you’ve eaten or even the time of day. The skill of a salesperson at the cellar door and the atmosphere in which you may have purchased the wine will also have a big influence on your perception. 

Take these factors away and you are left with a truer picture of the wine, without the romance, and you may like not like it as much. This is the power of the mind. 

There are a few things you can do at home to highlight this phenomenon and give you a more reasoned, informed approach to tasting. 

Try a wine alongside the four tastes: salt, sour, sweet and bitter. A Sauvignon Blanc is a good start as it has obvious acidity and flavour and these are the components most affected by food. With salt you will see the acidity level drops and the wine softens. Think champagne and oysters. With sour you will find a similar effect. Acidity balances well with acidity, like putting shallot vinegar on the oysters. 

Sweet will overpower the wine and make it taste hard and flat (the wine would have to be sweeter than the food to work). Bitter, the least common taste in food, will also kill the wine. Try Campari for an exaggerated example of this. What you eat dominates your palate and will influence the taste of the wine. 

Another good trial is to use different glassware for the same wine – it works best with full-bodied reds. 

Use a small and a large wine glass. There will be a marked difference in flavour and texture. 

A full bodied red will be brighter, softer and more open in a large glass. It shows you how useful decanting is and how important decent wine glasses are. 

There have been numerous tests done at the University of California whereby wine professionals have been given white wine dyed with red food colouring to make it look like red wine. They are then asked to write a tasting note. Invariably a tasting not for red wine is handed back in, with descriptors such as red and black fruits, chocolate and spices and even the presence of tannin – which is not in white wine. 

No matter your experience, wine can always fool you based on what you think you know. 

Paul Tudgay is general manager of Northburn Station’s The Shed and a wine connoisseur