Tasting Notes

This is a joint post by Skepchick writer Julia Burke and Mad Art Lab contributor Ashley Hamer.

When Anne Sauer alerted us to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Lettie Teague asking whether music can influence the actual taste of wine, the prospect of enjoying our two favorite things (Ashley’s a musician; Julia is a wine geek) was enough incentive to check it out. What is the relationship between music and wine? Can music make a wine taste better? And can a song influence a customer’s wine-buying decisions?

Julia first encountered the concept of music influencing wine a few years ago at DeMorgenzon, a highly acclaimed South African winery. Based on research indicating that music could influence the way vines grow, DeMorgenzon has been playing baroque music in its vineyards for years.

With such few good controls for the multitude of experiments devoted to the study of music and plants, skepticism is definitely warranted here––and references to crystals and “energy” seal the deal––but what about music and the finished product?

Looking into the DeMorgenzon situation a few years ago brought Julia to the handful of studies that suggest ambient music may influence the actual taste of wine––say, an upbeat pop song may make a chardonnay taste more lively, or a powerful ballad may make an intense red wine seem even more bold. There are so many variables here to consider, however, including:

  • how long the wine has been open (air exposure changes wine’s taste dramatically)
  • the experience of the taster (wine aficionados know that all grape varieties have common flavors and characters associated with the styles of wine they produce, so identifying one––whether by blind tasting skill or in the case of non-blind study––will affect descriptors)
  • the environment (mood, room temperature, and other external factors influence our senses)
    individual, subjective experience of music (Julia thinks of Bad Religion as upbeat and witty, but her mother might call it “heavy” or “angry”)
  • individual, subjective experience of wine (a Kabinett Riesling that’s too sweet for Julia’s taste might come off as “irritating” to her but “mellow and delicious” to a sweet wine lover)

…that it probably makes more sense to look at how music influences human behavior in a more controlled environment. We already know that music can have effects on mood––whether it’s calming participants in a meditation class or reminding customers in a department store of an impending consumption-driven holiday.

Research on the ways music affects our tastes, or at least our purchasing decisions, has a fairly long history. A study published in 1982, for example, found that when stores played slower music, shoppers moved more slowly and therefore bought more. More famously, researchers in a 1999 study alternated playing French and German music from a store wine display, and found that shoppers bought more French wine when they heard French music, and more German wine when they heard German music.

The literature also has a lot to say about music’s effect on taste. A 2010 study from Oxford determined that we tend to associate high-pitched sounds with the names of both sweet and sour foods. Whether it’s ingrained or socially conditioned (Ashley would put her money on the latter), people seem to maintain an association between certain sounds and basic tastes.

Taking that finding a step further was a fascinating 2011 study that actually changed the way a food tasted by altering its soundtrack. Participants judged four pieces of cinder toffee (an apparently British treat that Ashley had never heard of, but will definitely try whipping up soon), while listening to two pieces of music: one designed to be a better pairing with bitter flavors, the other for sweet flavors. Sure enough, participants rated the food as more bitter with the bitter soundtrack, and sweeter with the sweet soundtrack.

As expected, Teague’s article briefly touched on the possibility that music may influence wine taste, before going into the intersection of music and wine that I think most of us have experienced: as with wine and food, or film and music (where would movies like The Graduate or Almost Famous be without their memorable soundtracks?), wine and music can be paired for an enhanced drinking and listening experience.

For years Julia has enjoyed pairing wines with music and movies: Barolo, with its grit and gravel, powerful depth, and old-soul character, is a natural fit for Tom Waits. High Fidelity merits a wine that develops substantially over time but doesn’t overwhelm to the point of distraction from a well-written script and abundant laughs, so I usually go with a full-bodied chardonnay or chenin blanc.

In a highly scientific* exercise of our own, we created a playlist along Teague’s lines:

And each tried three mainstream, very similar cabernet sauvignons while listening to each song.

Julia found that her experience of each song’s mood influenced the way each wine made her feel. Dexter Gordon’s sublime saxophone ballads begged for some heady thinking time with the most complex wine in the lineup, while Thao was so upbeat and fun, she wanted to get up and dance with something uncomplicated and smooth. The wine’s flavors definitely changed over the course of our one-hour drinking session, but the changes were consistent with oxygen exposure as wines “open up,” in her experience.

Ashley, the non wine expert, was decidedly overconfident in her ability to discern a wine’s individual flavors when she started—she wrote down the word “purple” as a flavor at one point—but could still tell that, as Julia pointed out, any change in each wine’s taste as the playlist went on was probably due to its exposure to the air. In retrospect, it probably would have been easier for a beginner to name the wine that went best with the song rather than assume she could turn into a human wine-aroma wheel on zero training. The mounting frustration, and drunkenness, was evident in her notes.

She did begin to choose the best wine for each song, though, which was surprisingly easy. The South African cabernet was clearly best for the gritty, high-energy sounds of Black Flag. The Chilean wine paired perfectly with the upbeat grooves and soulful singing of Joe Cocker. Of course it was easy: she took away any semblance of individual data points, and instead judged the wines on gut feeling alone. Science is hard. Subjectivity is easy.

Not that there’s anything wrong with subjectivity. The experience of tasting, not to mention hearing, seeing, smelling, and touching, is always subjective. That’s why it’s so easy for researchers to toy with participants’ senses.

Yes, music can affect the taste of wine. All the more reason to grab your favorite bottle, turn on your favorite tunes, and get to work.

*not at all scientific

Featured image used under Creative Commons license from Fraser Valley Pulse & Metro Vancouver Pulse.

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Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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