There’s always been a whiff of the ridiculous about anyone who takes wine tasting too seriously. Someone who spends dinner droning on about the different notes of coffee and oak that they can detect in a bottle that you picked up for £4.50 from the local offie frankly deserves to be laughed at at every opportunity. Unfortunately for those of us who couldn’t tell the difference between a Burgundy and a Barolo if our lives depended on it, there is emerging evidence to suggest that being a wine snob might actually be quite worthwhile after all.
According to respected Yale neuroscientist and avowed wine enthusiast Gordon Shepherd, tasting wine engages “more of our brain than any other human behaviour”. In his latest book, “Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters”, he outlines his theory that elevates wine way beyond the status of “icebreaker at awkward social situations”.
Shepherd argues that unlike an activity such as mathematics, which revolves around a specific source of knowledge and therefore requires a relatively small amount of brain power, wine tasting is a multi-sensory experience, which stimulates and engages all your faculties. You can already feel the smugness emanating from the word wine-tasting community.
Shepherd elaborated on his theory in an interview with National Public Radio. Describing the complexities of the method, he explained how, when conducting serious wine-tasting, “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.” This, coupled with the olfactory and visual elements of wine-tasting, is what helps make the activity one of the most stimulating exercises with which you can engage.
Besides the more obvious physical characteristics, there are more subtle factors that feed into Shepherd’s argument. Perhaps the most complex of these is the neuroscientist’s belief that when we drink our brains actually need to create the flavours that we experience. This complex neurological exercise makes drinking wine an even more intense and thought-provoking experience than it otherwise might be.
In his interview with NPR, Shepherd likened this to our perception of colour, explaining, “The objects we see don't have color themselves — light hits them and bounces off. It's when light strikes our eyes that it activates systems in the brain that create color from those different wavelengths. Similarly, the molecules in wine don't have taste or flavor, but when they stimulate our brains, the brain creates flavor the same way it creates color.”
It seems unlikely that Shepherd’s theories will settle the perennial debate over whether wine-tasting is a total waste of time. But, if you have an open mind, his argument makes a compelling case for thinking about what we’re drinking a little more carefully. Whether you consider yourself a wine aficionado or not, you now at least have an excuse to indulge in some seriously enjoyable “brain training”.