THE FLAVOUR OF A WINE IS CREATED BY THE BRAIN of the taster rather than the wine itself according to Gordon Shepherd, a professor of neuroscience at Yale.
In his new book, Neuroenology: How The Brain Creates The Taste of Wine, Shepherd claims that our sensory response to food and wine combine to create what we think of as flavour in things that “The molecules in wine don’t have taste or flavour, but when they stimulate our brains, the brain creates flavour the same way it creates colour”, Shepherd told National Public Radio in the US.
The brain creates colour by responding to the effects produced when light hits the objects we see, which are inherently colourless.
Two movements activate the brain to create the flavour perception of a wine: the movement of wine through the mouth and the movement of air through the nose and throat.
The most important contribution from our sense of smell comes not from sniffing the wine, but from the molecules released in our mouth when we breathe out.
Nosing a wine requires “exquisite control of one of the biggest muscles in the body,” while swirling it in your mouth engages the intricate muscles that control the tongue as well as stimulating thousands of taste and smell receptors.
This explosion of information is processed through a frame of reference that is “heavily dependent on our own memories and emotions and also those of our companions”, as well as additional factors like the composition of our saliva, our age and gender.
Shepherd told The Times that swallowing a wine is vital for “obtaining the most information possible about the quality of a wine.” However, his research found that after just a few sips the brain gets saturated with information, making it hard to process the flavour of the wine you’re drinking.
“After a few sips people are just downing the stuff. If you take too large a sip, you’ve saturated your system,” he told The Times.
Shepherd also found that drinking wine “engages more of our brain than any other human behaviour”, including listening to music and solving mathematical equations.
He has pioneered a new branch of science known as “neurogastronomy”, a term he coined in 2006. Forward thinking chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià have helped Shepherd develop his research through practical experiments at their restaurants.