September 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Sensual evalutations

By |2018-03-21T18:49:57+01:00June 24th, 2012|Food & Wine Archive|
Detail from Van Gogh's "The Drinkers," 1890.

was recently in the United States where I conducted a wine tasting party for a group of 20 Americans. During a meal, I presented a wine with each of the four courses we were served and explained how to evaluate each wine based on sight, smell, the way it feels in your mouth and, finally, how it tastes.

It was a lively group with little or no experience tasting wine. The more I told them, the more they wanted to know.

I showed them how to get an idea of a wine’s alcohol content by looking at how fast the arcs or “legs” drop down the sides of the glass. We identified primary, secondary and tertiary aromas. I explained that a sensation of dryness in your mouth comes from the tannins in the wine and that the feeling of salivation comes from its acidity.

We talked about how you won’t sense heat (i.e. alcohol) if the wine’s structure (mostly tannins and acidity) balance out the alcohol. We also experimented with how the taste of wine changes with food.

As I watched everyone tilting their glasses in the light, swirling, sniffing, sipping, swishing, and finally swallowing, it suddenly occurred to that “wine tasting” is a misnomer since the process involves not one sense (taste) but four of the five senses (sight, smell, feel, taste).

It’s too late to change the term “wine tasting” to “sensual evaluation of wine,” but that’s what a wine tasting actually is. American Anglo-Saxon culture tends to recoil at the idea of engaging the senses. Lurking Puritanical fears suggest that “a sensual experience” might arouse evil and sinful urges.

I looked up “sensual” and had to read down to the final definition to find “…of or pertaining to the senses.” The preceding ones were: carnal, lewd, worldly, lacking in moral restraint, materialistic, unchaste, irreligious. That was a heftier dose of Puritanism than I could of imagined (and I was sitting at my desk in Boston).

Maybe that’s why Americans generally prefer to choose their wines by a score, a price, a familiar grape variety or a brand name. A “fear of the senses” mindset can make buying a 94-point cabernet from a well-known Napa recommended by Wine Spectator or Robert Parker a lot safer than having your own “sensual encounter” with a wine to decide whether you like it.

But the Puritans may be right about the risk. Sensual encounters with Italian wine can be seductive. In my case, wine did nudge me slowly down a slippery slope that led me to become a sommelier and live in Italy.

Instead of resisting, I became curious about adding the fifth sense: hearing. I asked my son, a Paris-based classical pianist in training, to help me. I proposed that we imagine a series of wines from various regions paired with food in the classic order: sparkling wine, white, lighter red, heavier red, and sweet. For every one, he’d have to uncover music with similar characteristics to the wine.

Always up for a challenge, he went to work on his iPod. I tried out his “hearing” pairings and found that adding the fifth sense created a new dimension. In the spirit of doing something just for the pure pleasure of it, I am going to continue experimenting with music and wine as I slide further down the slippery slope that the Puritans were so afraid of.

If you’re interested in doing the same, I include our music-and-wine list with the title of the work, the composer, and my son’s favorite performer.

Prosecco (Veneto)

Light, dry, sparkling.

Aperitivo: selection of salami, prosciutto, olives.

  • Saint-Saens: Piano Quartet Opus #41 in B Flat Major (3rd movement). Artist: The Nash Ensemble.

  • Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto #1 in G Minor. Artist: Murray Perahia.

  • Offenbach: Les Contes D’Hoffman, “Les Oiseaux Dans La Charmille.” Artist: Natalie Dessay.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano (Toscana); Pigato (Liguria)

Clean, dry, balance of lightness, refinement and structure.

First course: pasta with white sauce of chicken or seafood.

  • Mozart: Ilia’s Arias from “Idomeneo”/”Padre, Germani, Addio”/”Fuor del mar”/”Zeffiretti lusinghieri” Artist: Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

  • Haydn: Cello Concerto #1 in C major. Artist: Jacqueline Du Pré.

  • Chopin: Op. 22, Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise. Artist: Garrick Ohlsson.

Barolo or Barbaresco (Piemonte)

Tannic, austere, black truffles, smokiness.

Main course: beef, lamb or game with roasted potatoes and vegetables

  • Mozart: String Quintet #3 in G Minor K 516 (first movement). Artist: Melos Quartet.

  • Tchaikovsky: Symphony #6 Pathétique (second movement). Artist: Igor Markevitch and the London Symphony.

  • Mendelssohn: Variations Sérieuses. Artist: Murray Perahia.

Primitivo di Manduria (Puglia); Nero D’Avola (Sicilia)

Hearty, dark fruit flavors, earthiness of the South.

Selection of aged cheeses.

  • Bellini: “I Puritani.” Act I, Scene III: “Dové Arturo…Vieni al tempio.” Artist: Joan Sutherland.

  • Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera, Act II: “Ma Dall’Arido Stelo Divulsa”. Artist: Leontyne Price.

  • Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto #1. Artist: Van Cliburn.

Ricioto di Soave (Veneto); Vin Santo (Toscana)

Dessert: fruit tart or biscotti.

  • Bruckner: Symphony #6 (Second Movement – Adagio). Artist: Sergiu Celibidache and the Munich Symphony.

  • Prokofiev: Cinderella Opus 87, Act III: “The Amoroso”; Act III: “The Prince Recognizes Cinderella”; Act III: “The Waltz.” Artist: Vladimir Ashkenazy.

  • Poulenc: Napoli Suite for solo piano; 1. Bacarolle (assez animé); 2. Nocturne (lento); 3. Caprice italien (presto) Artist: Pascal Rogé.

About the Author:

Eleanor Shannon's "Tasting Notes" wine column appeared from 2010 t0 2014.