A shorter version of this article was published in the Grapegrower & Winemaker Journal in February 2019.
Since wineries opened cellar doors in the 1970’s they have been used as a marketing tool for building direct relationships between the winery and consumers, as well as offering wine as an Australian product to domestic and international tourists. Over 70 percent of Australian wineries operate a cellar door, presenting their wines to consumers and attempting to boost sales of the wines involved – but as we approach the year 2020 does the wine tasting experience, nearly unchanged for 50 years, need a makeover, or even a reinvention?
Regional wine tourism has advanced with; improved infrastructure, the architecture of wineries has seen significant upgrades, and wineries now incorporate art, food, music and events. But, what are the wine tasting experiences at cellar doors like today? Well, consumers taste anywhere between 5 and 20 wines across a wine producers’ quality range, guided by buzzwords like “single vineyard” and “reserve”. Staff attempt to regale with stories of the wines or winemaker and gauge the tastes, experience and spending habits of visiting consumers to personalise the interaction. Training, where it is done, typically focusses on technical aspects of the wine. There are taste descriptions and some information about the winery as well in laminated tasting notes on the tasting bench. Alternative grape varieties pop up here and there, but despite the ever-increasingly fashionable tasting fees, the wine tasting experience remains uncannily similar to the ’70s.
The Australian wine industry has a reputation for innovation and embracing science and technology in wine production. Yet, we don’t see this in marketing operations such as the consumer experience in cellar doors. It is somewhat surprising because, with the present state of knowledge in sensory and consumer science disciplines, wine tasting goes beyond aroma and flavour described in tasting notes. Wine tasting is a multi-sensory experience, engaging our unconscious thoughts and emotions intertwined with memories. Even the ‘simple’ elements such as an aroma have a far greater experiential impact than most consider.
Flavour perception begins with the wine’s appearance– yes, how it looks in the glass. The shape and height of the wine glass visually evoke expectations of aroma and tastes qualities. Research also shows that ambient music, lighting, décor and odours in the surrounding vicinity affect what we see and taste in a glass of wine. The appearance of the bottle it has come from and who has poured it impacts our opinion. Colour, intensity, and clarity all create expectations of the wine’s flavour before we even reach towards the glass. The aromas might generate further expectations, like citrus aroma associations with vibrant acidity or dried fruits and spicy oak aromas with warm, rounded palate. Or how about something savoury to enhance the drying sensation of tannins? What do those tannins feel like? Smooth like velvet or as rough as sandpaper? Can you relate that tactile sensation to the bench surface you are resting your hands on or to the loud, distorted rock music playing in the background? Different wine flavours evoke different emotions; for example, chocolate and rose, happy, well-being, pleasantly surprised and romantic; lemon, energised and invigorated emotions. These are areas for staff to utilise in the crafting of the sensory experience. If it was a sparkling wine, the popping sound of cork and fizzing bubbles would have set the scene for citrusy refreshment even before smelling the wine – as well as a heightened sense of ‘celebration’, something not experienced by those who are just tasting but not present when opening the bottle.
Flavour perception does not end at the interactions between our sensory modalities of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Based on our past experiences, we tend to couple memories with certain aromas and flavours. It is also known as the Proustian moment, a brief, vivid sensory invoked memory of a nostalgic childhood moment. During tasting, the memories evoke emotions and vice versa, which will impact the perceived flavour and thus the tasting experience. Arousing a consumer’s involuntary memory through suggestion from staff communication in the experience of wine tasting might prove to be a defining moment in the consumer adopting and generating positive word-of-mouth for the wine brand.
Sensory marketing is a type of marketing that engages consumers’ senses on an emotional level, and affects their perception, judgement and behaviour about the brand/product/service. Emotional bonding using sensory marketing has been widely used in the luxury goods industry to create long term brand loyalty that has moved far beyond merely ‘wanting’. This is because other than utilitarian products consumers do not buy products or services only, but they buy experiences, and experiences are created using the senses.
Engaging the multi-sensory component of the wine tasting experience allows sensory marketing to enhance the emotional part of flavour perception and tailor it into a memorable winery experience. To achieve that today, a tasting room with a fancy vineyard view may no longer be enough. An increasing number of wineries offer wine tasting with food or canapés. To some extent, this approach creates consumer engagement but still remains rather product-focused by presenting a sequence of wines instead of an experience. This is the approach used in promotional wine dinners as well, each course is paired with a glass of wine to showcase the wine. This does not involve sensory marketing, nor creates a memory through an experience. Variations of steak and veggies might pair well with bold Shiraz and Cabernet wines, but how does it set apart the showcased wine from others? Wine provenance is important to high-end consumers as are vintage conditions, but are you able to tell the story of winemaking and vintage through the paired aromas, flavours and textural elements of the wine – and of the physical environment in which it is taking place? Food and wine pairing is desired by consumers, and with a scientific approach, it may lead to significant consumer satisfaction and financial gain.
In short, a memorable consumer experience is immersive, innovative enough to engage and entertain the guest. Simultaneously, the environment - and in this case, the food pairing - is appropriate with the wine and memories intended to be created. As the wine industry evolves, the tasting experience and food pairings should go in hand with it. It is time to explore sensory marketing as a field – combined with communication techniques and engage science to deliver experiences that create memories – and wine customers.
Though not exhaustive, here is a list of questions to consider when planning your wine tasting:
1. Do you quality check opened bottles or decant new ones? How are they tagged/stored? Oxidised wine or flat sparkling is disappointing!
2. What is on display in the tasting area – e.g.: texture of the tasting bench, colour of walls and surrounds? For example, blue light makes wine taste bitter.
3. What music/sound do you use? Pitch style and genre changes how we perceive wine aroma taste and flavour.
4. Do you use premium glassware for your top wines? If so, pre-pour the wines so they can unfold in the glass and offer enhanced sensory qualities to your.
5. Do you limit yourself to crackers and bread as palate cleansers? Do you include local or seasonal produce?
6. Have you trained staff communication to avoid purely technical language? Are they able to invoke memories or arouse ‘Proustian moments’?
7. Do you ensure engagement throughout the tasting?
The present state of sensory marketing permits us to understand multi-sensory interactions and reconstruct memorable sensory experiences, but we can also use that knowledge to create new ones.
In many ways, cellar door experience is like a theatre piece, or a sensorial roller coaster. So put time aside to plan your tasting experience starting with what you want to achieve. Then talk with (and listen to) your visitors, after all, it is the perfect opportunity to solicit feedback from consumers – but then ensure there is a system or process for capturing this and passing it along.
Winemaking is an art of science, and there is a set of rules behind cooking too.
Oddly enough, the marriage of wine and food tends to fall into the grand casualty of generalisations defined by a plethora of anecdotal beliefs, not exactly science. Arguably, food and wine have been naturally consumed together since ancient times. But why do we enjoy certain combinations more than others?
It makes little sense to talk about rules in such a profoundly personal subject matter like food and wine. What’s worth elaborating though is how the majority of us perceive sensory attributes and their combinations as flavour.
The sensitivity of individuals senses varies from person to person. Still, most of us tend to agree on what sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or umami taste like irrespective of culture or upbringing. The categorisation of aromas is a vastly different story, though. Some of us are incapable of sensing the smell of specific molecules. This phenomenon is called anosmia. Beyond genetics, temperature, fat content, and body also influence the volatility of aromas, therefore the overall flavour.
If flavour were a multi-level pyramid, the five basic taste would be the foundation. The next build-ing block is texture and all related mouthfeel properties, such as heat and temperature. The aromas sit on the top to compliment the foundation and the filling. If it hasn’t been complicated enough, aromas, surroundings, and companion can evoke memories and emotions and create context around the imaginary pyramid of flavour. This will unconsciously influence how we perceive flavour and hence our dining experience.
Myth-busting common wine pairing “rules”
They claim to be of historical or cultural origin but sometimes simply result from widespread mis-information or well, fiction.
1. Grows together goes together.
It is the basic tenet Old World culinary tales that assumes that in any given region farmers produced wines to marry with the local flavours. Epoisses cheese and red Burgundy is one such pair-ing example. But will any Pinot Noir or any Burgundy do? Hardly so. Washed-rind cheeses are not only pungent but also develop notable bitter taste as they mature.
Some tannins in red wine taste bitter (i.e. phenolic bitterness). Moreover, higher ABV% (>13.5%) and the coumarin compounds extracted from new oak barrels increase bitter perception too. And bitterness is additive! It means, best to forget the coveted Grand Cru/Premier Cru wines from the Côte de Nuits and opt for a village or regional level Bourgogne with fresh acidity, silky tannins and light body.
Verdict: use it as a guide rather than a rule.
2. Steak needs red wine.
The idea behind this long-standing generalisation is that a full-bodied, tannic red wine stands up to the rich flavours of the steak and cuts through the fat.
Let’s suppose we’d like to pair a marbled beef sirloin steak with Champagne. What do we need in a “steak Champagne”?
Champagne is a cool climate region, producing wines with very high acidity. By default, most Champagne would go through (partial or complete) malolactic fermentation (MLF), transferring the sharp malic acid to a softer lactic acid. As a result, the mouthfeel becomes creamier, fuller and less austere. Partial or full MLF is desired for steak.
Besides MLF, the dosage (a mix of sugar and wine) helps balance the acidity, adds sweetness and richness to the Champagne. Brut level can have 0-12 g/L sugar. It’s worth aiming at the higher end and for a steak companion.
The bubbles are CO2 entrapped in the bottle during the secondary fermentation. CO2 is more soluble at low temperatures; hence Champagne is served chilled (~7°C) for the finest effervescence. If we increase the serving temperature to ~10-12°C, the coarser bubbles will act like tannins in red wines but without the phenolic bitterness of tannins.
Verdict: consider the style of the wine instead of its colour.
3. Shared aromas are essential for good pairings.
It turns out that behind every little aroma we sniff there is a molecule. Our olfactory receptors signal our brain, so we think, “it smells like strawberry!” The trick is that strawberry molecule doesn’t exist. Instead, we need a specific combination of fruity, cheesy, green, and roasted aroma molecules to obtain strawberry scent.
When the foundation of taste and texture align, shared aromas can crown the pairing. However, focusing on olfactory similarity may be an overwhelming task as a bottle of wine consist of 1000 aroma molecules. A simple ingredient like a freshly shucked oyster on a half shell is made up of herbaceous, fruity (apple, pear), floral, citrus and earthy (mushroom) scents. The aromatic DNA of oysters leaves a lot of room to experiment with wine styles beyond bubbles.
Bold and fruity pairing
Gewurztraminer is an aromatic grape variety, usually made in an off-dry style with a hint of sweet-ness. The low to medium acidity of the wine accentuates a round mouthfeel and balances the luscious textures of oysters. As far as molecules go, the shared terpenes make the benchmark lychee, rose, and perfume aromas of Gewurz pop. Add a dash of coconut milk for even more interest!
Zingy pairing with a herbaceous edge
Young Hunter Valley Semillon, with its fine acidity, provides a refreshing contrast to oysters. Historically, the grapes had to be harvested before the rainy season resulting in low alcohol wines with generous lemon/lime aromas. The subtle grassy, herbaceous notes from the varietal methoxypyrazine molecules are surprisingly present in oysters as well. As you might imagine, the combination leans towards a zingy ceviche.
Verdict: use aromatic similarity as a spice rather than a substitution of the fundamentals.
4. Wines taste better during the holidays.
That exceptional bottle of Tuscan red served by the winemaker in the middle of the vineyard didn’t taste quite the same at home. Familiar situation, isn’t it?
The human brain is wired to love stories, and we crave to immerse in experiences. In other words, not only the wine matters but the context of the consumption too.
How can we overcome this? It turns out that enjoying food and wine together is a strong context on its own. Wines that we tasted as part of a meal, especially in combination with appropriate foods are more likely to deliver.
Verdict: enjoy your treasured wines at the dining table.
Globe artichoke (Cynara scolyum) is often considered as a “wine killer”. This bad reputation comes from the mode of preparation rather than the ingredient itself.
Grilled artichokes - just like other grilled greens - will indeed add a bitter taste to most wines. It has to do with the green colour and bitter association, as well as interactions of charred flavour, oak and tannins.
Cooked and/or pickled artichokes are much more forgiving. The process of cooking results in roasted and caramelly aroma molecules and increasing umami taste.
The toasted, honey and paraffin notes in aged Rieslings come handy to match the sweet roasted aromas of cooked artichoke. The responsible aroma compound is 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene (TDN in short), which funnily tastes like licorice on its own and is present in red currant as well. Add the subtle sweetness and citrusy floral character (terpenes) of German Riesling armed with mineral acidity that will resurrect even the most challenging foods.
Cooked artichokes with licorice and red currant sauce anyone?
Take-home recommendation: if you find yourself at a BBQ with grilled artichokes, keep your best bottle for another occasion.
Featured wine: 2007 J.J. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese
The aromatic DNA of freshly shucked oysters is made up of herbaceous, fruity (apple, pear), floral, citrus and earthy scents. Such delicious complexity leaves a lot of room to experiment with wine styles beyond bubbles.
Young Hunter Valley Semillon, with its fine acidity, provides a refreshing contrast to the luscious textures of oysters. Historically, the grapes had to be harvested before the rainy season resulting in low alcohol wines with generous lemon/lime aromas (limonene molecule). The subtle grassy, herbaceous notes from the varietal methoxypyrazine molecules are surprisingly present in oysters as well. As you might imagine, the combination leans towards a zingy ceviche.
How about aged Semillon?
After 7-8 years bottle maturation the presence of furfural and benzyl alcohol molecules develop that charming toast, and orange marmalade aroma character in the wine. This “little” change will take the pairing to a savoury direction and highlight the meatiness of oysters.
What does acidity taste like in wine?
Acidity is essentially sourness. Think the mouthwatering of a squeeze of fresh lemons, tart raspberries, etc… Wines with very high acidity also can taste “drying” as in the corresponding low pH environment salivatory proteins may precipitate, causing a rough impression on the palate.
Why is acidity important in wine?
Think acidity as a natural preserver of freshness in your wine.
As grapes ripen in the vineyard, they accumulate sugar and simultaneously lose acids. Ideally, at the time of harvest the ripe grapes still hold enough acidity to make fresh and balanced wines with cellaring potential.
The naturally occurring acids in wine are citric, tartaric, malic, and lactic. Tartaric acid is the most stable, hence it’s used to monitor the level of acidity in wine (gram/Litre).
How can I find out about the acidity of a wine?
The level of acidity also depends on the grape variety, and the growing conditions. E.g.; Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Dolcetto have low to medium acidity, whereas Riesling, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese are on the higher end of the spectrum. Wines from warm climates tend to be lower in acidity, whereas wines from cool, rainy conditions tend to be higher in acidity.
OK, so is high acidity always good?
Too much acidity can mask flavours and compress texture, hence make the wine unbalanced.
What are you drinking tonight? A light, medium, or maybe full-bodied wine?
Think of the body spectrum as water (light), milk (medium), and oil (full).
Body is the perceived fullness of a wine as it crosses the palate. Fullness relates to flavour intensity, alcohol level, dry extract (everything in wine except water and alcohol),
and to a lesser extent, glycerine level.
Consequently, full-bodied wines tend to have a lot of alcohol, concentration, and glycerine. Light-bodied wines are, well, lighter. Some of the most balanced wines are considered medium-bodied.
Is it about the serving temperature?
Yes and no. Hot denotes wines high in alcohol that consequently leaves a burning sensation in the back of the throat when swallowed. Wines with alcohol levels over 14.5% often taste hot if the required “fruit concentration” is absent. Serving temperatures over 18°C can enhance the alcohol perception and bitter taste and suppress the nuanced flavours of the wine. As a result, you may find it less pleasant to drink. For the very same reason, warm foods pair better with low to medium alcohol level beverages.
Sweetness vs Fruit sweetness
What’s the difference?
Sweetness refers to the actual sugar sweetness, caused by unfermented or residual sugar and expressed as g/L. The sensory detection threshold of sweetness is 4g/L, but often much higher residual sugar can go unnoticed if paired with high levels of acidity or tannins. Think German Rieslings.
Fruit sweetness, on the other hand, is just a perceived sweetness due to aroma-taste interactions. For instance, based on previous experiences, our brain associates the smell of strawberry or vanilla with sweet taste. That’s why wines with pronounced candied/confected fruit aromas tend to pair well with slightly sweet foods. Think Zinfandel with BBQ short ribs.
Got it, but how can I taste the difference?
Hold your nose to avoid the retronasal aromas while swirling the wine in your mouth. If the wine tastes sweet, it is likely to have some residual sugar.
If the wine is dry on the palate, release your nose and enjoy the fruity hit of aromas.
Champagne is the pinnacle of bubbly wines that has a lot to offer beyond a simple aperitive, celebratory drink or a washing liquid for oysters and caviar.
Let’s suppose we’ll pan-fry a marbled beef sirloin (medium-rare) with fresh sides (e.g., asparagus, hollandaise).
What do we need in a “steak Champagne”?
Champagne is a cool climate region, producing wines with very high acidity. By default, most Champagne would go through (partial or complete) malolactic fermentation (MLF), transferring the sharp malic acid to a softer lactic acid. As a result, the mouthfeel becomes rounder, fuller and less austere. Partial or full MLF is desired for steak.
Besides MLF, the dosage (a mix of sugar and wine) helps balance the acidity, adds sweetness and richness to the Champagne. Brut level can have 0-12 g/L sugar. It’s worth aiming at the higher end and for a steak companion.
The bubbles are CO2 entrapped in the bottle during the secondary fermentation. CO2 is more soluble at low temperatures; hence Champagne is served chilled (~7C) for the finest effervescence. If we increase the serving temperature to ~12C, the coarser bubbles will act like tannins in red wines but without the phenolic bitterness of tannins.
Vinous, savoury aromas:
Extended aging on yeast lees and MLF will impart cheesy aromas (medium-chain fatty acids), bread and cream (diacetyl), as well as creamier texture. Controlled oxidation through fermenting and aging in small format oak and/or higher inclusion of reserve wines (in NV Champagne) will increase aldehydes, adding a vinous (acetaldehyde), nutty aroma character (furfural) to the Champagne. The similarly nutty and roasted aromas in the fried stake are aldehydic compounds formed during the Maillard reaction (enhanced by medium-chain fatty acids).
Featured: Krug Grande Cuvée 167ème Édition
Despite the ambivalence towards intentional MLF, Krug’s house style is intentionally rich and powerful like many full MLF wines. This is achieved through using small (205L) oak barrels to ferment in, extended lees aging and, the extensive use of reserve stocks with ~7 g/L dosage.
The answer lies in the shared umami taste and sulphur compounds. In particular, dimethyl sulphide (DMS) that manifests as cabbage, asparagus, and truffle aromas. Yes truffle, you heard it right!
Let's break it down!
In washed-rind, soft & creamy cheeses (Epoisses, Taleggio, etc…) the brevibacterium bacteria produces sulphur compounds (DMS) and a notable pungency (penetrating sulphurous oniony, cabbage-like scent). DMS also causes PN's underlying forest floor and truffle character. The key is that the higher DMS concentrations in the cheeses increase perceived fruitiness and vivacity of the wines! Magical!
Voilà! All wine goes with cheese, isn't it?
The short answer is no. Cheese and wine is a lovely concept, but red wines require a bit of planning.
How about regional pairings like what grows together, goes together?
In that genre, Epoisses cheese and red Burgundy is a traditional pairing example. But will any Pinot Noir or any Burgundy do? Hardly. Washed-rind cheeses are not only pungent but also develop notable bitter taste as they mature. Red wines have tannins, and some of them taste bitter (i.e. phenolic bitterness). Moreover, higher ABV% (>13.5%) and the coumarin compounds from new oak barrels increase bitter perception too. And bitterness is additive! It means, best to forget Grand Cru/Premier Cru level wines from the Côte de Nuits and opt for a village or regional level Bourgogne with fresh acidity, silky tannins and light body.
Taleggio DOC & 2017 Louis Jadot Bourgogne Rouge
What do you enjoy with Pinot Noir?