Flavour and colour: Wine taste and synaesthesia

This is not a post about tasting wine, whether it should be metaphorical and romantic or analytical and scientific (though maybe I’ll come back to that one day).  Rather, it’s about what a wine may ‘look’ like when it is drunk.  This is prompted by two short conversations over a couple of afternoons with a former student of mine in Dijon, Zheyi Mai, who now lives in Provence.  She came to us from Macau and spent a year on our MBA programme.

That’s barely relevant, however.  What I’m interested is in what we might call Zheyi’s synaesthetic response to the taste of wine.  Synaesthesia is essentially a sensory interaction – one stimulus (classically often letters and numbers but it could be a sound) regularly prompt a sense of (the same) colour, or of emotion or another sensation.  Sometimes other names or concepts are associated with specific mental ‘places’.  Sounds, too, may stimulate other physical sensations.

When Zheyi tastes she gets a very clear image which she associates with what she is tasting.  Often it is just a colour or a series of colours, sometimes this resolves itself into an image.  We drank some green tea and I asked her what the colour was, and she replied that it was grey; quite a light grey (possibly shading to something darker) but with a very soft texture, rather smooth.  A red wine we had the previous day was terracotta but also with some pale to mid-blue tones.  I asked if it was the aromas or the structure of the wine (acid, tannin, weight, alcohol etc) which stimulated the image and she replied that the structure gave texture to the image (as if paint was pasted on with a palate knife) and the aromas provided the colours and tones.

Most of what Zheyi sees is this abstract shading of colours overlaid by the texture of the colours.  Yet in one instance she talked of a specific image – she tasted once a 2004 Romanée Conti (lucky lady!) and immediately visualised a beautiful young brunette lady in an elegant magenta dress and wearing an expensive and subtle perfume; the woman walked past her as if on a film screen and turned momentarily to give her a smile.  This in turn makes me wonder if the quality (complexity or interest) or definition of a wine is more likely to produce an image rather than colours.

What is more interesting is that Zheyi claims that the feelings evoked by a wine, which link to the image, is a much more effective way for her to remember wines than any analytic process.  We taught her to taste systematically (the Wine and Spirits Education Trust approach), and she uses that to analyse a wine – but it is of less use than the image/colour relationship when it’s necessary to remember a wine from the past.  Feeling, not analysis, is what counts (and I can confirm that she is a very good taster, with the best marks of her cohort when we taught them wine tasting).

There has been a lot of research into cross-sensory relationships between wine and other senses (notably by the Oxford psychologist Charles Spence and his former PhD student Janice Wang), much of it looking at the relationship of wine to music.  But I’ve never heard of anything such as the experience Zheyi has; if anyone else has had this please let me know.  In the meantime, she’s begun to start producing pictures based on the wine she has drunk (see her Instagram account at Mai.Art.Wine).  There will be more – I’ve just given her three bottles of wine and asked her to produce pictures based on what she tastes.  She says that the images or colours develop and change as the wine changes in the glass, so I’m hoping she’ll look at the wines over a day or two to see if the pictures evolve.  More to come on this when I see the pictures.

2 thoughts on “Flavour and colour: Wine taste and synaesthesia

  1. Steve, this is fascinating and shows how our desire to categorize everything (including tasting notes) leaves many fine tasters behind. I much prefer a piece of art to describe a wine than a score by the way.

    Like

  2. Hello Steve,

    I was very interested to read this piece, and look forward to hearing from you more on this.

    My daughter has grapheme colour synesthesia (did I ever mention that?), so I have a small insight to her fascinating world! She sees letters and numbers in colour, I put it down to the fridge magnets as a child!

    Hope all is well with you,

    All the best,

    Yours

    Neil

    Neil Tully MW
    Creative Director

    AMPHORA DESIGN
    2 Kelso Place, Upper Bristol Road, Bath, BA1 3AU
    Tel: 01225 461 431
    https://www.instagram.com/amphoradesign/

    http://www.amphora.co.uk

    From: “Wine, Culture & Society”
    Reply-To: Culture & Society
    Date: Friday, 9 July 2021 at 11:42
    To: Neil Tully
    Subject: [New post] Flavour and colour: Wine taste and synaesthesia

    stevechartersmw posted: ” This is not a post about tasting wine, whether it should be metaphorical and romantic or analytical and scientific (though maybe I’ll come back to that one day). Rather, it’s about what a wine may ‘look’ like when it is drunk. This is prompte”

    Like

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