Taste and synaesthesia revisited.

Last July I posted on a discussion with one of my former students, Zheyi Mai, who, when she tastes wine has very strong visual responses, particularly focused on colour and texture. I concluded that article by saying that I’d given her three wines which I asked her to taste and then paint.  Just before Christmas we caught up, and she showed me the pictures she has done.  The three wines were the following, each with their associated visual interpretation:

She presented three pictures.  These are based on:

  1. A white burgundy: Dme Chapuis Chorey-les-Beaune 2018
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2. A red burgundy: Dme Remoriquet Nuits-St-Georges ‘les Allots’ 2015

3. A champagne: Marc Chauvet Brut Sélection nv

To recap, Zheyi paints using her feelings about the wines.  The process is neither primarily representative nor pictorial (although see below – there may be links between specific colours and specific aspects of a wine, as with brown in the representation of the champagne). 

The wine’s structure is key to what she is doing initially, much more than aromatic character.  Colour and shapes represent her feelings; she sees them but they need time to come together.  As a result the pictures are not painted instantly and she will taste and retaste the wines over three to five days.  She tastes the opened wine immediately for an instant reaction and then carries on over subsequent days.  Consequently the picture is in part a response to the evolution of the wine in contact with the air.  Zheyi has been trained to taste systematically (using the Wine and Spirit Education Trust approach) but in painting she is not representing a structured, logical, professional analysis of the wine so much as a personal, subjective response.  Thus, for Zheyi, the champagne shows abundance, fruitfulness and early autumn harvests – not acidity, mousse, sugar and the like. 

Each picture has its own physical starting point on the canvas.  The place on the canvas where she begins is part of the vision – but she can offer no logic about why it commences there – it’s just the feeling.  The sections of the painting then evolve, and the response to the wine becomes more and more subtle.  Note that the texture of paint, added on later and thickened, is part of the response.  It doesn’t come across in the photos I’ve included so much, but the pictures often have dense layers of nuanced colour.

Zheyi says that when she starts it is as if she has the ingredients for a meal; this is how you begin cooking but how do they fit together?  She is not cooking by a recipe but by intuition.  What we see is the final dish.  A third to a half of the process is in the ingredients – the sensory information from the wine – and about a half to two-thirds is the creative response.  Ultimately she is trying to capture the beauty of the wine.

Only after she has finished does she a carry out a more formal tasting analysis; this is to enable her to communicate about the wine, which she accepts that she has to do, to convey how her vision relates to the physical presence of the drink.  However, for Zheyi the verbal analysis doesn’t express the wine as a living being – it doesn’t tell the story.  In one sense, I suggest, this is like those winemakers who say that they ‘allow the wine to tell its own story’ and she agrees.  Later, even if she forgets her formal tasting analysis of the wine she can remember what it was like by looking at the painting.  It tells her what she drank – and she can convey that to us.

This is a confrontation between methodical and subjective responses.  Zheyi may not agree with this but it seems to me that, ultimately, this process unconsciously synthesises the intuitive and analytical sides of tasting; even if it is not a structured tasting in the WSET format it is still both a cognitive and intuitive/subjective reaction.  At the same time Zheyi stresses that ‘subjective’ for her does not mean ‘emotional’; she tries not to be too emotional about the wines she is depicting – rather she wants to understand their story.  This seems to me almost to be using synaesthesia to develop a phenomenology of wine, as if the drink was being explored by an anthropologist of physical taste. 

The colour of the pictures is nuanced and you have to pick out different things; there are different flecks and shades.  Zheyi says that these evolve with time: it is a process of the discovery of these subtleties.  Likewise, almost hidden, there are the golden highlights on the dark colours of the Remoriquet painting.  When you first look there are one or two obvious things – but with time the image reveals more.  It is identical to tasting as we might do it – a process of the discovery of nuance; again this brings together the intuitive and the analytical side of tasting.

It is all about colour and paint texture.  She questions whether it is true synaesthesia.  It is not like the instant link of a colour with a single musical note or a word, rather it is something which takes time to evolve.  Perhaps, also, it is more representative than true synaesthesia.  Maybe, therefore, this is quasi-synaesthesia.  Yet I would argue that a note or a word and a colour are two single, simple stimuli; a wine (or a meal or a tune) is more complex.  Thus her colour synaesthesia may be more complex and take longer to come together. You can look at what Zheyi is doing on Instagram. Interestingly Zheyi is not the only person doing this; Caroline Brun, a wine lover and artist living in Champagne is offering a similar way of understanding that region’s wines – see her website here.

So, finally, here is how Zheyi verbally analysed the paintings of the wines.

1.   Dme Chapuis Chorey-les-Beaune 2018

This is a light, airy picture although when she first opened the bottle she found little life in the wine; she began at the bottom with the pink-grey which represented this.  A day later it opened up and she moved up to the middle part.  This is buttery and cooked pear and a touch floral (which gives pink hues to the colours).  It is not a heavy wine – but also static rather than dynamic.  A wine to drink now – the painting says ‘here it is’.

2.   Dme Remoriquet Nuits-St-Georges ‘les Allots’ 2015

This wine is grounded; there is weight at the bottom of the painting as there is at the ‘bottom’ of the wine.  There is something alluring which leads you on.  It began with purple, blue, black, and liquorice, in the third quarter down.  It also has lots of layers – nevertheless, remember that the colours don’t represent the wine in concrete terms but her feelings about it.

The wine is vibrant; it has potential, it is the dawn before a sunrise.  Note the gold flecks even on the darkest colours.  The picture is greyish at the top and this came later; there is less presence and purity at this stage but that is part of the lifecycle of the opened wine.

3.   Champagne Marc Chauvet Brut Selection NV.

The champagne shows abundance, early autumn harvests – not acid, mousse, sugar etc.  A cosy, warming, wine, with a big block of central ‘orange’ colour.  There is pear and golden apple and abundance – the taste of ripe pear feels like sunshine.  There are browns and olive greens.  These aren’t dominant; they are just there (she often feels brown in champagne – she links it to the influence of lees contact).  Nevertheless, this wine has a great deal of vibrancy, so that colour is limited her.

There is a large central block of colour – yet this is not in fact one single tone.  It is nuanced and you have to pick out different things; there are different flecks and shades around yellows, ochres and oranges.  These evolve with time: it is a process of the discovery of these nuances.  Yet although this is one large block it is also very dynamic; there is more movement to it.

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