Taste and synaesthesia – a post-script

As a post-script to my last post (pun intended!) Zheyi, who produces the synaesthetic wine-art, has drawn my attention to a sommelier who also sees colours with wine (although as I read it he doesn’t turn this into art). You can read about this here. Given the response I’ve had I suspect that this is more common than we may realise.  What Zheyi felt was particularly interesting with this is that the sommelier has some similar colour responses to her – notably the association of yellow through to orange with high acidity in wine.  There is probably an interesting research project on this, to establish if particular structural elements of wine produce common synaesthetic responses, or if the association is merely haphazard.

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.

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.