Tropical fruits, peaches, and citrus comprise the flavorful identity of the 2015 Apegadas White Douro. Angeleno Wine Company’s Sierra Hwy blend features notes of dark fruit, herbs, and spice. But doesn’t it all just taste like… wine?
I remember during my barista training a few years ago, our educator glanced at me expectantly as I sipped Tikur Anbessa, our single-origin Ethiopian coffee, asking what flavors I tasted. He turned the bag of beans around so I wouldn’t be able to see the three main tasting notes listed on the label. I tossed out some random, vague answers— “hmm, it feels fruity in the middle, and kind of goes up at the end?”— and modified them based on his facial expressions— Peter frowned, another sip, “wait, this time, I’m getting hints of citrus?” I could tell it tasted a little different than the Bolivian coffee he had brewed just before, but I couldn’t place how. It all just tasted like coffee to me.
My educator was stumped. I, a recent high school graduate at the time, had no experience with analyzing the subtleties of flavor; I was a frequent customer at Dunkin’ Donuts, where my go-to order was a small toasted almond iced coffee, light and sweet—which essentially means three heaping scoops of sugar and a slowly-timed three count of milk (is that even coffee anymore?). So as I sat atop the barstool at the training lab, brow furrowed in concentration while waiting for this translucent brown liquid to unveil its secrets to me, Peter ducked underneath the countertop, rummaged around in some dusty cardboard boxes, and reemerged with a couple of sterile-looking white bottles.
In these bottles were, quite literally, the solutions to my coffee conundrum: acids. These assorted acids were at play on my tongue when I sipped coffee and were what affected my perception of their subtle flavor variations. Peter held up the lactic acid solution for me to gently smell, which smelled almost like nothing; he explained this particular acid was responsible for how we taste the “milky” flavors in certain wines, as well as the original tart frozen yogurt flavor. The next bottle contained a solution of Malic acid; this one resulted in a flavor similar to granny smith apples, with a bitter finish. He also had Tartaric acid which, although it doesn’t really smell like anything, yields a tart, berry-like flavor— it’s also used to coat sour candies, like Sour Patch Kids. As is citric acid, which tastes pretty much like how it sounds, and is the main acid found in coffee (more info on the science behind acids in wine here). After wafting these acids like a chemistry pro, I took another sip of the Tikur Anbessa: “oranges!” I nearly screamed. Peter nodded in approval.
The most important thing Peter had taught me about tasting notes wasn’t about these acids, though— it was that, although tasting notes are agreed upon by groups of people who get paid the big bucks to identify flavor profiles,
there isn’t ever really a wrong answer.
Everyone experiences taste differently, whether it be a genetic variation that results in perceiving cilantro’s flavor to be soapy, or preferring spicy foods because you grew up battling your siblings in who could consume the most buffalo wings without sipping water. This applies to the other senses, too: you could break down the science behind rhythms, particular frequencies of notes, and how chord progressions please the ear; sometimes, it’s about forging connections with genres and artists over time (read more about the science behind music taste here). The universal danceability of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” makes it a widespread favorite regardless of an individual’s music taste—I mean, who doesn’t like that song? But for me, I’ll always love Lenny Kravitz because my dad would play “Fly Away” on the car ride to elementary school.
And what about visual aesthetics? Sure, certain color combinations complement one another and are utilized in anything from fashion to interior design. But sometimes the point of aesthetics is subverting these initial “scientific” preferences in favor of personal taste. Purple isn’t a conventional color for cars in any way— when was the last time you saw a purple car?— yet the Plum Crazy purple of the Dodge Challenger Hellcat is a coveted colorway among muscle car enthusiasts. And it does look really, really cool.
The bottom line is: while there’s a science behind the senses, in no way is our perception rigid or objective— there’s a kind of magic about how we taste, smell, touch, see, and hear.
We enjoy, we love, based on our personal sensory experiences.
You and I can go to the same Elton John concert, examine the same work of art by van Gogh, sip the same Riesling— and yet, we emerge with different takeaways, things we noticed and didn’t, from the same experience. And we’d both be right! So the next time your Somm details the notes of grapefruit and white peach in your white wine, if you taste orange and grape juice, remember: you aren’t entirely off-base.