A sensory guide to Christmas drinking

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If you’re looking forward to a festive tipple this Christmas, you’ve probably already been thinking about what to buy. But have you also thought about what atmosphere to create while you’re drinking your purchases, or whether more expensive necessarily means more enjoyable?

We’ve taken a look back at three pieces of research, co-authored by Professor Charles Spence and published in Flavour, to bring you a festive guide to enjoying your booze. (Responsibly of course!)

It isn’t all about the money

If, like me, you enjoy some bubbles on Christmas morning, or quite frankly at any time, then you’ll be pleased to know that even a more modestly-priced champagne can get expert taste buds tingling. In a small study published at the end of November, Professor Spence and his fellow authors found that there was no correlation between price and how much the participants in a blind taste test liked various different types of champagne. (Though the expert tasters were more able to discern the differences between them.)

Previous reports – which were part of the inspiration behind this study – suggested that when tasters didn’t know the price, brand or origin of the wine they were tasting, they rated the one they most liked as the most expensive. Once they knew the details of the wine, however, the perceived liking changed. So knowing that a wine is more expensive or from a particular region can actually enhance your perceived liking of it – a ‘price placebo effect’ if you will.

This all made me wonder if perhaps we should be doctoring the labels on our champagne bottles, though of course the ‘price placebo effect’ probably wouldn’t work on the person carrying out this subterfuge. Perhaps I should just stick to Prosecco…

Get your musical accompaniment right

Taking a sip of wine, at least a wine worth talking about, is like hearing the sound of a sustained, musical chord.” – Kent Bach in Knowledge, wine, and taste: what good is knowledge (in enjoying wine)?

Another of Professor Spence’s studies, published today in Flavour, wanted to probe the statement above, along with other similar writing from wine experts which compares wine with music. Can you match certain wines to certain types of music, and does listening to music enhance the drinking experience?

Well, from this small study it seems that the answer to both questions could be ‘yes’. The researchers conducted two experiments using four wines – chosen to present a distinctive array of characteristics (including acidity, fruit, tannins, and sweetness) – and eight pieces of music selected by the London Symphony Orchestra.

The first experiment revealed that participants judged certain wines to be a particularly good (or bad) match for specific pieces of the chosen music. The second experiment looked at whether three of the wines were more enjoyable when the music identified as matching that wine was played, compared to silence. The analysis showed that participants enjoyed the wine more when listening to the music.

So what does this mean for our wine choices this Christmas? We’ve looked at the wine characteristics from the study and paired them up with some of the track(s) they were better matched with. You can even access our Spotify playlist of all the music used in the experiment here: https://play.spotify.com/user/biomed_central/playlist/0UqnnKx4dExkADvv9x46VH

Type and characteristics of the wine Track(s)
Sauvignon Blanc. (Demonstrating acidity)Tasting notes: very fine, pure and sophisticated. Clean with razor sharp acidity which is balanced by fresh blackcurrant leaf flavors. Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D major, K285 – Movement 1 and Movement 2CPE Bach’s Solo Sonata in A minor – Movement 2 Allegro
Pinot Noir. (Demonstrating purity of fruit)Tasting notes: luscious and fruit packed with heaps of fresh cherry, spice, earth and game on the nose. Layers of rich, naturally sweet red fruits. Ravel’s String Quartet in F majorTchaikovsky’s String Quartet No 1 in D major – Movement 2
Cabernet Sauvignon. (Demonstrating tannins)Tasting notes: a subtle combination of floral, fruit and spice aromas, all are clearly present but no single aroma dominates. Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No 1 in D major – Movement 2
Sauternes – Semillon grape (Demonstrating sweetness.Tasting notes: Hazelnuts, vanilla and apricot. Lots of dried orange peel and honey in this excellent sweet wine. There was no significant difference between the pieces of music for this wine, so go ahead and take your pick!

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Choose your setting carefully

While not a regular whisky drinker myself, I can definitely appreciate the appeal of a glass of whisky on a cold winter night. According to Professor Spence and his co-authors on Assessing the influence of the multisensory environment on the whisky drinking experience it’s possible to change your perception of a whisky by creating different environments to drink it in.

At a whisky tasting event, participants were asked to sample the same whisky in three different rooms. The rooms had been to designed to have a unique visual appearance, soundscape, fragrance, and feel which would emphasize a different attribute of the whisky; its grassiness, sweetness, or woodiness. It was found that participants rated the whisky as more ‘grassy’, ‘sweet’ or ‘woody’ in accordance with which room they were in.

So why not give it a go and see if you can create a sensory drinking experience at home? Condiment Junkie’s blog has some great tips to help you do this.

So I wish you all a very enjoyable Christmas, and while I certainly don’t want to be accused of being a spoil sport, I wouldn’t be responsible if I didn’t also say that we advise enjoying all of these recommendations in moderation!