"Hmm, it tastes peachy, gutsy, with a pinch of wild berries," the wine connoisseur says after swirling the Chiraz round her mouth and pulling a few rubbery facial expressions. Such attempts to verbalise the flavour of wine may come in for a deserved degree of scorn, but a new study suggests that describing wines may actually help us distinguish among them.
The psychologists Angus Hughson and Robert Boakes were actually attempting to replicate an inconsistently observed learning effect known as "verbal overshadowing". This is the observation that describing an item, such as a face or wine, can hinder the ability of people to subsequently identify that item from among a range of alternatives. The theory has been that verbalising a description prompts the observer to rely on an inferior verbal representation of the item as opposed to relying on their perceptual memory of it.
In this case, Hughson and Boakes asked 20 novice and 20 established, but non-expert, wine drinkers to taste a red wine, wait four minutes, and then attempt to identity that same wine from among a choice of four. Half the participants were asked to provide a written description of the target wine during the break, whereas the other participants completed a crossword.
The more experienced drinkers (they'd been enjoying wine for an average of nine years; not non-stop) marginally outperformed the novices, thus showing that mere exposure to wine, without explicit training, can improve people's ability to discriminate between wine tastes.
More importantly, given the study goals, describing the target wine was found to aid, not hinder, subsequent recognition of it, for both novices and experienced drinkers. Practising describing wines is a key part of wine training courses, and the researchers said their finding suggests "there is little reason to reduce the amount of label training" in these courses.
Two further details warrant a mention. First, like a fine wine, some of the detail in the write-up of this study is to be cherished: "participants were not required to spit out the wine after tasting," the procedure section tells us. Second, previous research has shown that completing a crossword can interfere with a subsequent face recognition task - perhaps the control condition in the current study was not as benign as one might imagine?
Angus Hughson, Robert Boakes (2008). Passive perceptual learning in relation to wine: Short-term recognition and verbal description. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62 (1), 1-8 DOI: 10.1080/17470210802214890