Sommeliers: Legitimate skill or an excuse to drink more?

The concept of fine wines has always eluded me. As I sit here, drinking my $8 wine I realise the whole thing is lost on me.

Personally I can’t justify spending $60 on one bottle of wine – nor could I tell you the difference between that and a $20 bottle. My $8 glass has me thinking, if I can’t appreciate fine wines like Dom Perignon or Penfolds and taste the subtle hints of *insert exotic flavour here* – can anyone? Are wine connoisseurs  – sommeliers – actually talking nonsense?

Penfolds Grange – a highly respected brand and type of wine. The Vintage 1958 Penfolds Grange retails at $34,900 from Dan Murphy’s, Australia. Credit : Penfolds website



So, naturally, I did some digging. To my surprise, it turns out there is some merit to what the wine professionals are talking about. Interestingly, sommeliers actually activate a different part of their brain when sampling wines. A study in Italy – using members of the Italian Wine Association (Enoteca Italiana di Siena) as in THE wine people – were tested against “naïve” tasters. Naïve being someone like me with no training or knowledge of fine wine. How did they test this? Why, by measuring their brain waves of course!

How do you read a sommeliers brain waves?

They strapped their subjects (ethics approvals well in place) and essentially force-fed them various samples of either wine or a glucose liquid (I volunteer as tribute!). Results showed differences between the naive and the professionals brain scans. Both naive and sommeliers had the same patterns of brain activation during tasting, and they could easily identify the difference between wine and glucose. However, during the aftertaste phase, there was significant difference with the naives and sommeliers activating different parts of their brain during this phase! The sommeliers extensive training has allowed them to increase their sensitivity to combined olfactory and taste perception. Basically, their long training has allowed them to isolate and carefully analyse ‘tastes’ to detect finer things than the naïve tasters. So, after they swallow during the ‘aftertaste

Wine tasting and scoring. Credit: Concour Mondial de Bruxelles

‘ stage, their olfactory senses are heightened and can detect more acute things the naive tasters couldn’t.

So what does it actually mean? Should we care what they say?

Well, it means that they have the ability to isolate flavours and aspects of what they’re tasting by using their olfactory senses and there is certainly knowledge behind what they’re saying.

External influences and how they affect enjoyment 

It’s interesting to remember that we (humans) are also easily influenced by our emotions, the weather – and even music! Texas Tech University showed that by playing classical music in a liquor store, it encouraged patrons to spend more on wine than if they played popular hits. In a different study, both professionals and regular consumers tried wines and were given a positive or negative score awarded by a well known wine critic before tasting.  When tasters were told a wine ranked high before they sampled it, it generally influenced them to score it higher. Similarly, when the same wine was given a negative review prior to sampling, tasters scored it negatively.

This isn’t a new concept. There have been various tests where consumers sampled beer, tomatoes or even protein bars and were given  ‘blind tests’ or negative information about the product. More often than not, they reacted negatively to the product or couldn’t tell the difference between high or low quality products.

Blind taste testing. Labels and brands are hidden before sampling. Credit: Lehigh Valley Wine Trail

So, can we trust sommeliers?

Put simply? Yes. Highly trained sommeliers are more sensitive than we are to subtle flavours with their heightened olfactory senses and taste receptors, so there’s a fair chance they know what they’re talking about when they say they’re tasting something we’re not.

The take home message from this, personally, is if you walk into a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine be careful of the music playing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to refresh my $8 glass.


6 Responses to “Sommeliers: Legitimate skill or an excuse to drink more?”

  1. Sci_keljay says:

    They taste and smell the same to me! $8 it is!

  2. Sci_keljay says:

    They are pretty much the same to me. Although, personal research and conversations with others has shown me that the more expensive the bottle, the smaller the hangover! (Fairly sure it’s linked with higher quality products, so less preservatives)

  3. Sci_keljay says:

    That they are!

  4. Kaye says:

    Thanks for the article. I too have always wondered whether sommeliers were sometimes just making stuff up, so it’s good to know that they actually do have a heightened sense of taste / smell. Though to be honest, unless us mere mortals also develop that same highly tuned sense of taste / smell we may as well just stick with the $8 bottles of plonk. Cheers!

  5. Holly Winter says:

    So as a naive wine drinker, I can safely say that an $8 bottle tastes no worse to me than an $80 bottle? This is definitely something I’ll be telling to my friends next time we have dinner so I can avoid buying expensive wine :’)