The Taste of Wine: Its History and Philosophy

// May 25th 2012, from 2:30 until 5:30 pm

Institut Nicod – Salle des rĂ©unions
Pavillon Jardin, Ground Floor
29, rue d’Ulm 75005 Paris

Book now – reservation obligatory – free entrance


2:30-3:30 // Steven Shapin, Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University
The Tastes of Wine: Towards a Cultural History

Abstract. How have people talked about the organoleptic characteristics of wines? How and why have descriptive and evaluative vocabularies changed over time? These vocabularies have shifted from the spare to the elaborate, from medical implications to aesthetic analyses, from a leading concern with “goodness” (authenticity, soundness) to interest in the analytic description of component flavours and odours. The causes of these changes are various: one involves the importance, and eventual disappearance, of a traditional physiological framework for appreciating the powers and qualities of different sorts of aliment, including wines; another concerns the development of chemical sciences concerned with flavour components; and still another flows from changing social and economic circumstances in which wine was consumed and the functions served by languages of connoisseurship. The historical span surveyed here extends from Antiquity to the present and displays talk about wine tastes as a perspicuous site for understanding aspects of wide-ranging social and cultural change.

3:30-3:45 // Coffee Break

3:45-4:45 // Barry Smith, Director of the Institute of Philosophy in the School of Advanced Study of the University of London
Flavours and Us

Psychologists and neuroscientists tell us that flavour is the result of multi-sensory integration of olfactory, tactile and taste impressions, modulated by tasting’s dynamic time course and the location of sensory stimuli in the mouth. According to this definition, the flavour of a wine is a psychological construct that can vary from subject to subject as a result of different threshold sensitivities tasters have to acid, tannin, sugar, alcohol, C02 and sulphur. Lighting conditions, mood, and even sounds can affect our experience of tasting, and wines can be enhanced or distorted by accompanying food choices. All of this suggests that wine makers have very little influence over the resulting experience drinkers of their wines will have. However, we must distinguish between the experience of drinkers and the flavours of wines. The relationship between them is far from simple and it takes experience and practice to become a proficient taster, able to pick out the flavours in a wine. I will argue that we need to recognise flavours as intermediaries between the chemistry of wine and our reactions to it if we are to explain our practices and understand what the science of wine making contributes to our consumption of it.

4:45-5:15 // Discussant: Gloria Origgi, CNRS, Institut Nicod: What is the “Ultimate Taste”?

5:15-5-30 // General Discussion (with a glass of wine)

For further information, contact Gloria Origgi: gloria.origgi@gmail.com


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