Seeing, hearing…and using your head!

Where does the taste of wine come from? From the soil, where vines obtain their nutrients? From the air, which anoints the grapes with the precious yeast that will officiate during the fermentation process? From the wooden barrel in which the wine slowly matures?

All of these factors are important, but the taste of wine comes first and foremost from our brains, which have the vital job of integrating the many stimuli delivered by our senses. Apart from our nose (odours from ortho-nasal delivery and aromas via the retro-nasal path) and mouth (flavours and trigeminal sensations), taste is influenced by the other senses, such as sight and hearing. Tinted glasses? A noisy room? All of these can affect our appreciation of wine.     


                  Plat « Sound of the sea » du chef Heston Blumenthal               pixabay / photomix


In fact, researchers found that a white wine “dyed” red was correctly described as a white wine when tasted in an opaque glass – but as a red wine when tasted in a clear glass, proving that colour impacts “objective” tasting! Other studies have shown that hot chocolate tastes sweeter and more aromatic in a cream-coloured cup, and that cola seems more refreshing in a blue can.

On the hearing side, our ability to discriminate odours is reduced in noisy surroundings,  although this phenomenon depends on the nature of the sound, as loud classical music has little effect. More subtly, it seems that specific noises alter our sensitivity to certain flavours, with high sounds, for example, amplifying sweetness. More amusingly, Charles Spence received an IgNobel prize (the satirical equivalent of the Nobel prize) for a series of experiments that involved eating crisps while wearing headphones, thus proving that the sensation of crunchiness derives more from the ears than the teeth!

In fact our entire environment (light, temperature, the people around us), our mood, our physiological state, our expectations – all of these condition our appreciation of food. Not to mention preconceived ideas. One experiment showed that people approved of the odour of Parmesan emanating from a container labelled “Parmesan”, but they reeled back in disgust at the same odour from a container labelled “vomit”, certain that they could never abide something that smelled so bad.

In short, taste is definitely in your head!

Fonction / Domaine

Researcher at the CNRS and the National Museum of Natural History in Paris

Bio / Présentation

A food specialist, Christophe Lavelle teaches culinary physico-bio-chemistry at numerous universities and schools (including the University of Toulouse, University of Cergy-Pontoise, Le Cordon Bleu, and the Basque Culinary Centre) and regularly holds talks for the public and professionals (chefs, tutor, engineers). He is also co-manager of the PALIM (food heritage) network of the Sorbonne-Universities Alliance and a tutor at the INSPE for cooking and pastry teachers. He is the author of more than fifteen books including All the Chemistry You Need to Know to Become a Chef!” (Flammarion, 2017); ″I Eat Therefore I Am.″ (Editions du Musée de l'Homme, 2019) and "Molecules: Science On Your Plate" (Ateliers de l'Argol, 2021).

© MNHN - JC Domenech

Photo / Illustration
Christophe Lavelle