The Taste Spec­trum

Sarah Heller MW ex­plores what hap­pens when you trans­form wine tast­ing notes from mere words into a rich vis­ual lan­guage

T.Dining by Hong Kong Tatler - - The Dish -

De­spite their im­por­tance to my in­dus­try, wine tast­ing notes have al­ways struck me as a lit­tle odd. Rang­ing in style from the terse English note (“av­er­age at best,”; “very fine wine, a very fine wine in­deed”) to the max­i­mal­ist Amer­i­can (para­graphs of de­scrip­tion af­ter im­prob­a­bly spe­cific de­scrip­tion) to the idio­syn­cratic (heav­ily re­liant on sim­ile, metaphor and pop cul­ture ref­er­ences), notes of­ten leave me un­con­vinced that lan­guage is nec­es­sar­ily our best tool for telling peo­ple what an un­fa­mil­iar wine is ac­tu­ally like.

Fur­ther­more, in our in­creas­ingly de-cen­tralised world, we can no longer rely on shared cul­tural touch­stones (“what on earth,” I have been asked all too fre­quently, “is a plum pud­ding?”). My project, which I’ve called Vis­ual Tast­ing Notes, was at first just an at­tempt to rec­on­cile this is­sue. As I tell all wine students, learn­ing to write about wine is dif­fi­cult be­cause scents nat­u­rally trig­ger mem­o­ries—smell and mem­ory be­ing neigh­bours in our brains’ prim­i­tive lim­bic sys­tem—but lan­guage re­sides fur­ther out in the eso­teric frontal cor­tex. If we could im­pres­sion­is­ti­cally cap­ture the raw neu­ral flut­ter­ings trig­gered when we smell, say, the heady musk of our grand­mother’s per­fume or the dewy lush­ness of our child­hood gar­den, maybe we’d have a bet­ter shot at com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

Hav­ing com­pleted a de­gree in paint­ing, I’ve al­ways been in­clined to think vis­ually. The con­cept of de­pict­ing wine is hardly new, but much of what I’d seen—il­lus­tra­tions of wine flavours or pho­to­graphs of fruit clumps stuffed into wine­glasses or strewn around bot­tles—al­ways struck me as sim­ply vis­ual trans­la­tions of ver­bal notes. They seemed too lit­eral, as if the ex­pe­ri­ence of a wine could be recre­ated by tip­ping a glass­ful of fruit and nuts into a blender.

My start­ing point for ev­ery note is an out­line that de­fines the wine’s ba­sic “shape.” To my mind, shape is a con­cate­na­tion of the acid and tan­nin struc­ture, the body and the aro­matic in­ten­sity as they’re ex­pe­ri­enced in time, go­ing from top to bot­tom. Be­yond that, each im­age is as ex­pan­sive or min­i­mal­ist, sub­tle or flam­boy­ant as the wine de­mands. Col­lage, which mim­icks the brain’s ten­dency to col­lect sen­sory frag­ments and a favourite of mine from my art stu­dent days, feels like the per­fect medium. Dig­i­tal col­lage is even bet­ter be­cause it turns the en­tire world into a re­source. If I need a par­tic­u­lar shape I haven’t been able to hunt down in the wild, I can paint, draw or sculpt it then pho­to­graph it.

The project so far has been an ex­cit­ing trip back into the world of art and a thrilling merg­ing of my ear­lier life with my cur­rent one. The re­sponse has been fas­ci­nat­ing, with Chi­nese col­lec­tors and cu­ra­tors es­pe­cially in­trigued by some­thing they see as a very nat­u­ral com­bi­na­tion. In­ter­est­ingly, the sec­ond most in­ter­ested group has been Aus­tralians, who’ve ap­plauded the em­brace of in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ence over tech­ni­cal anal­y­sis. Hope­fully, as we show them in more and more venues, the cu­mu­la­tive feed­back will help build some­thing that truly res­onates.

Providence 1994 (Bordeaux blend), Matakana, New Zea­land Sheer colour, sun-dried tomato and dried cherry; sen­su­ous, en­velop­ing outer layer over nut shell and rose hip cen­ter

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