Recently I tasted a selection of Piedmontese wines from G.D. Vajra with Giuseppe Vaira who mentioned a scientific study that analyzed the brain activity of Sommeliers versus laypeople while tasting wine. While both groups showed activity in the amygdala (emotional & pleasure zone) area of the brain, the Sommeliers also showed increased brain activity in the frontal cortex (the area for cognitive thinking). Giuseppe took the research results a bit further and suggested that there are “back lobe” (meaning the amygdala) wines and “front lobe” wines.
Giuseppe compared two of his wines from different vineyard sites that were produced in different styles. G. D. Vajra is a Barolo producer and the wines are produced in a traditional style with forward fruit. The wines of Barolo are often compared to those of Burgundy—delicate, aromatic wines that require patience and contemplation—so most certainly frontal cortex or Sommelier wines. When they are from very ripe vintages or have excellent balance the wines will also give the amygdala a joggle. Ageing wine can round out sharp edges and soften the wine, making them less frontal cortex wine and more of a pleasure zone (amygdala) wine.
The idea that wine professionals use their frontal cortex when tasting wine is interesting but what is more useful is the idea that certain wines have components that are more pleasure oriented or more cognitive oriented.
I help one of my clients, Hamptons Wine Shoppe, with a new wine club concept that is designed to allow the everyday wine consumer to taste and learn what type of wines they prefer. The Hamptons Wine Club selects ten wines to show every month at various restaurants from Watermill to Port Jefferson, including Robert’s, The Stone Creek Inn and Ruvo East so far. We almost always choose both amygdala and frontal cortex wines. Some wines are easy to love and we are fairly sure they will be big hits, while others are more cerebral and we are never totally sure what the reaction will be.
Last month, we saw an amazing response to the 2007 Charles & Charles Red, a little Columbia Valley blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah that was soft and alluring, which was easily predicted. But we also saw amazing response to a 2005 Côtes du Rhône, a 100% Syrah, from Alain Voge that was spicy and earthy with dark berry aromas. The Charles & Charles was an example of an amygdala or pleasure zone wine while the Alain Voge was a wine that hit both the amygdala and the frontal cortex. But the Voge Côtes du Rhône was a frontal cortex wine that has matured to stimulate both areas of our brains. We also tasted a 2004 Rosso di Montalcino that was still a cognitive wine and not surprisingly was appreciated by a few in the audience but dismissed by many. My wine philosophy is to have wine consumers begin to learn their palate and how to describe it so they can make more wine decisions without depending on wine critics. Why? Because wine critics look at wine cognitively, which is not how everyday wine consumers look at it.