Professor Charles Spence is an experimental psychologist based at the University of Oxford. But what’s that got to do with wine? Quite a lot. His research focuses on our sensory experiences and what influences them.
He has, for example, shown how music can alter our perceptions of wine taste. Lighter reds with fruity aromas (think Beaujolais, Cinsault) might match well with high-pitched sounds, smoky wines (Shiraz) with low pitch sounds whereas high-tannin wines (possibly Cabernet Sauvignon) would go better with orchestral or rock music. Traces of vanilla evident in wine (Chardonnay) call for slow-tempo sounds.
He also asks questions like why is it that the wine/chocolate/salami we’ve loved on holiday, for example, can sometimes taste so unremarkable at home.
For the good professor, context plays a big part. What was the occasion? Who was with us? How were we feeling at the time? What was the weather, and so on.
Harpers, a UK drinks publication aimed mostly at the international trade, reported in April this year on the outcome of a new study by Spence. This one focused on the surroundings wine drinkers find themselves in, looking closely at the company.
Of his respondents, 80% “agreed that sitting around a table with great wine, delicious food and stimulating company was their “ultimate happy place”. And when they were with people whom they loved that figure rose to 92%.
He explained that: “There is an intrinsic link between social and emotional cues and the experience of eating food and drinking wine. This plays into the idea of the ‘social facilitation effect’, a well-known gastrophysics theory in which we tend to enjoy food and drink more when in the presence of people we like. At the same time, our perception of the quality and enjoyment of the food and wine we consume is likely to be affected by the facial expressions and gestures of those around us.”
If you think about it, we’ve always known this to be true. Just cast your mind back to any occasion, grand or simple, where you’ve been with people who really mean something to you (in a good way!). Isn’t your memory of the meal – the wine and the food - suffused in a warm afterglow?
Leaving Professor Spence for a moment: have you noticed how powerfully evocative our sense of smell can be and how that makes us feel? And often in an immensely positive way. One whiff of slow-roasted lamb with rosemary; onions caramelising in the pan; or a vanilla-laced dessert baking in the oven can transport you instantly to a place of comfort or joy. Perhaps it reminds you of your family home, someone special, a vacation or dinner in a favourite restaurant.
Great people, great meals and great fragrances can make great memories.
But what about making new memories: Who can you bring to your table? Select the wines in your mind and now plan the menu around them. Hard not to feel hungry at the thought.
OK, now come down to earth again. Maybe not this week. Or even next, if your schedule is too crazy. So just for fun, why not think about some easy snack and wine combos with your good people. Got the wine? Now it’s just a matter of crisps and glasses and you’re all set.
Here are some suggestions from Vinoteque manager, Michael van Deventer and the team:
Crisp bubbles with a salty snap
JC le Roux Scintilla 2015
Simba Salt & Vinegar
Acid meets acid in this delightfully racy frisson
Durbanville Hills Collectors Reserve The Cape Mist Sauvignon Blanc 2022
Lay’s Sour Cream & Onion
Creamy, tangy lime meets creamy umami
Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Chardonnay 2022
Lay’s French Garlic Baguette
A light pink fluttering of flavour gives that garlic a special charm
Durbanville Hills Merlot Rosé 2022
Lay’s Caribbean Onion & Balsamic Vinegar
Sea breezes and sun-ripened stone fruits to echo that savoury/sweet brine
Nederburg The Anchorman Chenin Blanc 2020
Doritos Cheese Supreme
A full-on blast of rich flavour
Fleur du Cap Series Privee Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
Gentle berry fruit and spice to chase that tangy tomato tornado
Durbanville Hills Collectors Reserve The Lighthouse Merlot 2018
Simba Chilli Biltong
Spice is niiiice
Zonnebloem Shiraz 2020
Lay’s Sweet & Smoky American BBQ
Savoury/sweet is such a treat
Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Pinotage 2015