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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why do we enjoy that first sip of wine the most?

I've heard it said that the first sip of wine is the best. That seems to makes sense. After the first sip, your palette becomes accustomed to the flavour of the wine. Subsequent tastes might be less distinct, less powerful and potentially less enjoyable. 

Yesterday, I thought about this relationship between the initial experience of a thing and the thing's evaluation. I was in the car... alone. It's amazing what thoughts creep into my mind when it's not busy answering the deep questions of a preschooler, such as "Where does that truck live, mommy?; Does it talk?; Do you drive fast, mommy, or slow?;" and "Are there more mean cars or are there more nice cars?" These are all very complex questions that drive out any other thoughts I might try to think. Further, Jack's important questions about driving are especially hard to ponder while actually trying to drive a car. But I digress. 

Alone in the car, it occurred to me that many things seem to be the best of what they are when we first experience them. Think of a first kiss, the first few beats of a really great song, the first time you saw mountains/the ocean/Niagara Falls. All of these firsts are exhilarating or in some other way emotionally-charged. Is that the measure of quality we're talking about when it comes to our first sip of a wine? Does wine become less exciting the more of it we drink? That seems counter-intuitive. After all, wine contains alcohol!

Consider that when we taste something, we also smell it through olfactory nerves that travel to the brain (see How does our sense of smell work?). The first whiff of something is usually the strongest. After living with a scent for a period of time, it's power diminishes (sometimes, that's a very good thing). It is possible that if the first sip of wine is the best, it is not because of how it tastes, but rather because of how it smells. According to Jim LaMar (see Three Wine Myths), "A great deal of the pleasure of wine comes from smell," and I would wholeheartedly agree based on my own experience. I can spend several minutes just smelling the wine in my glass before taking a drink. LaMar writes, "The smells in wine are comprised of Volatile Organic Compounds." These compounds can evaporate very quickly. To experience the wine as fully as possible, you need to smell it as soon as possible after opening or decanting the bottle. Since we can smell by tasting, this might explain why the early sips of wine are the best, at least if we define best as being the most accurate representation of what's in the bottle.

How many of our exhilarating firsts are enhanced by the sense of smell? Certainly first kisses qualify. The ocean and Niagara Falls have strong smell components. One of the areas of the brain stimulated by smell is associated with memory (see From Tongue and Nose to Brain). Anytime we smell a familiar scent it can transport us back to an earlier time, reinforcing the memory and creating a still stronger attraction to the smell. This makes me wonder, if we enjoy that first sip of wine the most, is it really the wine that we are enjoying, or are we instead drinking in the memories that its scent evokes?

Whether that first sip of wine is the best sip may be debated. What we can likely say is that if it is taken soon after the bottle is opened in order to savour the wine's delicate aroma, the first sip is the closest representation of what is in the bottle. It may be argued that it provides the fullest experience of the wine. Part of that rich experience may result from powerful memories associated with the wine's aroma. Knowing that makes me appreciate wine even more!


Retrieved March 15, 2011, from http://www.trendir.com/dining-entertaining/glassware_bar/?start=10

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