Food & Wine Pros | Can synaesthesia enhance our ability to appreciate wine?

Food & Wine Pros

Can synaesthesia enhance our ability to appreciate wine?

Author (and self-proclaimed shopkeeper) Sally Butcher of Persepolis asks whether Grenache rosé reminds you of patchouli and Malbec of Beethoven. And are we missing out if we’re not fellow synaesthetes?

"Ever since I read Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale as a moody adolescent (believe it) I’ve been obsessed with the idea of food as a gateway:

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene...

Agreed, wine has its own special ability to ‘transport’ the consumer, but the sensuousness of the lines perfectly conveys the power that taste has over the imagination and memory. We all have those seminal meal moments which remain key in our stock of food experience, and it can take but a whiff of this or a few bars of that song to transport us back to that time/place.

For some however flavour and aroma are far more deeply and habitually intertwined – and not just with each other. With sounds and sensations of touch and with the sight of a particular image, word or symbol. These people will regularly see dates and days of the week as colours, or associate smells with names, or hear music as a particular taste in their mouth. They are known as synaesthetes (derived from the two Greek words which mean ‘a coming together of the senses’: see? I can do erudite too).

The first time I came across the condition known as synaesthesia I was nose down in a bonkers-but-gripping thriller by the inimitable Dean Koontz*. Because most of our general knowledge these days comes from reading too much pulp fiction, yes . . . ?

Anyway, the concept did not seem nearly as strange to me as it should have done, because I suspect that I am a borderline synaesthete myself. As a child I can remember associating the taste/smell of singed toast with the name ‘James’, and citrus fruity sensations with the name ‘Henrietta’.... It goes on, but enough of that. I just assumed it was normal.

The thing is... studies suggest that we are all pretty much born with the ability to bring the senses together, and it is only as we mature that we ‘learn’ to differentiate (yes: I have read a book on the subject – a rather excellent one called “Wednesday is Indigo Blue” by Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman). Some of us however don’t bother to mature and retain the ability to experience a delightfully mixed array of sensations, not all of which can be easily put into words.

Right, so back to food, and wine. Well, if you go to Vinopolis (or any other wine theme park), they give you a fleeting impression of the synaesthetic pleasures to be had from wine by getting you to inhale two or three aromas (herbs, flowers, spice) and then sup at a wine which comprises all of those components. It is astonishing how the different smells combine into one flavour. Obviously everybody is different, but if you take this one step further, into everyday life, the experience is often replicated. You just have to be aware of the possibilities.

The gustatory and the olfactory are the most closely linked of faculties, and wine is heady stuff, rolling around your nasal cavity before hitting your tongue, so it is (in my very amateurish opinion) the single most likely substance to trigger synaesthetic experience.

But this coming together of sensual experience is everywhere: a slight breeze combined with the aroma of coffee can taste like almonds, feel like cat fur and sound like rai music; the smell of fresh coriander is blue and twangs like country and western; Wagner is a yellowy/orange and tastes of burnt toffee....

I’m not a scientist, nor am I an oenologist: hell, I’m just a shopkeeper. But. This should have interesting implications for the wine aficionado (or anyone who tastes and pairs anything for a living). Obviously everybody’s perceptions vary, but by way of example....

Most recently I found that a glass of Grenache rosé came together with some patchouli bath oil and soared to the sound of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis: they were all at one and the same pitch and offered the same (rather lovely, sadly fleeting) bath-time sensation. Previously I have noted that Malbec and (the smell of) ylang ylang and (much of) Beethoven all taste the same.

I am not suggesting that sommeliers ought to sample new wines in the bath with the radio on – merely that they should be aware that there is rather more to the effect of wine than whether it tastes of gooseberries and its percentage proof. Wine and food should be paired with consideration for all the senses.

It is of course quite conceivable that the greatest wine experts are in fact all closet synaesthetes, and I’m just ‘chattin’ shit’ (as my step-children are wont to say).

In conclusion I would urge: listen to your chocolate some more, feel your wine and inhale the soundtrack of your life.

And I’d be really interested to hear your experiences of this, especially in the foody/drinky sphere. Because we’ve all got a bit of the synaesthete inside us somewhere.

*It’s called Intensity – and I highly recommend it.

Sally Butcher is the author of the cookbooks Persia in Peckham and Veggiestan (both of which I can highly recommend FB) and runs the shop and online business Persepolis together with her husband, The Shopkeeper. For more about synaesthetics check out the UK Synaesthesia Society

Image of burnt toast © fkruger -
Image of ylang ylang © mything -


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Comments: 2 (Add)

Fiona Beckett on June 9 2013 at 11:51

I'll take a look at that, Catherine - thanks!

Catherine Hayes Sparks on June 4 2013 at 10:01

You must take a look at Wade Davis' TED talk on "Dreams from endangered cultures"

The bit where he finds out how they know when the plants used in making ayahuasca are ripe and ready...' the plants sing in a certain key' brings synesthesia to a different level. Maybe tradititional peoples figured that synaesthesia ran in families and appointed someone in particular to take charge of something like this? Like modern super-tasters?
V.interesting piece. thank you

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