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Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008
Tongue-twisting over Beaujolais
By ERIKO ARITA
On Friday, Nov. 21, the day after the worldwide release of this year's Beaujolais Nouveau in France, I joined a gathering of some 100 wine-lovers in Tokyo's Odaiba waterfront district to welcome the new, jet-lagged plonk to these shores.
However, our meeting point was neither a bar nor a restaurant. It was at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.
The event there, named "Tasting & Testing," was for people wanting to learn exactly how human beings taste the flavor of wines — including young French reds like this. To kick off proceedings, Takako Tsuchino, science communicator at the museum, asked the participants why they love wines.
"I love their profundity," a middle-aged man said with deep meaning in his voice. "I like the taste and the aroma," a young woman chirped in.
For each participant, the museum provided a small cup of red wine and one of white, and Tsuchino asked everyone to identify the aromas of each by selecting from 49 "nose" descriptors listed on a sheet the museum staff had handed out — from various fruits, spices and flowers (that, oddly, did not include grape).
"I chose pears and apples," a woman said of the white. For the red, a man nominated raspberry and cassis. I was at a loss to pinpoint any particular associations.
But then Tsuchino dropped her bombshell: "They are actually the same wine," she announced. "The red wine was originally the white wine but it was colored red artificially." There was a stir among the crowd.
Tsuchino explained that our sense of smell is influenced by our other senses, such as sight. So people tend to imagine the smell of dark-colored fruits when they consider red wine. "We sense taste through our eyes, noses and tongues. The information these sense organs receive is combined in our brains and analyzed," Tsuchino said, adding that our past experience of eating and drinking also influences our perception of taste.
But we are all more or less different, so is taste subjective or objective?
Well, it turns out that it was believed to be subjective until 1989, when Kiyoshi Toko, a professor in Kyushu University's Department of Electronics, invented the world's first machine able to classify taste objectively.
Tsuchino explained that this "taste-sensor machine" can register sweetness, sourness and other tastes and assign appropriate numerical values using a mechanism similar to that of our tongues, which are home to about 5,000 taste-bud cells with a membrane around them. When we eat food, the membrane and taste buds react and the electrical potential on our tongues changes. These changes are then transmitted as electrical signals to the brain.
Then Toko, another speaker at the Odaiba event, explained that his sensor has eight electronic "tongues" to measure various tastes, and the data from them is then analyzed by computer.
"Each person tastes food and drink differently, and their taste changes depending on their health condition. But the sensor does not catch a cold," Toko said.
Then, after their "trick" tasting and those edifications, participants finally got to taste Beaujolais Nouveau, after which Tsuchino asked them to define its "taste formula" from one of six numerical combinations of sourness, sourness aftertaste, bitterness, bitterness aftertaste, mineral bitterness and astringency.
It turned out the right answer was that, in the case of this young French red whose grapes were so recently on the vine, all six of the indicators are — objectively — about the same, with none outweighing another.
"And that balance," Tsuchino announced, "is why everyone finds the wine tasty."
But how did this year's Beaujolais Nouveau compare with past years' — and more aged red wines?
To find out, several days later I went to Yokohama to the Taste and Aroma Strategic Research Institute, where experts have been assessing older wines since 2004 using the taste sensor — and Beaujolais Nouveau since 2006, as Fumihiro Ikeda, manager of the institute's marketing service department, explained.
Typically, when comparing Beaujolais Nouveau with Bordeaux wine, the former's astringency rates 2.5, relative to the latter's 3.5, Ikeda said — hence the newer red's light taste. He added, however, that some of the 10 brands tested showed a little more or less sourness than others.
The analysis — which also included finer points of early and later astringency — was very close to the evaluation of Yasuki Gokijo, a sommelier of 20 years' standing who serves at a restaurant in Chiba. In his words, the early taste was the wine's "attack," and he said of this year's Beaujolais Nouveau: "Its attack is heavier than last year's and the aftertaste is shorter and pleasant. Overall, its taste is more fresh and elegant than last year's."
Like Gokijo and the Odaiba event attendees, plenty of Japanese enjoy the young French reds, although their popularity here is declining.
Imports of Beaujolais Nouveau peaked at 9.39 million liters (equivalent to 12.5 million regular 750-milliliter bottles) in 2004, according to Sopexa Japon, a French governmental organization promoting French food and drink in Japan. In 2007, imports were down to 6.2 million liters — which still accounted for 46 percent of all that year's Beaujolais Nouveau production.
Gokijo said he speculates that the fall-off in popularity is due to the increasing number of Japanese who drink matured wines as the drink steadily becomes integral to the nation's drinks culture. "However, I know many Japanese people who often drink matured wines, but who have recently rediscovered the deliciousness of Beaujolais Nouveau," he said.
For his part, Toko of Kyushu University suggested retailers should utilize the taste sensor in promoting Beaujolais Nouveau, saying, "It's important to show people how the young French reds are different from other wines in scientific ways."
But whether you need such encouragement — or data — to work up a thirst for Beaujolais Nouveau or not, according to Sopexa Japon the young wine's fresh flavor can be enjoyed for about two months after its release into the market. In other words, raising a glass now will be just fine to help you enjoy a very merry Christmas — and doing so anytime through to mid-January will help you launch into a happy new year as well.