The Science of Wine Tasting

11 August 2004
Posted by Martin Westwell.

I am organising a public event in Oxford entitled "The Science of Wine Tasting". I thought that people would be really keen but when I mentioned it to a colleague she said, "Well, that'll take all then fun out of it" as if discovering why wine tastes as it does would somehow diminish the pleasure rather than add to it. Richard Feynman, a Nobel prize winning physicist once recounted a story about an artist friend of his. "He'll hold up a flower and say, 'look how beautiful it is,' and I'll agree, I think. And he says, 'you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.' And I think he's kind of nutty."

Of course, both Feynman's artistic friend and my (scientific) colleague are nutty! Everyone can enjoy a glass of wine or the beauty of a flower, but if you understand some of the science behind it, layers upon layers of beauty are revealed.

The bucket orchid Coryanthes, lures male bees into its slippery bucket that has just one way out. There is a narrow tunnel that the bee must squeeze through to escape. While the bee struggles to get out, the orchid secretly glues two pods of pollen onto the bee's back. The next time a bee falls into a Coryanthes' bucket, the pods are knocked off and the plant is pollinated. This is amazing enough, but think of the mechanisms that have evolved in the orchid to produce such an amazing chain of events.

Darwin was fascinated by the unusual lengths to which orchids go for pollination and in 1877 wrote a book "The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects". In it, he described an orchid from Madagascar that had a narrow, foot-long nectar well that kept the sweet liquid far out of reach of all known butterflies and moths. From observing the beauty of the flower and considering its structure, Darwin predict the existence of a specialized moth with a foot-long proboscis that, like a straw, could reach the inaccessible nectar. After Darwin's death, scientists discovered a moth with an incredibly long proboscis that drank only from this flower, and named it the "Predicta moth" in honor of Darwin's educated guess.

As Feynman said about appreciating the science as well the aesthetics of the world around us "It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts." I'll be adding it to my wine drinking from now on!

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