It was once thought that we had five very separate senses, but we could have as many as 33, according to Professor Barry Smith, director of the University of London's Centre for the Study of the Senses. These are regularly working together in weird and wonderful ways, which can be harnessed to heighten cross-sensory experiences, something well worth noting if you're a wine lover, he suggests.
Smith, whose background is in philosophy, established the multidisciplinary department in 2011 after his interest in wine led him to explore how taste works and discover just how interconnected our senses are.
"It's amazingly complex as taste also depends on touch and smell and is affected by sound and vision," he tells me when I catch up with him in London. "Our senses are not working independently - there's always crosstalk going on: what you see affects what you smell, what you feel affects how something tastes. We need to rethink our views of perception, which is why I decided to start this centre, which is working with psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists."
Smith shows me round the centre's lab, where a well-stocked wine fridge sits alongside EEG (electroencephalography) machines. Wine has played a significant part in Smith's studies, which is why I'm here to discover how he thinks our perception of wine can be altered by other elements in our environment.
"We gave people headphones with two channels so that they could flip between the music matches with different wines they were trying," Smith says of one of his experiments. "There was a lot of agreement on what match was best."
"High notes go with acidity and sweetness, with a tinkling piano very good for sweetness; low notes, especially on brass instruments, are good for bitterness," he elaborates. "The added dimension in wine is the temporal dynamics of tasting.
"The pace and travel of a wine across the palate is modulated by the weight of alcohol, the graininess of the tannins and its viscosity so you get a different temporal sequence from the attack to finish depending on the wine," Smith explains. "When you get a musical sequence whose tempo matches the temporal dynamics of the wine, then the brain is really happy as it's looking for simultaneity. Get the combination with the acidity, sweetness and bitterness right and that's when it's perfect."
As a wine writer and sound artist, I've been long convinced that taste and hearing have a powerful effect on each other, which resulted in my recent involvement with establishing The Auricle, the world's first wine and sound bar in Christchurch. I'd had a suspicion that there were "fast" and "slow" wines from my own empirical investigations, so confirmation of this by someone at the forefront of scientific research was heartening. I was also intrigued to know how and why these interactions were occurring.
"For some ancient reason there's a connection between the auditory cortex and the taste cortex," Smith explains. "You're taking in information that you don't realise. The brain has some useful tricks and is learning what goes with what and giving you anticipation; putting information together to give you fast, accurate predictions to enable you to move around and act on your environment in a very skilled way."
One environment I was just about to encounter was the airline cabin on my long flight back to New Zealand. Wines taste notoriously dull in these conditions and Smith imparted some words of wisdom that I applied on board to transform a thin bland chardonnay into something more flavoursome and fruity.
"If you're wearing noise-cancelling headphones you'll taste a lot more on a flight," he advises. "White noise in the cabin diminishes the tongue's ability to discriminate between sweet sour and salty. And if airlines had music with the wine selection they could amplify and bring out certain elements for the travellers - this is sonic seasoning."
Award-winning wines tasted at the 2014 International Wine & Spirit Competition by Jo Burzynska, and her music recommendations.
Ara Select Blocks Single Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012 $24.95
A powerful and textural sauvignon with a complex palate of succulent passionfruit, melon and crisp grapefruit laced with fennel. Enjoy with Hallogallo by Neu! Find at Glengarry and thegoodwine.co.nz.
Ribbonwood Marlborough Riesling 2013 $21.99
Delicate white peach fruit and wafts of orange blossom combine in this pretty riesling whose soft sweetness is balanced by racy citrus. This calls for a fast and high-toned piece of music, such as the quicker passage in Vivaldi's Summer. Available from nzwinesociety.co.nz.
Terra Sancta Shingle Beach Central Otago Pinot Noir 2012 $48.95
There's a real elegance to this fresh and silky textured pinot that unfurls to display red fruits and fragrant notes of florals and forest floor. Enjoy with the soft, high tones of Brian Eno's Discreet Music. Available from Glengarry, Accent on Wine and Fine Wine Delivery Company.