We recently hosted a wonderful wine tasting evening here at Sea Containers, showing how the power of neuroscience can actually influence wine knowledge.  Guests enjoyed a variety of immersive wine tasting activities that stimulated the 5 senses, to understand how the brain affects the way we taste and perceive wine.


The brain is a master of pattern recognition. We can recognise someone’s face from just a small sliver. But if we try to describe that face, language proves a blunt tool.

The same can be true when describing aromas! Smell is the only sense that connects directly to the limbic system, the unconscious part of our brain involved in emotion and memory. That’s why smells can be so evocative even if we can’t consciously articulate what or why – proving smell is not to be forgotten when creating a brand environment.

If you’ve ever walked past an Abercrombie & Fitch store, you may be familiar with a certain fragrance in the air which you can smell from the end of the road. The same goes for Subway sandwich shops, the inviting smell of their bread is unmistakable and instantly tells passers-by that Subway is near.


System 1 (the intuitive part of the brain) dominates over System 2 (the thinking bit) when it comes to decision making – and 90% of what System 1 takes in is visual. The colour of wine unconsciously primes our brain, helping us anticipate and deconstruct the taste experience, and drives our flavour vocabulary. ‘Impact aromas’ are the chemical compounds responsible for certain pronounced aromas; however, the colour of the wine can change how we describe the exact same compound:

ROTUNDONE: described as ‘black pepper’ in reds but in whites it’s described as ‘white pepper’.

DIACETYL: described as ‘buttery’, and ‘creamy’ in whites, whereas for reds it’s likely to be described as ‘velvety’.

VANILLAN: from oak aging, is typically described as vanilla, or even coconut in whites, but in reds it could manifest as chocolate.

For example, if you were to taste a brown-coloured pudding, your brain might tell you it was chocolate, even if there was no chocolate flavouring in it.


Gastro-physicist Professor Charles Spence argues that at least half of our food and drink experience is determined by forgotten flavour senses including sound. Consider that at the Fat Duck, one of Heston Blumenthal’s most consistently popular and memorable dishes since 2008 is a seafood dish, served with the sounds of the sea played through earbuds which are connected to a giant shell. The humble ‘Patagonian Toothfish’ enjoyed a 1300% increase in consumption when it was re-named to ‘Chilean Seabass’. It’s also proven that food tastes sweeter with higher pitched music. The list of researched examples is ever-growing.

The devil really is in the detail here, driven by the science of thin slicing: the ability for the brain to extrapolate large amounts of information from tiny details. Something to remember next time you wonder whether you should sweat the small stuff…


Just as sound can be translated into spatial imagery, can we do the same with wine? Neuro-enology shows us that our sense of smell works in a similar way to vision; the brain constructs spatial patterns; ‘aroma maps’, much like the visual cortex takes visual stimuli from the retina and creates images by identifying contrast, shapes and outlines. These spatial patterns of aromas, although we are not aware of them, are the first step towards our conscious perception of aromas. Using a Google Tilt Brush, guests were asked to taste different wines and draw what they think the wines would look and feel like if the taste was a 3D shape.


Does coriander taste like soap to you?  Can you tolerate spicy food? There are plenty of examples of how sensory physiology varies. The number of taste buds on a human tongue can vary from 2,000 to 8,000, and their sensitivity can vary too. This calls into question the notion of wine scores, or objective assessments. You must be your own expert on what you like, and what gives you most pleasure. 

For example, 25% of the nation are ‘super tasters’ and 25% are ‘tolerant tasters’. As a tolerant taster you may be less likely to suffer from negative interactions from certain food and wine pairings, and may take pleasure in wines with pronounced tannins that others would not enjoy.

You can apply similar neuroscience techniques to understand how people decode the world and make decisions about brands. Our approach to brand creation and brand design uses learnings from neuroscience to understand how the brain has an impact on brand perception. For more information, get in touch at hello@cpb.co.uk.