You're on holiday in France, feeling more relaxed and content than you have been for months. You sit back and sup the bottle of red you just bought for a couple of euros in the local hypermarche – which seems like the bargain of the century as you taste it alongside some warm freshly baked baguette and tasty local cheeses, taking in the brilliant views. A couple of weeks pass and you reach the end of your holiday, with a couple of cases in the back of your car to take home.
A simplistic way of putting it maybe, but context really does impact on how we experience flavours, even if it's in more subtle ways than in the example above. When you sample a drink, it might be at the end of a bad day; you might have had a great day. You might have tasted the drink alongside 100 other similar drinks at a tasting event; you might have savoured it all on its own in the comfort of your own home. You might have eaten Michelin-starred food with the drink; you might have had it with cheese on toast.
Whenever I see a drink awarded, say, 17.5 marks out of 20, I wonder about the context of the tasting. I wonder about the context of past tastings of similar drinks by the same taster, and how his or her mind recalls them, and how accurately he or she has been able to mentally compare them all. Perhaps on another day that 17.5 could be a 16, or maybe an 18.5?
Such scores can often be a useful guideline of quality, but is it really possible to be so exact? Can we really become so accurate with our palates (and memories) that we can objectively make these comparisons and award such specific scores?