How the Pop of a Cork Became an Indicator of Luxurious Quality

The roar of a super car’s 12 cylinders promises the thrill of wild acceleration from zero to 60 miles per hour in mere seconds. The thunder of a jet’s turbine engines builds anticipation for a miraculous climb to a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The pop – or the more subtle pffft – of a Champagne cork ignites the spirit of celebration and creates mouth-watering expectations for the liquid gold contained within the bottle.

Human responses to sound are part primal and part learned, according to Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford. Some reactions to sounds are inherently human, while others are developed over time as emotional associations. “The pop of a cork—you weren’t born thinking that was a great sound,” says Spence. “It wouldn’t give newborn babies an emotional high, but it does for many adults, as it leads to expectations.”

The sound of luxury has moved from abstract – and even unintentional – to manufactured. Sensory branding, particularly in aural form, has become an essential tool for luxury marketers as their products become increasingly mechanized, electrified, and digitized. Cars, for example, have been modifying “real” sounds for years. Maserati recreates sounds that are “missing” from the interior by placing a sensor on the engine. BMW is working with lauded film composer Hans Zimmer to create the sound of its new electric sports car. “We’ve been faking the sounds of engines for the last 10 years,” says Andrew Jackson, founder of an aural branding agency for luxury goods.

Yet, there’s nothing “fake” about the pop of a cork. This sensorial experience has been time-tested for over three centuries, predating the famous monk and winemaker, Dom Perignon. The manufacturing processes for cork and glass have evolved to deliver a more reliable and consistent product to the drinker, but the essence of pulling a cork, made of organic, renewable material, has remained. There’s no speaker hidden within a bottle of wine to amplify that magical pop or airy pfft.

The interplay between different senses – not just sound – also influences the human experience. Trevor Cox, professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford in Manchester, England, says that while humans are highly reactive to sensory stimuli, our brains are bad at differentiating between senses. “In the end,” he says, “it’s an emotional response.” But, to create an experience that evokes a positive emotional response, sound must be congruent with the other senses, according to Jackson.

So pull that bottle of bubbly out of the ice bucket, feel the cold glass, unscrew the cage, hold the cork, twist the bottle, pop it or pffft it, pour it, listen to the bubbles, look at the color, smell, and taste. There’s nothing that quite compares.

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