About Taste

Enjoying a fine glass of wine involves all the senses: the sounds of clinking glass or bubbling champagne, the feel of the wine in your mouth, the color, the bouquet... Still, no one would deny that one of the key aspects of enjoying wine is the taste. After all, it's the sense that puts the "taste" in "winetasting!"

But how does it work?

It's All In The Tongue... Or Is It?

The human tongue has four basic classes of taste receptors: sweet, salt, acid and bitter. In truth, all four tastes can be perceived anywhere on the tongue, or even on the roof of the mouth. But certain zones have receptors that are more sensitive to particular attributes:

  1. Sweet (sugars) [on the tip of the tongue]
  2. Saltiness (salts) [flanking the sweet zone]
  3. Acid (sour): low pH, acidic foods like lemon juice or vinegar [along the sides of the tongue]
  4. Bitter (bases): high pH, alkaline foods like baking soda or unsweetened chocolate [far back on the tongue]

Map of the Tongue

When you taste wine, swirl it around in your mouth a bit. Sip in enough to cover your tongue. You want to get the maximum effect, and make sure all parts of your mouth get to experience the wine.

If there are only four taste zones, you may well ask, where does all the complexity come from? How can we possibly perceive raspberries, oak, black pepper or coffee grounds in a wine? Well, taste is actually linked closely to smell. Much of what we taste is strongly influenced by our olfactory receptors. Some of the smells get in through your nose. Others make their way in through the retronasal passage at the back of the mouth. This is the other reason for swirling the wine around in your mouth, or even "chewing" the wine -- the action helps release chemical compounds and allow them to reach the olfactory membrane. Humans can recognize literally thousands of distinct odors.

See also Wines International's Guide to your Palate and Michael Berry's The Physiology of Taste.

The Fundamental Taste Components of Wine

The four major components of wine tastes are sweetness, tannins, acidity and alcohol. The tannins and acid give the wine a hard edge, while the sweetness and alcohol help soften those edges. A "balanced" wine is one in which the components are well matched. If one of these components overwhelms the others, the wine is said to be "unbalanced": cloyingly sweet, perhaps, or too tart.

Final Note: Apples and Cheese

If the wine is too tannic, serve it with a little soft cheese. Dairy products can bind to the tannins and help soften them in the mouth. Apples, on the other hand, are rumored to enhance defects in the wine. "Buy on apples; sell on cheese" is an old vintner's saying. It is their equivalent to the sailor's "red sky at night, sailor's delight; red sky at morning, small craft advisory in effect until noon." (Or however it goes).

Other "Tasteful" Sites of Interest

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