Here’s How To Up Your Tasting Game

Posted by Vicki on September 15, 2017

Man sniffing wine in glass

How can you get the most out of experiencing your favorite wine?  Here’s some science for how we taste wine and then a fun experiment to prove the point. So if you can bear up for the science part you’ll be rewarded with some fun homework at the end.  And after all, wine homework is the best kind.  There’s even a video explainer below.

You may know that wine has hundreds of aromas and flavors.   We’ve all seen the descriptions – floral, lychee, citrus, blackberry, slate – and many more. The question is how we can detect and appreciate these flavors to the fullest and get the most out of our wine tasting experiences.

To appreciate the flavors in wine we need to look at both taste and smell. We humans have a two-part tasting mechanism — your mouth and your nose.  It’s important to know that we perceive “flavor” from a combination of taste and smell. “Taste” and “flavor” are really two different things. Taste comes from our taste buds and flavor comes from the combination of taste, smell, mouthfeel and temperature. But by far the most important factor for flavor is smell.

How Taste Works

First we’ll deal with taste, which we detect through the taste buds on our tongue.  Humans have anywhere from about 2,000 to 8,000 tastebuds. So there can be a lot of variety between each of us in how we taste foods and drinks, depending on how many taste buds we each may have.  Our taste buds detect five “tastes” — salt, sweet, savory, sour and bitter. Some people are more or less sensitive to these tastes, so again, perceptions of any food or drink can vary for each person.

The receptors in our taste buds send a message to the brain transmitting the taste detected, but more on that later.  The point here is that there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to how we taste food or drink.

As I said, to pick up the “flavor” of a food or drink we need more than just the taste – we need the smell too. So while our taste buds pick up the five specific tastes, how do we taste all the other flavors out there such as, let’s say, strawberry? The answer is that we need to get our nose involved. In fact, the flavor of most foods and drinks comes more from smell than from taste, and some say at least 75% of our perception of a flavor comes from our sense of smell.

How We Pick Up Flavors

Here’s the physical part of the story.  Our nasal cavity, located above our mouth, has two openings – our nose in the front and a passage at the back of our mouth (the retronasal passage). At the top of the nasal passage are thousands of odor receptors that detect thousands of aromas. These receptors are connected to something tucked under our brain called the olfactory bulb.  It’s the olfactory bulb that sends the aroma information to the brain.

Your brain then combines the information it receives from the olfactory bulb with information from the taste buds, puts it all together and recognizes the flavor as, for example, strawberry. How amazing is that?!  This is why if you hold your nose, it’s difficult to detect the difference between very different foods, and for example, an apple and an onion can “taste” the same.

How This Adds Up For Wine

So how does this work for wine? Wine has hundreds if not thousands of different aromatic compounds, which migrate into the air and are sensed by your olfactory bulb. If you can coax more of these aromatic compounds out of the liquid and into the air, you have a better chance of detecting more aromas and thus more flavors from the wine.

This is why you may have seen people swirling their wine glass and then dunking their noses down into the glass (but not into the wine!). It releases these aromatic compounds from the liquid so you can give it a good sniff. And you may have seen people tasting wine by taking a sip and making a slurping sound, which passes air through the wine. This helps release the wine’s aromatic compounds so they can reach the olfactory bulb through the nasal passage at the back of your mouth. Sounds more complicated than it is, but I wanted to give you the full picture.

Now For The Homework

You can try this out too, and here’s your homework.  Pour about one ounce of wine into a wine glass, let it settle, and sniff it – see what you smell.  Then, swirl the wine in the glass and then take a good sniff to see how you smell the aromas.  You should smell more in both the intensity and variety of aromas after swirling than you did before you swirled.

Then take a sip, and when the wine is still in your mouth, slurp a bit of air through the wine.  Then see if you can smell and taste even more.  Hopefully you’ll have some fun with this little experiment, and you can use it with the many wines you enjoy.