Diving into the deep end of wine

Smell, Taste & Flavor

The next article was meant to be about methods that can improve your Palate, and that article is coming. However, I received some feedback from family (all the way down-under) that my initial article hadn’t covered the importance of smell when talking about the Palate.

The idea was to squeeze in a paragraph about the importance of smell in another article, this turned out to be naive. The more research I unearthed the larger that paragraph became. At some point, it was obvious a separate post would be needed. So here it is!

So a big thank-you to Emma, for prompting this research. The topic was something I thought I understood when actually I’ve learnt a lot. In addition, it has helped me better understand, and be more specific, with how to use the below terminology.

It’s well-known fact that dogs are utterly contemptuous of our puny sense of smell

Taste

Lets start with taste as this is often confused with flavor.

Taste is the sensation of a substance coming in contact with the taste buds in the mouth. When thinking about taste think about what the mouth & tongue are saying. Its a more mechanical and objective (although not totally) process then flavor.

It’s all in the tongue.

When something is sweet it’s because sweet taste receptors are activated and send a message to the brain[1] – in general, this is the same process from person to person. What you describe as the sensation of sweet should be pretty close to what others are describing.

There is still some debate but it’s generally agreed we can identify Five[2] distinct tastes. These are: –

  • Sweet
  • Sour
  • Bitter
  • Salt
  • Umami (Savory) – Think chicken broth

Most of the above should be familiar although Umami was only added, at least in the west, much later then the others[3].

Keep in mind work is being done that suggests the tongue can identify other tastes including: –

  • Fattiness [4]
  • Starchiness [5]
  • Calcium [6]

Additionally, the list of tastes presented above is limited to just the western viewpoint. As was seen Umani was accepted in Japan long before it was in the west. In addition, other cultures, such as the Indian Ayurvedic tradition list additional tastes, such as Astringent, that the West is only now looking into[7]. It seems the door is open for more tastes to be added to our list.

Tongue Map = Crap

Before moving on one part of taste lore that needs to be debunked is the idea of a tongue map. This myth states that each part of the tongue focuses on detecting a specific taste.

Just….no
  1. Bitter
  2. Sour
  3. Salt
  4. Sweet

This has been going around for some time and was even taught in schools. The long and short is that it’s been proved false. This article goes into detail on how the map came to be.

You can follow the links in the article to research providing evidence that disproves the theory. Or a quicker way is to dab a bit of salt on the tip of your tongue and see what you taste.


Smell (Aroma or Odor)

Smell (or Olfaction to get technical) is when odour molecules reach your nose (specifically the Olfactory Epithelium) and through a complicated process pass messages to your brain which interprets them as a ‘smell’[8]. Odor molecules can get to our nose either by sniffing or via the back of the mouth (called Retronasal smell).

If you’d like to know just how complicated this process potentially is and dig into the science I can recommended this fascinating video on how quantum physics could play a roll.

So back to the driver behind this article; how key is smell to your palate?

Well, very. The standard method for demonstrating this is extremely simple. Take a food with a strong flavor, such as a fresh strawberry. Hold your nose and pop the strawberry in your mouth. With your nose held you should be able to taste sweetness on your tongue but not get any smell or flavor. Now release your nose and smell that strawberry goodness.

Smell is critical to identifying flavors. This is why, when tasting wine, before it even hits our lips we take a long analytical sniff.

For our purposes Aromas are smells that we consider pleasant, Odors or those that we find unpleasant.

For even some more geeky details on the types of chemicals involved in smell as it relates to wine I suggest the excellent Wine for Normal People Episode 201 – How to Develop Your Wine Palate


Mouthfeel & Texture

Mouthfeel is a term I first heard on the WSET Level 2 course (I then heard it again from the Youtuber ContraPoints but in a very very different context). Mouthfeel is not a term exclusive to wine tasting but it is used heavily in that context.

Texture, on the other hand, is a term I had used and heard others use when referring to wine, for example, a wine having a velvet texture.

So what’s the difference?

Grainy
Chalky
Velvety

Researching the difference between mouthfeel & texture proved tricky. Some sources used the two interchangeably [9][10] while others are very specific on a distinction between the two[11].

The way I understand it is: –

Texture is a description of a single physical or tactile property of wine. Examples can include things like crisp, dry, full etc[12]. Wines can have numerous textures.

Mouthfeel is the overall tactile sensation of the wine. From the moment you first sip the wine all the way to swallowing (and even after). Mouthfeel descriptors can include words used to describe the texture, but unlike texture, it’s more than a single physical sensation, it’s a combination of the whole [13].

For example, a wine can have the following texture descriptors; full-bodied, smooth & viscous. When pulling all these individual textures together we get a mouthfeel of oily. A wine that pleasantly coats my mouth, remaining even after swallowing.

The above is my take on the debate between Texture and Mouthfeel. However, in reality I’ve found they can be used interchangeable and people will understand what you’re saying.


Spiciness

Spiciness is neither a taste or a smell; it’s sweet sweet pain. When biting into or smelling a chilli a chemical process occurs called [14]. ‘chemesthesis’ which triggers sensors that monitor pain, touch, and thermal perception.

This pain is perceived as spiciness and is separate from taste. Any fans of spicy food can attest that the line between pleasurable heat and eye-watering pain can be a thin.

Watch out for the small ones

So how does this relate to wine? Well, it doesn’t really. When describing a wine as ‘spicy’ usually (and confusingly) we’re referring to a spicy aroma or flavor such as pepper, clove or ginger. Wine isn’t triggering our pain receptors in the same way chili is. This is an example of where the terminology between wine & food diverges.


Temperature

Ever wonder why wines often have a recommended serving temperature. This is because temperature impacts the flavor.

It has been found that the temperature at which food and wine are served impacts how intensely we can identify tastes. The same is believed to occur for the smell, heating increases the release of odor molecules while cooling would result in the reverse[15]. This then has a knock-on impact on the identification of flavors .

You can try this yourself. Take a bottle of red wine and pour two glasses. Now chill one of those glasses in the freezer while leaving the other at room temperature. Smelling & tasting the two side by side it can be more difficult to pick-up flavors in the chilled glass.


Sight

“The first bite is with the eye”, a phrase I’m sure we’ve all heard before. Research tends to support this phrase although as is often the case the story is more complicated than first glance[16].

It seems that sight doesn’t impact our ability to identify the intensity of tastes but does impact the identification of flavor. Further studies also seem to suggest that food coloring can impact our ability to identify the correct flavors. For example, if we see a red liquid in a wine glass we will default to listing flavors associated with red wine, even if it’s just white wine with food coloring.

This was demonstrated in a fun experiment carried out on a number of French wine experts. They were asked to taste a white wine and provide tasting notes, which as you would expect came back with descriptors related to white wine. They were then asked to taste the same white wine which had been dyed red. The descriptors this time? Those associated with red wines. Looks like even the experts favor visual queues over the other senses[17]. Original essay can be found here[18].

Little did Bob & Ruth know that wasn’t white wine they were enjoying……

Flavor

Time to bring it all together in the concept of Flavor. In it’s simplest description flavor is how your brain interprets all the above factors (and maybe others) into a single concept.

Something with a high acid taste, yellow color, citrus smell and juicy texture is translated by your brain into Lemon.

It’s generally cited that smell is the biggest contributor to flavor (we finally got to the point of the article, woop!)[19]. along with taste and texture. Although this balance of contribution can be altered depending on our expectations.

Flavor and memory are also closely interlinked[20]. You may have experienced this yourself; eating a dish and being transported to a place or time in your memory that you didn’t even know was associated with that dish. These links are going to be important when we talk about improving our palate.

There is so much more to say on the topic of Flavor, how the brain actually creates the flavor memory, how the same senses can invoke two different flavors in different people. However, I need to end this article somewhere!

I’ll end with one point about flavor. Flavor is a subjective process and as such, when it comes to wine tasting, you should not feel that the flavor descriptors you use are wrong just because another person doesn’t agree with them. Unlike taste, where calling something sweet that has no sugar can be seen as missing the mark, flavor is personal and built up of both the senses and experiences.

What comes to you mind is what you should go with when it comes to flavor…..unless you’re in the WSET Level 3 tasting exam, but more on that in a future article!


Caveats & Other Business

Obligatory caveats regarding the above article.

I’m not an expert in the area of biology, rheology or chemistry. Where possible I’ve cited sources (see below) for the information I’ve given, although without full access to academic databases I appreciate that some of this information could be superseded by new research.

As always if you’re interested in the topics raised I encourage you to supplement the above with your own research. I’m just one person and one person is always prone to mistakes.

If you do spot any mistakes please reach out to me and I’ll be happy to correct them.

Sources

1. Sugars, Sweet Taste Receptors, and Brain Responses
2. How does our sense of taste work?
3. The Discovery of Umami
4. Potential Taste Receptor for Fat Identified
5. Humans Can Taste Glucose Oligomers Independent of the hT1R2/hT1R3 Sweet Taste Receptor
6. Involvement of T1R3 in calcium-magnesium taste
7. The Fundamentals of Taste
8. What is The Process of Olfaction – Odor Perception?
9. Mouthfeel: the effect of sensation and texture on the flavor of food
10. The indescribable texture of wine
11. Difference between: mouthfeel and texture
12. Texture and mouthfeel
13. Glossary Winespectator
14. Chemesthesis and the Chemical Senses as Components of a “Chemofensor Complex”
15. Heat as a Factor in the Perception of Taste, Smell, and Oral Sensation
16. Does Food Color Influence Taste and Flavor Perception in Humans?
17. The Legendary Study That Embarrassed Wine Experts Across the Globe
18. CHEMICAL OBJECT REPRESENTATION IN THE FIELD OF CONSCIOUSNESS
19. What is Flavor?
20. Flavor Memory

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