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Describing Wine ... verbal expresion of the sensory experience...

In the beginning, man tasted wine and said, "Awesome!" It is an easy and natural inclination to make such general judgments about the quality or appeal of a sensory experience; it is much more challenging to describe smells and flavors in a way that can evoke the sensory empathy of fellow beings or, more importantly, to have the practical result of making certain that a server or sales person knows which wine will likely result in your customer satisfaction.

According to one theory, human taste evolved in part to defend us against plant poisons, which are mostly bitter. Once determined to be non-toxic, we advance to a more relaxed appreciation of the sensations. Words such as "delicious, tasty, nummy, awful, or yuck" may convey levels of enjoyment, but fail to describe the individual elements that together provide such overall sensory experience and account for such judgments.

Some tastes are innate; sweet is nearly universally prefered over bitter. Others may be acquired or nurtured by culture. Infants often show preference for foods, such as garlic or vanilla, they first experienced through traces left in amniotic fluid or breast milk.

The chemical make-up of wine includes many trace elements that contribute to the combination of smells. Some of these same elements are also found, although frequently in higher concentrations, in other familiar foods, spices, flowers, etc. Consenquently, wine smells may often bring to mind these other familiar things, albeit with more subtlety and much less obvious or instant recognizability. With training, concentration, and practice, nearly anyone can learn to recognize and describe these elements of complexity.

While there may be a vast array of aroma categories, generally only four tastes have historically been considered: bitter, salty, sour, and sweet; these four only differentiate and describe taste sensations common to Western culture.

At the beginning of the 1900s, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda identified and isolated one element that causes a taste in meat, milk, mushrooms, and seaweed broth as the amino acid glutamate and called the sensation "umami." Rather than a specific taste, umami is best described as a distinctive quality or completeness of flavor. The nearest English equivalent would be "savory" or "delicious." Oriental food often gets umami, its "complete" flavor, by the addition of monosodium glutamate (MSG); recent research has discovered receptors to amino acids cause this sensation. Wines typically contain small amounts of amino acids, so some may trigger the umami taste.

Bitter tastes come from alkaloids, such as contained in coffee and quinine (tonic water). Bitterness in wine can come from tannins leeched from stems or pips soemtimes included in the fermentation, or from unripe grapes.

Salty tastes, by far the most common in prepared foods, come from sodium chloride (table salt), sodium nitrite (especially in smoked meats or fish), sodium bicarbonate (especially in baked goods, canned foods), and sodium benzoate (especially in soft drinks and packaged beverages, jellies and preserves, margarine and fast-food burgers). A salty taste in wine is quite rare.

Sour tastes come from acids (citric in oranges, grapefruit, etc., malic in apples, pears, lactic in dairy products). Nearly all wines have some degree of tartness derived from acidity.

Sweet comes from sugars, primarily sucrose in the American diet, although there are many others (fructose, glucose, lactose, etc.). Wine sweetness ranges from candy-like to imperceptible (dry) and the actual amount of residual sugar is greatly controlled by the winemaking choices.

Various combinations of basic tastes, along with the accompanying variety of aromas, account for different flavors.

Taste and smell have historically been the least understood sensory mechanisms. Taste compounds have smaller molecules than those of odors and, unlike odors, must be water-soluble (hydrophyllic) to cause sensation.

Taste is a very speedy sense in terms of detection, twice as fast as touch, nearly ten times faster than vision, and curiously, since they form such an intimate team, almost a hundred times faster than smell. Might this partially explain why humans are able to identify more flavors than they can odorants?

"Tongue-maps" are wrong.Tastes are sensed by nerve receptors called buds and there are about 9,000 of them on the average tongue. Misinterpretations of research conducted in the late 1800s, led to "tongue maps" that suggested that the basic tastes are sensed primarily by specific areas, such as the tip or center. This localization has been disproven.

Although taste buds were noted to be of different sizes and shapes, depending upon their location, subsequent investigation proved that each of them contain the same kinds of taste receptor cells (papillae) that supply all the sensations of taste. The entire top surface of the tongue can sense all of the various tastes.

There is also great variation between individuals in their sensitivity to specific smells and tastes. While the tongue and mouth is limited to sensing combinations of four or five basic tastes, along with sensations of texture, temperature, and viscosity, science has proven the human nose can detect and distinguish between thousands of different smells, depending upon individual aptitude and training.

When it comes to smells, humans generally have a great ability to detect and discriminate between odors, but great difficulty in describing those odors. This is probably due to the fact that different areas of the human brain process smells and words; odorant detection occurs in the right brain, while language operates in the left. This right-brain versus left-brain disconnect has a double-whammy: it is as difficult to describe smells as it is to imagine descriptions as smells, such as in tasting notes1.

Reaction to certain smells may be instinctive; identification of those smells requires a certain amount of experience and concentration. Training involves isolating and demonstrating individual particular smells, especially those associated with wines. Studies have shown that, regardless of individual sensitivity, odor memory is improved by labelling aromas specifically, rather than merely categorizing them broadly2.

Ability, Sensitivity, Preference and Cultural Influence
While nearly all humans are born with organs of smell and taste that generally function similarly from one to the next, individuals vary somewhat in their physiology and body chemistry, therefore also their ability to percieve different aroma and taste components. Three friends sampling the same ice cream flavor at Baskin-Robbins might each objectively describe it differently as: "not very sweet", "sweet", or "very sweet".

The level at which an individual first begins to percieve a particular sensory stimulus is called their threshold. These thresholds can be measured for several wine components, such as sugar and various types of acidity, to determine relative sensitivity.

Another influence on taste besides individual ability is individual psychology and preference. Asked to rate, rather than describe the ice cream sweetness, the very same friends might respectively judge it "just right", "too sweet", or "not sweet enough". Culture and upbringing provide sensory experiences that certainly influence adult taste preferences. Repeated exposure can increase tolerance or lower perception of pungent aroma and taste sensations considered controversial in appeal3.

Americans raised in the last half of the 20th Century typically drank milk, or increasingly soft drinks, sweet and sometimes carbonated, as mealtime beverages. The longtime adage of wine marketers has been that "Americans talk dry but drink sweet". Each culture has a similar taste bias.

Coca-Cola employs 200 global research and development staff, two dozen of them specialists in flavor development to pinpoint local taste preferences and adjust their product formula to local conformity. They have found that Germans like spicy, Mexicans like citric and Italians want a little bitterness. These cultural flavor preferences may also dictate wine choices, just as they do cuisine preferences.

Asians generally enjoy and add "hot", such as the taste of chili peppers (derived from their capsaicinoid content), to their list of basic tastes, although this burn is a chemesthetic reaction rather than a taste.

Chemesthetic sensations of pain, pressure and temperature may sensed over the entire body surface, affecting both skin and mucous membranes, such as the lining of the mouth and even the eyes (commonly experienced when cutting onion). Other examples are the "cool" sensation produced by menthol and mint and, more appropriate to wine, the tingling of carbonation.

Alcohol also is mainly experienced as an irritation of this sense. When the proportion is too high for the other flavor elements, alcohol may give a "burning" sensation in the nose as well as a "hot" feeling in the back of the throat or the roof of the mouth. The astringent pucker of tannin is the next most common chemesthetic sensation in wine.

Touch also contributes to flavor, sensing temperature and pressure (viscosity and carbonation, for example). The phenomenon of varying individual sensitivity also applies to chemesthesis, touch, and pressure.

Taste is personal, born of ability, raised by experience, educated by curiosity, based on pleasure and enjoyment, and should remain relatively free and independent, but also respectful of other tasters' judgments.

TERMINOLOGY for Communication and Memory
Describing specific smells and flavors of wine is not important to the average consumer; most decide that a wine simply tastes good or not. Critics and judges, however, need to learn and apply standards of terminology.

Consumers can enhance their tasting experience by learning these terms in order to communicate better with their fellow tasters, and perhaps most importantly, to develop a memory of their likes and dislikes. It could also improve their wine shopping experience by refining communication with their merchant.

Many of the smells and flavors in wine are described in terms of other fruits. Several odoriferous molecules are shared by wine and other fruits, such as apples, pears, currants, raspberries, oranges, or bananas. These include acetic and butyric acids, the alcohols propanol, terpinol and hexanol, the carbonyls ethanal, acetone and diacetyl, and the esters isoamyle acetate, ethyl caproate, and ethyl butyrate. Different combinations and amounts of these and other compounds give fruits their distinct aromas and flavors and provide wine with great variety and complexity.

Ann Noble's Aroma Wheel.Until her retirement in 2003, from the University of California at Davis, Dr. Ann Noble led wine research on smells and flavors. She began to develop her theories on aromas specifically recognizable in wine in the 1980s and her colleagues continue this research today. Dr. Noble headed a project to develop an inexpensive and easy tool to aid in learning wine flavor terminology. The Aroma Wheel is a kind of pie-chart that lists, categorizes and groups hundreds of smells and odors that may be present specifically in wines. Each of these specific aromas is grouped into one of nine major general categories: floral, fruity, vegetative, nutty, woody, caramelized, earthy, spicy, or chemical. Dr. Noble's Aroma Wheel website explains how to get one and use it train your "nose and brain to connect and quickly link terms with odors...using materials available from the grocery store."

Jim LaMar

1. Human difficulty to verbalize the sensory experience of wine tasting was the subject of PHD Frédé́ric Brochet's doctoral thesis, Chemical Object Representation in the Field of Consciousness (PDF) in 2001. RETURN

2. Odor Memory: Review and Analysis by Rachel S Herz and Trygg Engen in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 1996. RETURN

3. Esther Mobley's online article The Mysterious Case of the Cork-Tainted Carrots, also appeared on page L4 of the print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, February 17, 2019. RETURN

Professional Friends of Wine also has a Sensory Users' Manual in the Wine 101 section.

Down-under winemaker and educator Glen Green publishes the Essential Wine Tasting Guide, a handy wallet-or-purse-size reference that helps tasters with those "what IS that smell" questions when the answer is stuck just on the tip of the tongue.

Tim Hanni, professional chef, Certified Wine Educator, and one of the first Americans to earn Master of Wine, has surveyed and studied taste for more than three decades, leading him to develop the theory of "Vinotype" taste preferences. On My Vinotype there is a short survey that produces participants' most likely general taste preferences and specific wine suggestions that may suit them.





Page created August 11, 2014; Page last updated February 17, 2019
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