We all grow up believing we know how to taste. It is innate and it may seem silly to consider that we need to learn how to taste wine. Some we like; some we don’t. Since we were babies we have been able to discern our tastes.
Due to it’s subjective nature, it is difficult to conceive that we can be taught how to taste wine.
But tasting fully is achieved through a series of techniques that together open a world of flavor most miss. They are easy to learn and by employing them, open new worlds of enjoyment.
Taste remains a mystery to science. 99% of what we taste takes place in our nose, or more specifically, in our olfactory receptors that are located in our nasal passages. Scientists to this day disagree on the fundamentals of smell. A Nobel Prize awaits the science team that can accurately describe and prove how we do it.
Our tongues perceive five simple tastes:
- Umami (savory, protein)
Everything else, every nuance, every variation, and every level of the experience of flavor occurs in our nose, through our olfactory receptors. Almost our entire flavor sensation, each memory evoked, our preference or distaste all happens primarily through our nasal passages in concert with our mouth.
A curiosity is that our olfactory receivers appear to be directional. Specifically, the same molecule that enters our nose seems to be perceived somewhat differently than if it enters through the nasopharynx, a passage connecting the back of our hard palate to our sinuses and olfactory receptors.
This means that to fully taste, one must smell through the nose and through the back of the palate. This sounds difficult to accomplish intentionally.
But let’s start at the beginning. To begin tasting wine fully, we follow a series of steps.
1. First we hold the wine up and look into it. We are looking for color: dark or light, opaque, clear or translucent, tones, hints, and visual nuance. This is our first clue and informs the experience. The color shows promise, either positive or negative, depending on the varietal and the characteristics associated with it. A gorgeous example can set our first expectation, as can a poor example. We are building an experience, a block at a time.
2. After enjoying our sense of sight, as it contributes to our sense of taste, we next need to smell the wine. But to do this, we want as many molecules free and airborne to sniff, so we initiate by swirling the wine in our glass. This is why large bowled glasses are reputed to “taste better”. They offer a bigger area for catching and holding the freed molecules for our noses to “catch”.
3. After swirling, we stick our nose deep into the glass and inhale. This gives our next hint, guiding our expectations further. The smell of wine is difficult to describe because it is so varied. So we rely on metaphor to frame the experience. You have heard it before: winey people apply words like flinty, berry, cherry, tobacco, chalk, lemon zest, earthy, mushroom, forest floor, black pepper, baking spice and a plethora of other descriptors to their first whiff in an expression of sensation. It actually helps and is fun to share with people, as long as everyone is on the same page. To the uninitiated, it may sound fabricated, pretentious, or down-right silly.
4. Once we smell the wine, sometimes several whiffs over a minute or more, the next step is the lift the glass to our lips and draw some of the magical elixir into the front of our mouths.
As I mentioned previously, it is critical to get some of those flavor-filled wine molecules up over our hard palate, through our nasopharynx, and over our olfactory receiviers. Fortunately with liquids like wine, it is easy to do. But it does take a bit of practice.
The technique I am about to describe I call, “Bong Hit Tasting”. Your mother probably called it “slurping”. Most of us were trained off the behavior at a young age.
5. In this case, relearning slurping is a path to an extraordinary awakening of your taste. You take that small amount of wine you just sipped, pooling it in the front of your mouth, somewhere behind your lower lip, but still on your tongue. Then you simply draw air through the small amount of liquid, bubbling it through the wine. This aerates, sending the molecules to the back and up. When you have completed this for a second or two, the rest is easy.
6. Chew the liquid as if it were a solid, carrying it to all parts of your mouth. Note the texture, the sensations at the front, middle, and back of your mouth. The individual flavors and where they occur
7. Now enjoy the swallow. Follow the wine down your throat and sense how it contributes, or does not.
What you should experience is an explosion of flavor that simply sniffing and sipping wine cannot deliver. A good wine will carry on its flavor for minutes, enhancing and extending your enjoyment and its value.
With this mastered, one can get on with the tremendous pleasure of pairing wines with foods that carry these flavors to even richer levels. It is no wonder that wine has been considered the Elixir of the Gods for millennia.