How to taste wine?
We all grow up thinking we know how to taste. We are born with it and it seems silly to think that we need someone to teach us how to taste wine. There are flavors we like and those we don’t, as well as foods we prefer or not. It is always clear when a baby does not like what he or she is eating. They can be very expressive!
Due to the subjective nature of tasting, it is difficult to conceive of teaching how to taste wine, teaching someone to taste anything, or even describing how a wine tastes; we really can’t be sure of someone else’s experience.
Tasting Wine is not a Science
Taste is in many regards a mystery. It continues to be elusive to science because smell is a mystery. 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.
Creating smells is a huge industry: everything from perfumes to the scent of your laundry detergent. And because we do not know how smell works, smells are created primarily by trial and error. This is an expensive approach, so it is a race to see who can figure out how we do it so that science and industry can more efficiently create the smells we enjoy.
Getting back to taste, our tongues only perceive five sensations associated with taste:
- Umami (savory, protein)
Everything else, every nuance, every variation, and every level of the experience of flavor occurs in our nose, or again, our olfactory receptors. Every sensation, each memory evoked, our preference or distaste, the pleasure or displeasure all happens primarily through our nasal passages in concert with our mouth.
The center of the mystery with smell has to do with how our receptors interact with the molecules that they encounter. How do the molecules activate these receptors? The primary theories involve vibration or shape: Is it the vibration of the molecule, unique to its type, that our receptor recognizes? Or is it the shape of the molecule that fits snugly into a pattern of recognition?
Whichever the case, 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 connecting the back of our mouth 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. So, how to taste wine?
How to taste wine!
Fortunately with liquids like wine, it is easy to do. But it does take a bit of practice.
But let’s start from the beginning. We have a glass of wine in front of us and we want to truly appreciate it. The first thing one does in tasting wine, is to look at it. We are checking color, comparing it to others we have seen and noting how the light plays with the wine, or not. There are reference wines that we may know or have read about, so we are gauging the color against those, but also enjoying the visual display of a colored liquid in a fine glass.
We can note the “legs“, which is the glycerine streaming down the sides after spinning. This really tells us little, as it has nothing to do with the flavor or quality of the wine. But spinning does increase the surface area and release those precious molecules into the bowl of the glass. This is our desire: to get as many molecules free as possible so we might savor the wine with our nose and thus begin the actual “tasting”.
Once the glass is spun, we dip our nose deep into the glass and take a full whiff. This sends those molecules blasting up to those waiting olfactory receivers. We might do this once, or with a gorgeous wine, we might linger for some time before actually sipping. Those aromas can be quite captivating, even intoxicating, with a fine wine. And there is no need to rush.
After we have whetted our tastebuds with the promising aromas, we take the next step in truly tasting.
I call the technique, “Bong Hit Tasting”. (This tips a hat to my first “drug of choice”, before wine eclipsed it in all regards). Your mother would probably have called it “slurping”. Most of us were trained off the behavior at a young age.
In this case, relearning slurping is a path to an extraordinary awakening of your taste. You begin by sipping a small amount of wine and pooling it on your tongue in the front of your mouth, somewhere behind your lower lip. Then you simply draw air through the small amount of wine, slurping or bubbling it through the wine. This aerates the liquid, sending the molecules to the back and up. When you have completed this for a second or two, the rest is easy: chew the liquid as if it were a solid, carrying it to all parts of your mouth. Now enjoy the swallow.
What you experience is an explosion of flavor that simply sniffing and sipping wine cannot deliver. A good wine will carry its flavor on for minutes, enhancing and extending your enjoyment and its value.
With this mastered, one can carry-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.
The moral of the story: Tasting wine will take you to places you have never been and perhaps could not even imagine. This is how to taste wine! Enjoy!!