The 5 Senses
by Stephen Reiss, Ph.D., C.W.E.
The term “tasting” is applied to the act of experiencing wine, although in truth all five senses are used when you “taste” wine.
This is the first sense that comes to mind, but it turns out your tongue can actually only taste four things:
Sweet – It is alcohol and the perceived sweetness of the fruit flavors in wine that act to balance the other tastes. In sweet wines, there is sugar that also needs to be balanced.
Sour – The taste of acidity. Acidity not only keeps wine fresh, it offers a balance to the sweetness of the alcohol, as well as to any sugar that may be in the wine. Acidity is required to help wine age, so the greatest wines, those few that will last for decades, always have a good deal of acidity in their youth.
Bitter – A result of tannins in wine. White wines tend to have few tannins. Tannins come from the skins and seeds of the grape. Tannins can also come from aging the wine in oak barrels. Grape tannins along with oak tannins are common in red wines, with oak tannins being primarily responsible for whatever amount of tannin a white wine has.
Salty – With very few exceptions salty is not a flavor you find in wine. Salty foods are rarely complimentary with dry wines, although a wine that contains a small amount of sugar will balance salty foods nicely.
The world is full of smells. Most of the time we hardly notice them, and in many cases, this is a good thing. Wine too is a complex mix of smells. Since there are only four tastes, where do all the other flavors come from? It turns out that we actually smell what is in our mouths. There is a connection between our nose and mouth (retronasal passage). As we eat, we draw small amounts of air across the food or drink into our nose, where receptors identify the aromas. Since the food is in our mouths, our minds consider these smells to be flavors. A common example of this is when you eat something while you are suffering from a cold. You can’t taste it because your nose is stuffed up, and you can’t smell it either.
Smell is the great memory trigger. Nothing can make your mind wander like a smell. It is for this reason that so many smells are associated with wine. The subtle, fleeting aromas of wine trigger a memory and the taster is treated to an image of what they smelled. This may or may not be related to what others smell in the same wine. Almost any aroma or flavor you can imagine, good or bad, can or has been applied to wine by someone.
The most obvious aspect of sight in wine is color. There are a few other aspects the the casual observer would tend to overlook.
Opacity – This is a measure of how much light passes through the wine. A good way to judge this is to tilt the glass over a well lit page, and see if you can make out the words through the wine. All but the darkest of wines let some light through, while few white wines stop more than a small amount of light. Opacity is a clue to how intense the flavors will be, and in many cases, which grapes are used and how the wine was made.
Clarity – There was a time when wines were often cloudy. They were of particles that floated around. While an old wine can throw sediment, and a shaken bottle will look cloudy, young wines rarely suffer from clarity issues any more. The wine making techniques used now should eradicate all potential for a wine to become cloudy. Even wines marked “unfiltered” should be clear. Any waine that is not clear (unless it is an old red wine) should be considered faulty.
Brilliance – Another visual aspect of wine that should rarely be an issue, due to modern wine making. Few wines are dull, but even today, some are shinier, and more brilliant than others.
Color – Wines in youth are a different color than they will be once they have aged. A young red wine will often have hints of blue, but will turn brown with age. White wines start life nearly colorless, but they too, yellow, or even brown, with age. Oxygen is the culprit that turns wine brown and the mechanism is one we are all familiar with. Bite into an apple, and put it down for a time, and it too will brown from oxidation. Had you squeezed some lemon juice on that apple, the browning would have been slowed due to the citrus acid in the lemon. Acid in wine works the same way, as an antioxidant to help preserve the color and freshness of the wine.
As aroma is to smell, haptic is to touch. It is the word we use to describe all sensations relation to touch. In wine, haptic sensations range from the temperature of the wine, the tickle of the bubbles in sparkling wines, or the burning sensation in your nose from high alcohol content. There is even a mouth feel to wine, especially older wines. Some of these sensations are easier for someone to understand if they have tasted a lot of wines. Others will be obvious at once.
On the surface, this would seem to be the least of the senses used in wine tasting. The sound of wine is that of discussion. Lively discourse on how the wine tastes, what it is, where it came from, and for some, how it was made. It is telling that the word “Symposium” which has come to mean a gathering where topics are discussed, originally meant a wine tasting party.
There is another aspect of sound as it relates to wine. This is found in the joyous clink of wine glasses raised to punctuate a heartfelt toast.
Next stop: The Tasting Ritual
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