This article was originally published in the Australian Wine Industry Journal, December 2004
by Ken Eckersley
With appreciation to the late Professor Emile Peynaud
We all eat, drink, smell perfumes and know the experience of bitterness (which is just as well as many plant poisons are bitter). Yet there is still mystery about the operation of these senses. The ‘simple’ act of enjoying a glass of wine is really a complex physiological one and also has personal and social overtones. Observe how people can have difficulty sharing their experience of a wine, whether it is uncertainty over what they are feeling or trying to find the ‘right’ words.
Listen to the ‘experts’, look at their written words and you will see words like ‘flavour’ and ‘taste’ used interchangeably and ‘palate’ and ‘aroma’ could also be thrown into the fuzzy mix. They are confused too. It used to be simple, when we borrowed the French words ‘touch’ for ‘taste’ and ‘savour’ for ‘flavour’, but that was in the time of Chaucer. So to clarify the language and make better sense of the experience of wine, the following words are explained.
Let’s start with swirling the wine under the nose and inhaling; it is the nasal receptors that detect the smell/ odour/aroma/bouquet. When the wine touches the palate (tongue, mouth lining) the brain moves up a gear. The taste is a combination of the sensation of mouthfeel (i.e. cold, acid, sweet, bitter, dry, savoury) that can be interpreted by the cortex as ‘structural concepts’ such as shape, weight, balance, texture, and flavour (Peynaud: ‘the aroma in the mouth’) deriving from the volatiles liberated by the warmth (37C) and large surface area of the mouth. They are sucked up the retro-nasal passage by air being breathed out and across the nasal sensors for a second time. (The reverse is known but uncommon—aroma alone producing mouthfeel).
Flavour is the same as aroma except the source is different (glass versus mouth, inhale to exhale). It can also be more diverse and persistent while the shorter lived aromas can be more intense as the brain is focusing on just one sense.
Naturally if a wine is rushed through the mouth there is little opportunity for flavour to be detected and only the mouthfeel is perceived. The difficulty when tasting is that two sense organs are being stimulated and are competing for our conscious attention. Skill and concentration are required to focus on one or the other; if, say, a strong tannic red is tasted, it is hard for subtle flavours to be noticed.
Current research has focused on ‘super-tasters’ who have more tongue sensors; they rarely drink wine as the experience is so overwhelming. Generally women are more sensitive than men and Caucasians are the least of the racial groups. Given the decline in the senses as we age it makes understandable the preference for ‘obvious’ wines like BIG reds among older Caucasian males!
The nerve pathways from the nose and mouth are very different. The mouth discerns only a handful of possible responses that go to the main brain which can respond to excesses with the feeling of pain. The nasal senses have their own part of the brain, via the ‘olfactory bulb’, with the reported ability to discriminate 10,000 odourants. The circuitry involves the ‘primitive’ pleasure, emotional part of the forebrain—a powerful area that can draw upon memory, associations, sexual arousal, danger etc. Reportedly 1% of a person ‘s DNA is tied to the sense of smell, the same as for the immune system.
A device to assist focusing on the concurrent tasting sensations is to momentarily pause breathing. Flavour detection ceases and only the mouthfeel or structure will be apparent; then resume breathing and the flavour will surge. As flavour is apparent only on the exhale part of the breathing cycle, it will pulse.
Then there is the aftertaste, the sensations that remain after the wine has left the mouth. As before there will be the after-flavour and the after-feeling, which are time extensions; lingering longer is an essential part of a quality wine. After-flavour builds up with repeated tastes and reflects superior fruit good oak and careful winemaking. After-feeling can be a steady softness, dryness or cleanness (especially in white wines) and probably derives from high extract and management of the tannin regime (in red wines) —both strongly influenced by winemaking practices. Good winemaking is always evident in a balanced, soft mouthfeel.
Returning to the theme of describing wines, the following three different examples follow the definitions set out above:
• Melon and oak on the nose, with a soft balanced palate and flavours of melon, oak and hazelnut;
• Pungent neutral nose, rounded textured tannins and cherry, earthy flavours that persist;
• Strong fruit salad leaps out of the glass and the taste is coarse and like old boots. Thank goodness it finished short!
So much for the complexities. Keep it simple; this is the Lord’s Prayer of how to go about enjoying wine: Pour the wine into a generous glass (not XL5) and swirl it under your nose and inhale; then place a small portion at the front of the mouth and move the tongue as if eating, and wait. The wine will reveal all. One drinks beer, and water, but wine is better eaten.
KEN ECKERSLEY is the winemaker at Nicholson River Winery.
REFERENCES: Burr, C. (2002) The Emperor of Scent, Random House.
Clarke, R.J. and Bakker, J. (2o04) Wine Flavour Chemistry, Blackwells.
Peynaud, Emile (1987) The Taste of Wine, Macdonald Orbis.
WINE INDUSTRY JOURNAL VOL 19 NO 6 NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2004