The Art of Tasting

By Posted on Nov 21 2009 | By

wine-glass2Displaying flavors of clementine and candied grapefruit peel, with touches of dried apricot and pine needle. Hints of honey and smoke weave through the seamless texture and resonate on the long finish.

All that in a sip of wine? Come on, get serious.

One can be forgiven after reading many of today’s wine descriptions, if a giggle is followed by a low muttered, “Yeah, right”. It’s difficult to believe that anyone could actually taste the exotic things they purport to write about. It all seems a bit too froo-froo.

Most of us do not focus on the subtle flavors in food and drink. Our descriptors fall more along the lines of…juicy, stale, spicey, dry, or hopefully, delicious. The art of tasting—and yes, it’s an art—is largely a learned skill. But, like world-class athletes, there are world-class tasters that are endowed with gifts most of us do not possess. The pros learn the game just like us amateurs. But as their skill sets deepen, they leave the rest of wondering, “How do they do that?”

There are four basic tastes we all perceive on the palate: sweet, salty, bitter and sour. More recently, a fifth taste component has been identified called “umami”, a Japanese word meaning meaty or savory. Overall, our taste buds provide us little information unless combined with our sense of smell, which can distinguish a startling array of aromas. This occurs when food or drink is volatized in the mouth and the “odorants” drift over our olfactory bulb, located at the top of the nose.

Tasting WineA sip of Cabernet might start out as a bit sweet and bitter and then blossom into black cherry and smoke as it passes over our olfactory epithelium. From there it sends messages to our brain to confirm the aroma as specific flavors. Taste and smell work together to create our perception of flavor.

It’s here the professional sommelier parts company with the weekend wine warrior. Science has confirmed that there are three categories of tasting ability: non-taster, taster and supertaster. An individual can actually be identified by category using a scientific method involving 6-propylthiouracil—or PROP—a drug used to treat thyroid conditions. The test involves applying a strip of paper soaked in PROP on the tongue and recording the taster’s reaction. A quarter of a given population tastes nothing at all, and are classified as non-tasters. Fifty percent observe a bitter taste, and are categorized as tasters. The final twenty-five percent react with an intense bitterness on the palate, these are the supertasters.

So while our palates convey only the most basic of tastes, it’s the density of taste buds on the tongue, combined with individual aroma sensitivity that produces super tasters.

TongueUnfortunately, the PROP test is not available to the general public, since it’s a prescription drug. But, there is a simple method that can give you a general idea of what category you fall into. Simply place a drop of blue food dye on a paper towel and gently rub it across the front of your tongue to create a pale hue. Then, using a magnifying glass, look into a mirror and count the number of pink dots in a circular area about a half-inch in diameter. The dots are fungiform papillae that house taste buds and will not take up the blue dye. If you have fewer than 15 dots, you are likely a non-taster; fifteen to thirty-five, a taster; and more than thirty-five a supertaster.

One of the most notable examples of a supertaster is the world renown wine critic, Robert M. Parker, Jr., known as The Emperor of Wine. So acute are his senses he has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to identify the varietal, producer and vintage of a wine tasted blind, and often one fifteen years old or older. His nose is insured for over a million dollars.

Beyond the innate abilities of a supertaster to identify wine flavors, two additional attributes come in to play: repetition and memory. Professional wine tasters take their natural gifts to a higher level by constantly tasting new and different wines, and by instinctively memorizing the aromas and flavors they encounter. It’s here where the pros leave a vast majority of average tasters in the dust. By committing to memory an array of flavors, a sommelier can accurately identify the tastes in a wine with just a few sips. It’s analogous to a computer searching its hard drive for data. Whirrrrr…compute…data dump, equals flavor descriptors.

Wine GlassesSo how might the average person increase their ability to smell and taste wine with some degree of accuracy? First, don’t evaluate just wine, test taste a variety of food and drink. If you have just sliced a lemon for your iced ice tea, take a moment to deeply inhale the lemony aromas. Then squeeze a few drops of the juice on your tongue. Next, sip the unsweetened tea and feel the puckery tannin impact.

Repeat this process several times a week with a variety of food and drink. Try to imagine what the smell and taste is going to be and then confirm or correct your initial perception with an actual sniff and taste. Slowly you will begin to build a repertoire of impressions that will be useful in wine tasting. This should all be done with a sense of fun and when you are in the mood. Sniffing everything that is about to go into your mouth will only earn you odd stares from your friends and family.

Next, remember there are two types of wine enjoyment: tasting and drinking. The majority of wine lovers simply drink wine. Nothing to criticize here. But, by segmenting each wine experience into two phases your can improve your perception skills. A useful exercise is to first read the winery’s tasting notes, or the back label description. Then, pour just an ounce in your glass and see if you can conjure up the same or similar flavors as the winemaker perceived. Each bottle of wine you open now becomes a mini-tasting class lasting just a minute or two. After observing the flavor profile, relax and simply start drinking the wine.

A valued lesson in life is that over time we come to recognize many of our our dreams and goals must be channeled into other areas, as reality clarifies youthful expectations. And so it is for the wine lover. Most of us will not achieve the ability to identify wines tasted blind by varietal, producer or year with any consistency. But, so what? We can marvel at those who can and enjoy the process of learning more about wine simply one sip at a time.



Published in the 2009 Winter edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES