Off the Vine: How taste buds affect wine drinking

July 25, 2012 

I recently brought new meaning to the words "blind tasting" by blindfolding a group of friends and asking them to attempt to distinguish a red wine from a white wine. The results were somewhat interesting, but more on that later. Our eyes work in conjunction with the nose and tongue in determining how something tastes. Think about how many times you have either said or heard -- don't worry about how it looks, it tastes good.

Why is it that when the first bite from a piece of chocolate cake with a rich icing hits your tongue you immediately recognize that you're eating something sweet? It is because the human tongue contains four different taste sensations: sweet, bitter, salty and sour. Taste buds on the tongue are activated as food or wine enters the mouth based upon which sensation is present. These tastes buds occupy different areas of the tongue, with sweet and salty being near the front center, sour on each side and bitter near the back.

You can do a simple experiment to determine which taste buds on your tongue react to the different sensations by taking a drink of something that is sour such as lemon juice and swirling in your mouth. Then follow it up with something sweet (sugar water), salty (salt water), and bitter (unsweetened chocolate or strong coffee).

Basically, flavors are a combination of taste and smell. As an experiment, pinch your nose closed and take a bite of your favorite food. Did you notice a difference in the way that it tasted, as opposed to the flavors that you normally associate with that food?

The wine glass that you use also plays a major role on how you process the aromas and flavors of wine. Wine glasses come in different shapes and sizes for a reason. The shape of the glass is designed to direct different wine varietals to the area of the tongue that enhances the particular flavors of the wine that you are drinking. When drinking a Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux wine, try using a glass that holds approximately 19 ounces. Although a typical wine pour consists of 4 to 5 ounces, so why is there a need for a glass that holds so much volume? Compare the restaurant that serves wine in a short glass that is nearly filled to the top against a glass that is much larger in size. The small glass does not trap any aromas, while the larger glass allows your nose to immediately begin working as you place it to your mouth and start to take a drink.

Now, back to the blind tasting results. My friends tasted a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir. Every one of them distinguished the white from the red without any problem. What was interesting however, were their comments about which varietal they were drinking. The consensus was that the white wine was a Sauvignon Blanc, but they could not agree upon the red. Upon taking off the blindfolds, one of them looked at the red stating that it appeared to be a Rosé because of how light its color appeared. Again, taking into consideration that our eyes work in conjunction with taste -- if you believe that a wine is a Rosé before tasting it, would it taste different?

Jim Rawe, a family attorney in Bradenton, is an avid collector of fine wines. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at

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