Artisan Wine Review
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Our Sense of Taste

There are three main components to how we perceive taste.   The first is from information sent to our brain from from our taste buds.   The second is from information sent to the brain from other parts of our tongue and our cheeks.   Finally, information carried from our nasal receptors to our brain helps to complete the picture.

                             Taste Buds:
The tongue has thousands of receptors that detect six basic taste stimuli, they are:

  1. Sweet
  2. Salty
  3. Sour
  4. Bitter
  5. Umami - Described as a "Meaty" or "Brothy" taste.
  6. Kokumi - Roughly translates as "Heartiness". Scientist claim that it enhances the taste of foods by triggering calcium receptors on the tongue.
Although research has recently shown that these taste can be detected everywhere across the tongue where taste buds are present, there appear to be areas specializing in detecting one of four specific taste.   Interestingly enough, there lies a certain animal logic in the way these areas are laid out.
As you can see in the above image, the front tip of the tongue detects Sweetness.   If you think about it, you will probably recall at some time seeing a small animal coming upon something on the ground of which they are not familiar.   The animal will very cautiously sniff the object to determine if it is food.   After that initial inspection, the next thing the animal does is to dart out the tip of the tongue to quickly touch it.   What the animal at this point is seeking is a sweet taste because, in nature, things that are sweet are usually safe to eat and can be a source of quick energy.   So by detecting sweetness with just the tip of its tongue, the animal can determine the food potential of the object while minimizing its own exposure to danger.  
You will notice in the above picture that both sides directly behind the tip of the tongue will detect Saltiness.
   The explanation for these areas is that salt (along with other trace minerals) is essential to our survival.   Once again, by simply employing a slight licking motion, the front part of the tongue minimizes exposure to danger while carrying both savory and sweet information back to the brain for analysis of a food's potential for positive or negative nutritional value.

A little further back on the sides of the tongue are areas that respond to Sourness.   The theory here is, as omnivores, our diet includes a lot of fat laden products (Olives, nuts, animal flesh, etc.).   Since fats tend to coat our palates, we regularly need to source acidic (Sour tasting) foods to cut through those fats and cleanse our tongues, or else we might not be able to discern if the things we are eating are good for our bodies to ingest or not.

Finally, in the back of the tongue, just below the uvula (That little punching bag that guards our throats), is an area that specializes in detecting Bitterness.   Logic dictates that if sweet objects in nature are usually safe to eat, then the opposite must hold true for objects that are bitter.   Unripe fruits and brightly colored insects are two examples that come quickly to mind.   By detecting a bitter taste just before it reaches the entrance to the throat, our palates have set up a last line of defense.   Any potentially harmful foods reaching the back of the tongue will cause a gag reflex to expel the danger before it is ingested.

 Other Parts of the Tongue and Our Cheeks:

These inside parts of our mouth detect Temperature and Food Density.   Both of these factors utilize our sense of touch to add to the basic picture of taste stimuli being sent to the brain.
Think about how we perceive the taste of a cold slice of leftover pizza, or a glass of cola that has been warmed up by sitting out in the summer sun; you will now understand the importance of temperature in perceiving taste.
Next, consider our reaction to soggy potato chips versus crisp ones, or instant coffee versus espresso roast and you will appreciate how texture and density can influence the way we perceive the taste of things we eat and drink.

                     Nasal Receptors:

A third part of the taste equation is through our sense of smell.   By themselves, the signals sent to the brain by the taste buds draw what could best be described as a black and white picture of the food or beverage being tasted.   The signals being sent by our nasal receptors up to the brain "colorize" this taste picture, making the experience less primal and more refined to our higher brain functions such as memory and learning.

     Learning How to Train Your Palate:

If you have ever purchased a pair of stereo speakers, this scenario will seem familiar to you.   The salesperson at the electronics store leads you over to a "Sound Room" where the walls are lined with various speakers that you can "test" side by side.   You most likely will listen to classical music recorded by a symphony orchestra because, an orchestra may employ over one hundred different instruments, each one having its own dynamic range.  
If it turns out that you are able to "see" where the different sections of the orchestra (Percussion, Brass, Strings and Woodwinds) were located just by hearing the music, then you my friend, have found yourself a pair of quality speakers.


A similar system holds true for training your taste palate. Start by sipping a little wine and holding it on the tip of your tongue for one or two seconds before you begin making a chewing motion which allows the wine to coat all parts of your tongue.   The next step is for you to open your lips a bit and breathe in ever so slightly over the liquid.   This action allows your nasal receptors to become more involved in the tasting process.   Next, you can either spit out, or swallow the wine.   At this point, concentrate and try to figure out where you are noticing taste sensations from the beverage being sampled:
  • Do you detect some sweetness on the attack?
  • Do you sense some sour fruit notes on the mid-palate?
  • Did the wine seem somewhat chewy, or was it watery?
  • Was the wine a bit too cold to get anything out of the taste?
  • Was there a pleasant finish, or did it seem to have a bitter note at the end?
By learning to make use of your personal taste map, you will begin detecting clues that aid in identifying flavor components in wine.


Did you know that the nasal bulb is located extremely close to the part of the brain where memory is stored?   That is why we are pretty sure something similar to the next two sentences has happened to you at one time or another:
You are walking past a shop on the street and quite suddenly, and for no apparent reason, you begin thinking about visiting your grandmother's home on Christmas back when you were a small child.   After several moments have gone by, you realize that the smell of the freshly baked cookies wafting out from the front of the shop is what triggered your flashback.

Memory is the single biggest tool in the wine taster's bag of tricks.
We strongly suggest that you begin imprinting your brain by stopping to smell the roses, and the broccoli, and the cantaloupes, and the acacia flowers, and the fresh dill, the wet rocks along the riverbank, and many, many other natural scents.   Go to the market and pick up some fresh produce and really, really smell it.   Make a conscious effort to lock that smell in your memory!
After you get past that initial discomfort of being called that "weird person" who is always sniffing and smelling their way through each of the produce section's apple varieties, tomatoes, mushrooms and eggplant, you will begin to notice impressions in the aromas and flavors in your wines, just like the ones that the reviewers are always writing about.
The more you do this when food shopping, or hiking in the woods, or working out in your garden, or in the spice isle of your local grocery, the easier you will find it to recognize familiar scents and taste within a glass of wine.

  Outside Influences on Taste:

  • Did you have a bad day at work today, or are you attending a tasting of older, vintage ports while on your vacation?
  • Are you surrounded by good friends at a beach house, or are you in the company of pretentious snobs at some obligatory corporate function?
  • Are you seated at a holiday meal complete with all the trimmings, or are you bored silly as you eat reheated chicken wings off the buffet table at the wedding of your spouse's co-worker?


  • Is it a hot, sticky day out there, or are you sitting out on the deck, enjoying the cool lake breezes at sunset?
  • Did you get in a good workout earlier in the day, or is standing up for so long causing your arthritic knee to act up again?
  • Is there annoying music playing too loudly through tinny, sounding speakers, while at the same time, someone has left the television on with the sound up on a program where the talking heads blather on about a starlet's misbegotten love affair, or are you and your date sitting on a blanket, sipping champagne at a free, live concert out in the park and listening to a full  orchestra perform, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, complete with cannons and fireworks?
  • After seeing a movie, you and your date decide to go for an espresso and a brandy at a cozy neighborhood cafe' that is famous for its pastries.   As you open the door, your salivary glands instantly become active as you both are surrounded by the wonderful aroma of freshly baked tarts sitting on the shelves in front of you.
  • Tonight, you are finally going to that hot, new, downtown bistro that several of your closest friends have been raving about non-stop since it opened three months ago.   In fact, four people that you consider real foodies, have called the chef's bouillabaisse, the best they have ever tasted!
  • You are told that this invitation only, black tie, charity wine tasting you will be attending will include magnums of; Chateau Margaux 1961, Chateau Latour 1955, Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947, Chateau Haute-Brion 1945, and Chateau d'Yquem 1921.

Other Factors Affecting Taste:

Tobacco products dull your taste buds and nasal receptors, lessening the palates ability to distinguish subtle flavors.

                     Strong Flavors

Strong flavors such as mints, chilies, citrus fruits, coffee, and chocolates need to be neutralized before embarking on a wine tasting, as they can distort or totally mask flavors and aromas present in the wines.


Drinking a couple of martinis before a wine tasting may have sounded like a good idea at first, but your taste buds will probably be anesthetized, making your palate fairly numb at a time when it should be ready to be put through its paces in trying to identify the delicate nuances of each wine being presented.

Overall health and the use of medications must also be mentioned as factors that can influence your perception of taste.
Distracting aromas such as someone's strong perfume lingering in the air in your vicinity, or the aroma of rotting sewage next to your picnic table can throw off your brain's ability to focus on enjoying the taste of the foods and wine in front of you.
                     Teeth and Gums

Good oral hygiene is an important factor that needs to be mentioned.   Neglecting to perform daily maintenance on teeth and gums, or a lack of annual checkups with a dentist may lead to a failure in preventing cavities and other bacteria-related problems which can mask or distort any taste signals sent to the brain.
                        Poor Diet

A poor diet is yet another thing that can affect one's sense of taste.   In the more extreme cases, if the body doesn't receive the nutrients it requires each day to maintain optimal physical conditions; it could lead to foods and beverages not tasting right.
It is not uncommon for people to come back from their vacation at some exotic destination and rave about the amazing wines they tasted when they were there, only to uncork the bottle that they brought back with them on the plane and find that it doesn't taste quite the same as they remember.   There is a very good chance that the problem wasn't the wine at all, but rather the setting that they now taste the wine in is very different than that, "gorgeous seaside villa with the strolling minstrels serenading them from out in the garden".


Now you understand why professionals, for the most part, try to keep things as standardized as possible when evaluating a wine.   They employ the same tasting area, the same stemware, and the same people around them whenever possible.   Professionals realize that they cannot control everything, but they strive to keep things as normal as possible in order to give the wines they are evaluating as fair a shake as they possibly can.


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