Saliva: The Impact of a Sensory Element on Our Perception of Wine

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GrapevineI’ve been writing for a number of years about our individual palates and the unique characteristics of our physical and sensory innate traits.

I attend several wine tastings over the course of each month. At these events, I am repeatedly surprised at the uniqueness of each participant’s palate.

My recent research has revealed the amazing impact of our physiological and psychological organs and sensors upon our perception of food and wine. This week I’m reporting on several studies that have discovered the impact of an aspect of our anatomy I have not considered as an integral component of my unique wine appreciation perceptions.

As we sip and swallow food and wine we tend to focus on our senses of aroma and taste as the primary influencers of our personal appreciation of what we are consuming. Science is now finding another element that plays an equal role.


As reported in a recent edition of Knowable Magazine: “The liquid that our mouths produce isn’t just a lubricant. It plays an active role in how we perceive taste and can influence what we choose to eat, researchers are discovering.”

The role of saliva is quite complex and influential. It triggers digestion, protects teeth and influences taste. It’s the last of these three roles that intrigues me.

Saliva interacts with and changes our perception of food and wine. The proteins in its watery lubricant break down each mouthful of food or wine, extracting aroma and taste molecules and releasing them into our olfactory receptors and taste buds. But at different rates and intensity, depending on our individual chemical and molecular structure.

Herein lies one of the primary components of why each of us has unique palates and therefore unique interactions with the compounds in food and wine.

Let’s delve further into the physiological and sensory components of saliva as it prompts the deconstruction of food and wine molecules, followed by their reconstruction into new experiential components that account for differing aroma and taste sensations amongst wine consumers.

  1. Lubricant. We rarely give a second thought to saliva’s important role in adding moisture to oral surfaces and the food or wine ingested. This forms a new composition that aids in digestion and alters the textural properties, even the structure of the food.
  2. Flow rate. The rate of saliva secretion affects the rapidity and intensity of the breakdown and transfer of molecules into our sensory receptors. Slow secretion equates to less breakdown, allowing more sensory molecules to remain intact and waft into an individual’s receptors. Rapid secretion causes a lesser release of sensory molecules.
  3. Interactions. Saliva molecules run rampant in our mouths. The enzymes, chemicals and proteins affect the aroma and taste molecules present in food and wine, transmuting sensory messages back and forth to our cerebrum and nerve endings.
  4. Time of day. Yes, the timing of ingesting food or wine affects our sensitivity and perception throughout the day. In most of us, saliva flows slowly when we awake and then accelerates into early afternoon, continually varying during the day. Your perception of wine may be different at brunch, lunchtime, cocktail hour and dinnertime.
  5. Saliva memory. Your food choices over time create instinctive behaviors. Your preference for a dry red wine may be imprinted in your cerebrum through an accumulation of saliva proteins via multiple interactions with that wine.
  6. Astringency. The dry mouthfeel you experience when you consume red wine is not a function of consuming dry wines. Rather, it is the tannins in grape skins that cause proteins in saliva to drain so that the saliva no longer lubricates your mouth as well, creating a dry sensation.
  7. Interaction with air. The varying degree of the separation of air and saliva during the deconstruction process has a significant effect on the passage of aromas from the oral cavity.

We may think that saliva plays a seemingly inconsequential role in our perception of wine and food. In fact, it may explain why each of us has different, at times singularly unique, experiences while consuming a glass of wine from the same bottle.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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