The Greater Influence on Our Palates: Taste or Smell?

GrapevineIn previous columns, I’ve focused on the marvels of the human senses and their influence on our perception of wine.

It seems science has undertaken numerous studies to codify and standardize how we interface with wine. Of our five senses, recent scientific efforts have been focusing primarily on our senses of taste and smell. These studies attempt to explain in objective, finite terms how our physiology and, in certain instances, our psychology, play a role in enhancing our innate enjoyment of wines.

There have been studies of our sense of taste, isolating sub-regions of our cerebral cortex that imprint, and therefore, define the sensations of our taste buds. The taste senses of bitter, sweet, sour, salty and umami occupy specific regions of the olfactory sensors on our tongue and the membrane lining in our mouth.

For example, science has isolated the sense of sweetness to the tip of our tongue and bitterness to the rear. Understanding this process enables wine tasters to enhance their appreciation of wine.

Science has further proven that our sense of smell dominates our overall experience in wine appreciation, far outweighing the influence of taste. A recent study has shattered the long-held scientific conclusion that the smell receptors in our mouth and nose are able to identify 10,000 aromas (a rather overwhelming number to manage each time we sniff a glass of wine). The study has concluded that our sense of smell is capable of detecting over one million scents and aromas.

However, therein lies the rub. There are insufficient descriptive terms to specifically identify and describe each of these aromas.

The science of the role of taste and smell is most evident when we engage in the most basic of dining rituals – pairing food and wine.

Here’s an experiment you can try at home to better understand the dominance of smell over taste. We all have tried one or more flavors of those gourmet jellybeans, the ones with laboratory-developed flavors such as buttered popcorn, pina colada and chili mango. The tastes are amazingly accurate. But are we experiencing taste or smell?

Hold your nose and then pop a jellybean in your mouth. What happens? Your sense of taste detects sweetness in your mouth, but no flavor. Release the grip on your nose. Bam, the vibrant essence of the jellybean flavor floods your brain’s olfactory sensors. So it is with wine. Taste provides the broad backdrop for your palate; aromas determine the core impressions in your perception of the wine.  

The science of the role of taste and smell is most evident when we engage in the most basic of dining rituals – pairing food and wine. The combination of compatible tastes and aromas is critical to the enjoyment of a meal. There is certainly an art, or at least a learned trait, in creating a new sensory state when we are at the table.

The ritual begins with a sip of the wine to be paired with a food. Our sensory receptors trigger specific elements of the wine in our mouth. The second level is tasting the food. A new set of tastes and aromas now coats our tongue and mouth, and penetrates our olfactory receptors. Our brain now has memorized two sets of distinct profiles.

After the bite of food, we sip the wine again. In the test laboratory of our mouth, we now create a third, unique taste and aroma profile. Here is where the greatest dining pleasure blossoms. A new experience is created on our palate, with a set of variables that may never be duplicated again.

Life is a series of experiments and outcomes. From each of them we learn and build the foundation of our interactive lives. With food and wine experiments, we bring to the table hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individual sensory experiences each time we drink and dine. Our learned sensory instincts hopefully guide us to an enjoyable outcome; science increasingly explains how we got there.

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 nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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