Monday, January 9, 2012

Rant: Are You Tasting Wine Wrong?

When you learned how to taste wine, you might have come across the "Five S" procedure: See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, and Savor. Some tasting procedures may add others steps like Swish and Spit. At very large wine tastings, spitting becomes very common as you don't want to get drunk before tasting through all of the wines. But is there is a missing step in all these procedures? And is spitting the best way to truly experience the flavors of a wine?

A new release, Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters by Gordon Shepherd (Columbia University Press, December 2011) helps provide some fascinating insight into these questions. This intriguing book discusses the differences between orthonasal and retronasal smell as well as taste and flavor. It also details the impact of our brains on determining flavors from smells. The book is not a easy read but you will find much of worth within its pages.  

One step in tasting wine is devoted to smell, the Sniff phase, where you breathe in the odors of the wine, and this is known as the orthonasal. Yet our sense of smell has another component, one which you hear far less about and which many tasting procedures seem to fully, or at least partially, ignore. This is the retronasal, the breathing out, and it may seem strange to some that you can smell by exhaling. Before I explain more about the retronasal though, let us address the differences between taste and flavor.

There are five basic tastes, including sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami, and we basically experience these on our tongue through our taste buds. So it is biology that determines our sensitivity to these tastes and it is not something we can generally improve or change. Flavor though comes through the interplay of smells and   our brains. Your tongue cannot detect cherries or grapefruit, merely when something is sweet or sour. Cherries and grapefruit are flavors that you discern through aromatic molecules that are interpreted by your brain. And you can learn to discern additional flavors through training.

Now, flavor is mostly determined by our retronasal smell, so why do so many people ignore this important element? By breathing out, with your mouth closed, the air in your lungs is forced into your mouth and then acquires the aromatic molecules from food and drink. As your mouth is closed, the air must then enter the nasal chambers where the aromatic molecules stimulate the olfactory sensory neurons, leading your brain to discern flavor. Chewing and swallowing assists in this process.   

So, if you taste wine and spit, you are likely missing out on some of the flavors of wine due to a reduced chance to experience the retronasal smell. There are some ways to improve your retronasal experience even if you spit, such as swirling the wine in your mouth, releasing more of the aromatic molecules from the wine.  You could also, with a mouthful of wine, exhale through your nose while your mouth is closed. Even if you do spit, you will probably swallow a tiny bit of wine, which will provide some retronasal smells though swallowing is probably the only way to gain the full effect.

So, though spitting may be essential to tasting through a group of wines, it may not be the best way to experience the flavors of a wine. So should we really base tasting notes on experiences where we spit the wines? Or should we instead only write them where we swallow the wine, and get the full retronasal effect? Consumers are most likely to drink and swallow the wines they buy, so should reviews, which hope to best inform these consumers, be based on swallowing the wine? Should reviews where you only spit the wine bear a caveat, informing consumers that you did not experience the full retronasal effect?

Do you taste wines paying attention to the retronasal, and if so, what do you do to experience the retronasal as much as possible?

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