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Taste - The Biology of Tasting Wine

Taste - The Biology of Tasting Wine
We have five basic taste sensations: salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and the recently discovered taste sensation of umami, which can be described as meaty and savory. Each of these flavors has their own receptor cells located on the 10,000 taste buds on the papillae (bumps) on our tongue. The primary receptors that pick up the flavors found in wine are the sour ones which are activated through the concentration of hydronium ions that are formed by acids and water.

While it would be simple to explain to you the map of the tongue and which parts are sensitive to each of these tastes, this is just a myth. In reality, there are four different types of papillae, one at the front, one in the middle of the sides, one at the outer back end, and the final one at the centre of the back of the tongue. Old theories used to postulate that each type of papillae was associated with a taste. It has more recently been revealed that each type of papillae has receptor sites for all five tastes. While some parts of the tongue may be able to detect a certain taste before the others do, because of their threshold sensitivity, all parts of the tongue (except for the very centre which contains no taste buds) are equally good at conveying the subjective flavor for all tastes.

Flavor is the overall impression that we experience from the combination of taste and smell (oral stimulation and nasal stimulation). Before letting wine touch our tongue, we smell it in order to taste the quality of the wine and pick up on its unique characteristics as a preview for what we are about to taste. From personal experience of having a cold or eating or drinking while plugging your nose, it’s obvious that the smell has a large impact on taste. Odor from the wine you just smelled goes up into your nose from your mouth and through the nasal pharynx, which is the passage at the back of the throat, connecting the two cavities. While plugging your nose doesn’t actually block the nasal pharynx, it does prevent odors from being processed as it eliminates airflow within this channel.

Differences in Taste
So why is it then that people can have such varying preferences in tastes in food and wine. Subjective experience is a large part of this, much like any other perceptive experience, but some people have been shown to have a larger number of taste buds on their tongue. As such, receptor density, along with types of receptors present are both involved in determining individual differences in taste. This creates a great deal of taste perception variability across people, with some people, called supertasters, having much higher sensitivity to certain tastes.

Differentiating Flavors
When tasting a wine, we can obviously pick up on individual flavors, some being subtler then others. A form of higher-level perceptual organization is responsible for our ability to differentiate between the tastes and to further assign them to flavors that are more distinct and specific then the five basic aforementioned categories. This is much like how we are able to pick up on individual instruments when listening to an orchestra. It is what makes wine drinking such a unique and rich experience.

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