2 Much to Taste

By / Magazine / November 15th, 2010 / 2

Last year, the Judgement of Montreal saw a blind tasting panel grant Le Clos Jordanne Claystone Terrace Chardonnay 2005 first place over the French and Californian whites participating in the competition. The event’s organizer, unbeknownst to the judges, included the Ontario winery among the rest. Just like that which happened at the 1976 Judgement of Paris, the panel was completely surprised by its choice of winner when the wines were finally revealed. How could the tasters, who are supposedly experts at discerning the many nuances of aromas and flavours that exist among the world’s terroirs, have been so fooled?

Taste, it turns out, is a fickle mistress. Coming to some coherent understanding of how it works is no walk in the park. In fact, neuroscientists can’t even fully explain it. For instance, there was the time I ate an orange at the kitchen table where my friend happened to also be peeling an onion. The orange began to taste like an onion despite the fact that no onion juice had contaminated it. One or two strange experiences like this have convinced me that there are some very interesting things to know about the physiology of taste.

new kid on the tasting block

Are you one of those people who cringe at the sight of Brussels sprouts? Do you prefer pie and ice cream? Maybe you’ve got what it takes to be a supertaster. Like some kind of superhero, these individuals have highly developed powers of taste. In recent years, some wine experts have professed to own extraordinary tasting abilities because they can pick out flavours others can’t. But they’re mistaken. In one of those cruel jokes of nature, the supertaster is the person who can’t tolerate many foods and drinks, including alcohol. A sip of coffee, grapefruit juice, soy milk, carbonated drinks, beer or wine makes them flinch. Think you’re one of them? Maybe, after all those years of enduring pitying glances each time you took a pass on chilli peppers or olives, you can say that there’s a real, physiological reason for your distaste. There’s a test available for purchase that comes with a little chemical-coated strip that you place on your tongue. If you find it to be so bitter that you gag and spit it out, you’re a supertaster. If it tastes unpleasant or bland, you’re merely a picky eater.

No one seems to be sure why some people have such a heightened response to the bitterness inherent in some foods and drinks. Perhaps it has to do with fungiform papillae. Those of you who bothered to take Latin in high school can be comforted by the fact that studying a dead language has, in fact, come in handy. Fungiform papillae refer to those mushroom-shaped taste buds that tell us what flavours make up the food we eat. According to Linda Bartoshuk of the Yale School of Medicine, supertasters have more fungiform papillae than the rest of us mere mortals. Yet, despite the extra anatomy, they are not necessarily better at discerning tastes.

If a tongue dense with taste buds doesn’t quite explain how it’s possible to detect all of those nuances in each glass of wine, perhaps the topography does. My high school biology teacher was fond of arguing that if everyone would only place aspirin on the tip of the tongue instead of at the back, no one would taste its bitterness. He arrived at this assessment with the help of a tongue map. You know the one: it’s the illustration of the tongue showing that we taste sweet at the tip, salty and sour at the sides and bitter at the back. Guess what? He was wrong. And so, apparently, is the tongue map. There are two problems with it. First, the information is too simplified. David Leopold, author of Disorders of Taste and Smell, suggests that every single taste bud is primed to sense all possible flavours. There are even taste receptors on the upper palate. Second, it doesn’t factor in umami.

In the early 20th century, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda found that an amino acid, called glutamate, was responsible for that distinctive taste found in meat, milk and mushrooms. If you’ve been wondering why your Chinese take-out no longer quite satisfies, it’s not your imagination. That umami flavour so present in Chinese food was there thanks to the addition of MSG (monosodium glutamate). Many restaurants have since eliminated it from their recipes because of complaints that it causes headaches. However, if you find yourself craving that savoury kick, you’re in luck. Wines described as rich and meaty, like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Syrah, usually contain between one and four grams of glutamate per litre. That’s why drinking wine makes you feel so good.

But, I digress. Expert wine tasters really are good with their tongues. You didn’t think that they slurp and swish the wine around their mouths just to buck the rules of etiquette? People who drink wine for a living know a thing or two about the mechanisms of taste. The air intake and the wine’s movement around the mouth are only a small part of what tells us if a wine is fruity, peppery or any of the other descriptors that generally take up space on a bottle’s back label.

how to taste

Step one: eye the wine
Step two: swirl and sniff
Step three: taste

A former boyfriend once introduced me to a friend of his who was an avid home winemaker. We’d spent barely five minutes in his foyer before he ushered us into his cellar to sample his latest vintage. One glance at the wine, and I started looking for the door. It was fuchsia. Vibrant, neon pink. I had never seen wine that colour. It had a thick orange juice-like consistency. Yet, there he was, waiting with anticipation for me to pronounce judgement on his work of art. There’s a reason why the first order of business when poured a glass of wine is to look at it. Call it a survival thing. But, if something looks strange, chances are it is. A situation such as this is where your brain really struts its stuff. It takes what your eyes see, and shuffles through a sort of Rolodex of information searching for a match. So, if your first impression is that the wine doesn’t look right, heed your gut instinct and back away carefully.

I, however, couldn’t see any way out of tasting this strange wine. So, pushing my qualms aside, I swirled and sniffed. Aromas of peaches, plums and cherries wafted up delicately from the glass. Wine industry types will tell you that right there in the olfactory gland is where the real tasting happens. In The Introduction To Wine, Chris Foulkes argues that some tastes are actually aromas that float up through the back of the mouth. What we smell, he says, is stored in our emotions and memories ready to be recalled when necessary. (Like Proust waxing poetic about his tea-soaked madeleine.) Foulkes admits that professional wine tasters work hard at memorizing and recalling smells. So, don’t feel intimidated by the sommelier’s gaze. The wine’s bouquet will trigger memories of similar smelling objects, and you’ll find yourself enjoying the experience on a whole other level. In my case, the pleasant aromas made the job of sampling the dubious concoction in my glass a bit more palatable.

I took a hesitant first sip. Hmmm, fruity. The wine’s flavour mirrored exactly the aromas I had identified. There was a slight puckery mouthfeel to it, revealing the presence of tannins. Not surprising, since I could only assume I was drinking red wine. As for texture and temperature, the wine was thick, but at least it was nicely chilled. The cooler temperature probably mitigated some of the sweetness and enhanced the acidity, making it only somewhat less cloying. I did eventually drain my glass under the winemaker’s excited gaze.

Here’s an interesting fact about taste: what we like or dislike is often dependent on one thing only — perception. Did you grow up eating mild-tasting, salty or sweet food, like fish sticks, French fries and milkshakes? Then you might not take so readily to bitter rapini, sour grapefruit or gelatinous okra. The family and culture in which we were raised inform what we think about food and drink as much any physiology. As for me, the day that I drank fuchsia-coloured wine only served to re-affirm my perceptions. Stick to what looks good. About an hour after consuming it, I developed what remains to this day as the absolute worst migraine of my life.

when good taste goes bad

Aside from bad wine, there are other things that can go wrong and affect the way food and drink taste. Remember the last time you suffered from a head cold? A stuffed up nose doesn’t just squash the ability to perceive smells, it effectively makes everything taste bland. Then there are those who suffer from anosmia and can’t smell anything at all. The opposite condition, hyperosmia, leaves its sufferers no better off. Heightened sensitivity to all smells is as problematic as being a supertaster. Perhaps even worse is ageusia, the total inability to taste.

Sometimes neither infection nor genetics presents the problem. Pity the wine experts who sit on blind tasting panels and who may be required to judge upwards of 50 wines a day. After a while, smell and taste fatigue sets in and they’re no longer able to differentiate degrees of aromas and flavours. That’s why a blind tasting of the same wines on two different days will often yield completely different results.


Rosemary Mantini has always loved words. When she isn't working as the Associate Editor at Tidings Magazine, she's helping others achieve their writing dreams, and sometimes she even relaxes with a good book and a glass of wine.

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