How sensory associations can fool you (and experts) when appreciating wine

Our expectations about the wine we are about to taste can significantly shape our ultimate liking or disliking of the wine, independent of its actual quality.

While we often know that the price tag can have a real influence on an individual’s perceptual experience of the wine, it is also important to understand how the actual sensory inputs of smell and taste combine to form your flavor experience of wine.

Similar to our previous post on expectations of homemade wine, this post will help you understand the psychology of perception will affect your wine tasting experience. So, let’s explore!

Smell (Olfaction)

Olfaction is your sense of smell, and its stimuli are airborne molecules. When you smell wine, you are sensing molecules that have left the wine and traveled through the air to your nose. These molecules then enter your nasal passages and reach tiny receptor cells at the top of the nasal cavity.Olfactory

These olfactory receptor cells are located on a thin, dime-sized, mucus-coated layer of tissue known as the olfactory epithelium.

The odor molecules from the wine are then trapped and dissolved in the mucus of the epithelium, which causes the olfactory receptor cells to transmit a neural impulse to various brain regions. Once your brain processes this information, you perceive the wine’s fragrance.

Each wine grape variety has a unique physiological make up which exudes specific airborne molecules that our noses detect, but these aromas are mostly undetectable until the grape juice is fermented into wine. Fermentation magnifies these aromas.

What is incredible is that humans have hundreds of different types of olfactory receptor cells, and each type responds to only a limited family of odor molecules. Together, these receptor cells allow us to distinguish among 4,000 to 10,000 different smells.

Although humans can detect thousands of different smells, most people are not very good at identifying an odor by name, which is one of the primary reasons why many people have a difficult time identifying the various odors they perceive in different wines.

In wine drinking, this means that you may have a hard time correctly identifying the various odors to be detected in a glass of Zinfandel, for example. Is that a raspberry smell? Do I detect a pepper aroma? Freshly opened tennis balls? My high school locker?!! Geesh!

An even harsher reality is that you might have a hard time distinguishing the smell of Raspberry Cream Soda from that of Zinfandel! Maybe now the smell of your high school locker in that Zin is not so off-putting!

Taste (Gustation)

Taste, or gustation, occurs when a substance makes contact with specialized receptor cells in the mouth and throat. About 50 to 150 of these receptor cells are contained in each of the 10,000 taste buds that are primarily located on the tongue.

Some taste buds are also in the throat, on the insides of the cheeks, and on the roof of the mouth.

The taste buds on the surface of the tongue are grouped together in structures called papillae, which in Latin means “pimple.” Because of their constant contact with the chemicals they are designed to sense, as well as their exposure to bacteria, dirt, and dry air, the receptor cells wear out and die within 10 days. Fortunately, new cells emerge at the edge of the taste bud and migrate inward toward the center, replacing the old cells. Although this cycle of death and replacement of taste cells operates throughout our lives, it occurs more slowly in the elderly, which is one reason their taste sensitivity becomes less acute.

When these taste cells absorb chemicals dissolved in saliva, they trigger neural impulses that are transmitted to different areas of the brain for processing. Our taste receptors can detect only a handful of taste sensations. The five most familiar taste sensations are:

sweetness (mostly sugars)

sourness (mostly acids)

saltiness (mostly salts)

bitterness (mainly chemicals that have no food value or are toxic)

umami (a savory taste common in fermented and aged foods)

However, most taste experiences are complex and result from the combined effects of receptor cells in the mouth and nose, which produce the different flavors you experience.

The Tongue Map

The Tongue Map

Has anyone ever told you that the taste buds sensitive to sweetness are on the front of your tongue and the taste buds for saltiness and sourness are on the sides? If so, don’t believe them. As depicted in Figure 3, this popular belief that the taste buds on different areas of the tongue detect different tastes is based on a mistranslation of a German paper that was written more than 100 years ago.

To set the record straight, all your taste buds detect all taste qualities. Despite this fact, makers of expensive wine glasses (see accompanying advertisement) still falsely claim that their different-shaped glasses will direct specific types of wine onto the areas of the tongue that will make that wine taste the best. The tongue map is easy enough to prove wrong at home.  Place salt on the tip of your tongue.

You’ll taste salt.

About 25 percent of people have nearly six times as many taste buds as normal tasters. These supertasters are extremely sensitive to bitter compounds, and they also perceive saccharin and sucrose as sweeter than other people do. Supertasters are highly aware of flavors and food textures, and they often feel pain when eating spicy foods. Supertasters’ discriminating palates may lead to lower risks for obesity and alcoholism. Women are more likely to be supertasters than men.

To find out whether you might be a supertaster, punch a small ¼ inch hole into a small piece of wax paper, place blue food coloring on the front of your tongue, and then place the wax paper over this area (see photo). Using a mirror and a magnifying glass, examine your tongue showing through this ¼ inch hole and count the number of pink dots you observe. The pink dots are your papillae; they are pink because they do not soak up the blue dye. Most people have about 15 – 35 papillae; below average tasters tend to have fewer than 15 papillae. People who have more than 35 papillae may well be super tasters.

 Smell + Taste = Flavor

Although the taste of a wine depends on whether one or more of the five basic taste sensations is activated, the flavor of the wine is based on both its smell and its taste. Plenty of people have written about wine flavors, just like this specific one, so read more there if you are interested in flavor. The important role that olfaction plays in the flavor experience was demonstrated by one study in which some research participants were allowed to both taste and smell substances placed on their tongues, while others were allowed to only taste them.

Results indicated that over half of the taste-smell participants were able to correctly identify chocolate, root beer, cherry, coffee, and garlic, but less than 3 percent of the taste-only group could accurately identify those flavors.

To personally experience the role that olfaction plays in your flavor perception of wine, pinch your nostrils closed before approaching a particular type of wine. Then, taste that wine and swish it around in your mouth while paying attention to the flavor. Next, release your nostrils, open your mouth slightly, and breathe in gently through both your mouth and nose. You should experience a significant increase in the wine’s flavor.

What can you do? 

Over many years of drinking wine and educating yourself about wine, your brain has come to associate specific aromas with red and white wines in general and also with specific wine varieties. You will also have learned to associate specific wine aromas with specific wine taste sensations.

Have you ever smelled a wine and thought, “Wow, this is nice!”

…only to say “Yuck!” after tasting it?

This may happen because the aroma of the wine caused you to expect it to taste a certain way based on past experience, and your “yuck” response had more to do with your brain being surprised at the taste sensation it perceived and rejected it.

A second taste after your expectations were adjusted may have led to a pleasant perceptual experience, and perhaps, a new and more complex understanding on your part of wine’s flavor diversity.

Another example of how your expectations can cloud and bias your experience of wine is when you have developed a negative attitude toward a certain wine variety and then you taste a glass of this wine without knowing its identity (“Here, try this nice red wine I’ve just opened!”). In such a situation, you may well enjoy this as-yet unidentified wine because you do not bring your biases to mind in your tasting of it. Here, not knowing what you are tasting means you do not have negative expectations interfering with your sensory taste experience, thus allowing you to actually enjoy the previously disliked wine.

These are just a couple of examples of how the many taste/aroma/flavor associations you have formed over the years for certain types of wines shape how you—and even “wine experts”—can often be fooled in perceiving and ultimately appreciating wine.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s