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The science of taste, looking through the wine glass

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was: Make sure to share a bottle of wine at some point when dating. It will undoubtedly be a pleasant experience, and you might just discover more about your date’s taste. And no, I’m not talking about the expense they are willing to go to, but to the way they enjoy the wine. It is not uncommon; even in couples who have been together for decades to react very differently to the same wine.

This is a perfect example of how complex the process we simply call “taste” is. So with wine as our example (and perhaps a glass in hand) let us look into how science can help us understand how taste works.

Subjectivity vs. Objectivity in wine: the Gordian knot of taste

One of the great background questions in the scientific debate about taste never fails to emerge when talking about wine: is wine tasting a subjective experience where the whims and preferences of the taster determine the outcome or are it a carefully controlled process where highly trained individuals give consistent and reliable results? If you haven’t lived through such a debate, lucky you. However, if you have survived a confrontation between fervent opponents and proponents, you might need another glass.

The truth is, as we shall soon see, that both sides are ultimately correct. At least in part. There are objective characteristics to wine, based on its composition, creation, fermentation, and even elusive terroir. But the way every individual experience the wine will be different. Mostly these differences remain subtle, but sometimes they can be dramatic.

So like Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian knot, if we use what science tells us about taste, we can finally resolve this thorny question.

The basics of taste science: how wine rolls down the tongue

What holds for all foods remains true for wine as well, despite all the hype about it. Ultimately it is a collection of chemicals that set off various neural receptors in our mouths, and perhaps more importantly, in our noses.

There are also some chemical receptors on our tongue, which respond to basic ‘tastes’ like sweetness and acidity. These are the building blocks of what we ultimately think of as the flavor.

Even here, we can already find differences in how taste is experienced. Not only do some individuals have varying sensitivities towards different elements of taste but over time, in the same person, those taste buds can change!

But science tells us that the mouth is very much just the blunt tool of taste. Our tongues can pick up elements of texture and flavor but have little capacity for subtlety or detail.

Taking wine tasting to the next level: up the nose

Such detail and nuance are best found in the nose. Ever tried to drink wine (or taste anything) with a heavy cold? It is easy to notice the difference. The receptors in our nasal passages are far more accurate, distinct, and perceptive than our taste buds. These pick up on up to 200 individual chemicals in odors that give taste its nuance.

The wide variety of subtle aromas and bouquets of different wines is a testament to the complexity of our olfactory senses. From faint hints of citrus fruit to the tangy metallic taste reminiscent of blood some call ‘vampire wines’; the sheer variety of what our combined senses can detect is what gives wine tasting its powerful appeal…and mystifying allure.

But if the taste was just a matter of chemicals and receptors why isn’t it an exact science? Why do experts spend so much time and effort on wine tastings only to come up with different results?

Science tells us why tastes differ in wine: genetics, education, and preferences

The most seasoned wine experts who have spent their lives honing their craft are often the first to admit that there is an element of subjectivity to the process. In the words of one of them, “We bring something of ourselves to the wine tasting experience.” But why is this? What is it about the taste that allows for so much diversity of tastes and opinions?

Wine is a great case to help understand this because it has been so extensively studied… and tasted. Not only do we now know that there are genetic differences between individuals on certain tastes and aromas, but we know that how individuals experience tasting affects what they can and do detect.

For example, a seasoned wine tasting master has the ability to detect aromas in a wine the average palate cannot hope to. This is not because they are not there, but because they have trained those neurons to pick up on more subtle distinctions over time. This can happen even to non-wine experts who have more experience or appreciation for certain foods. Over time, the higher-order-processing in their brain means that they will detect taste elements differently even across various foods and drinks. Is that enough science for you?

And of course, there is preference. People acquire an appreciation for different flavors on an emotional and affective level. These conscious or unconscious leanings then impact how we enjoy, or do not enjoy, a given bottle of wine. So no matter how you slice it, even science agrees there is room for subjectivity in wine tasting.

With the science backing subjectivity…how to order good wine?

Unfortunately, if you were reading to get an easy answer about what wine you will like, you are going to be disappointed. As with all other matters of taste, your preferences are profoundly personal. What can help, though, is having someone else do the work of analyzing your preferences for you.

Or rather, an algorithm. Innovators at Palate Club, a start-up out of the bay area, have developed software to identify, based on how you rate bottles of wine, what exactly you enjoy… even on levels you might not understand or be even aware of! With up to 200 data points per bottle and sophisticated taste-matching technology, they are on the cutting edge of the science of taste.

Perhaps with a few months and a good deal of tasteful wine, you too will be able to better understand your wine preferences…sadly, they cannot make dating any easier. But hey, no science is perfect.