How Your Senses Understand Wine

Let’s Learn About Wine!

How Your Senses Understand Wine

So you want to learn about wine. If you’re curious, I work in the wine industry. I have twelve years of bartending in fine dining under my belt. I’ve done time in mom and pop wine shops. And currently I work for a wine distributor. I’m in sales. One of my duties as a wine rep is to host the occasional wine tasting for whatever boutique wine shop or grocery chain needs me that weekend. And inevitably during my ruined Saturday afternoon there will be somebody to come along thinking he knows something about my product that I am not aware of. What kills me is that some of these dipshits will argue a point while utterly convinced that I have no earthly idea what it is I’m talking about.

So for those of you out there deliriously believing your oh so gracious wine host has no clue about what he’s generously pouring into your glass, please allow me to clarify some things.

First, some wine basics if you are a beginner at tasting wine: how to approach a glass of wine. I’m sure you are familiar with the 5 S’s: swirl, sniff, sip, spit and savor. You’ve seen it done, maybe in a movie or something, but you know what I’m talking about. So I’ll skip the wine basics there and cut to the do’s and whatnotodo’s of wine tasting.

You and your “friend” are out for a business dinner. You’re sick of your home-life, sick of your spouse and your “friend” made for the convenient excuse of having to attend a business dinner. The waitperson brings a fine bottle of wine [insert the most pretentious wine house you can think of] to your table, pops the cork and places it on the table before pouring a taste into the glass of whoever made the selection.

What do you do first?

OK. Before you answer, let me interject something here. In my decade plus of wine service I’ve seen a lot of you reach for the cork and sniff it. What do you think you’re accomplishing by doing that?

If you answered looking like a fool, then yes, you’ve met your goal. There is absolutely nothing you can tell about wine from smelling the cork. The reason the waitperson puts the cork on your table is because…well, there’s nowhere else to put it. Okay, not really. He could bounce it off your forehead as a preemptive strike against you sniffing it. But the real reason is so you can see that the name stamped on the cork matches the name on the bottle’s label—a guarantee that no one has tampered with the wine. That’s it. Get the cork away from your nose. It’s okay to pick it up and see if it’s dry, brittle or molded. But those are the only reasons for messing with the cork.

Ok, back to learning about wine

How Your Senses Understand Wine

Some wine basics on simple biology: sensation is your brain’s reaction to a stimulus. And perception is the brain’s interpretation of the sensation. It takes only the slightest stimulus to get a sensation (shove a pin into your finger, that’s a sensation) and about the same amount of stimulus to understand what the sensation is (scream whatever vernacular you’re accustomed to — that’s understanding). However, while one is genetically determined, the other can be honed with practice and focus, especially with tasting wine.

Let’s look at the senses used in a wine tasting.

Your Sense of Sight in a Wine Tasting

Unless you’re blind, sight is your most used sense. And for no other reason than you don’t know what to do with the wine, as a beginner tasting wine you might spend a lot of time examining your glass. No biggy. A lot of folks that want to earn about wine do it. You can gleam some basic info from what you’re seeing in your glass, but really, sight gives the least accurate insight to a wine.

What you can gleam though is some basic wine info from the color and hue of the wine.

For white wines, pale yellow-green could mean a wine grown in a cool growing region or perhaps unripe grapes were used in the winemaking process. Deep golden yellow can mean warm region or suggest barrel aging of some kind. Amber golds could be an oxidized or maderized white.

With reds, inky purples are usually indicative of a young wine — most of your $10 and under reds. Brick reds belie an older, mature wine. A rust color says the wine has most likely oxidized; this happens a lot with older wines. Color or lack thereof can give light to a wine’s weight and body — a red that lets light through easily is going to be light-bodied. Cloudiness can be from a non-filtered product or the presence of bacterial spoilage.

So yeah, get those basics of wine down and you could impress someone right out of the gate. They might even ask you a question about the wine…

Your Sense of Smell in a Wine Tasting

Smell is the most important sense for a beginner wine taster and experienced wine taster alike. Swirl your glass and breathe in deep. What you get is some stimulus to your olfactory. That’s your sense of smell, not to offend. Swish the wine around in your mouth; body heat releases more of the aromas.

Here’s some cool trivia: Humans can detect about 10,000 different odors. You can be trained to pick out about 1000 of these odors. Wines are said to have about 200, so you may notice that many wines have similar descriptors.

Last of the senses to know for a beginner wine lover is taste.

Your Sense of Taste in a Wine Tasting

Put it in your mouth, you tell her. What she might get is sweet, sour, salty, bitter or a new one on me, savory. Yes, savory. Discovered by a Japanese fellow name of Ikeda in 1907. When I hear the word savory there are a lot of things that come to mind but mostly what comes to mind is steak. And a big fat glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

In order for you to be able to taste something it has to be able to dissolve in your mouth. I’ve tasted some things that have passed through the air that I don’t particularly like to think have dissolved in my mouth, but whatever. It dissolves in your saliva, moves over the tongue where some 10, 000 taste buds dwell, across the roof of your mouth, to the back of the throat and slides across your tonsils. Makes you shiver, doesn’t it?

Let me back up a sec. Very few taste buds are on the top of your tongue. You find them along the sides, on the tip and at the back. Gag should be a sense. Put your finger back there. That’s gag your tasting. Your brain, the magic sponge that it is, gets specific info from each receptor area on the tongue offering maximum sensitivity to taste.

With regards to wine tasting, taste lets you get a feel for the weight of the wine, what we in the world of wine call its body.

If you have any further questions, please leave them in a comment. Next time I’ll go into how a wine tasting should be set up and what to look for.

I hope this gives you a glance into the world of wine and how your senses understand wine.

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