Yeah, it’s a Tempranillo…I can feel it.
Third part to a sensory series. Read Part 1: How We Smell and Part 2: How We Taste.
For the most part, we do not touch wine in the traditional sense of dipping our fingers into the liquid or luxuriously lounging in a heady bath. However, once it enters the mouth, our sense of touch is activated in what are termed trigeminal responses. Touch is the final component that factors into what we commonly refer to as flavor. While we usually give the starring credit to smell and somewhat lesser extent to taste, touch also plays a vital supporting role in helping us distinguish between one flavor and another.
We touch wine in a few different ways; there are first the obvious mechanistic ways that come to mind when we come into physical contact with something. This is how we can tell that we have a delightful liquid in our mouths instead of a crispy potato chip. Additionally though, we also experience the temperature of food and drink as well as the chemical reactions that can occur similar to how taste is received. In the explanation of How We Taste, it was shown that some of the new contenders for tastes probably have more to do with touch than taste which we will explore here. When it comes to enjoying wine with food, we notice touch in a variety of ways: Piquance, Coolness, Mouthfeel/Body, Acidity, CO2, and Astringency.
With regards to temperature, we actually have thermoreceptors in our mouths that help us pull away the pizza that is too hot (Unfortunately this is usually after it burns the top of our mouths and leaves that annoying hanging piece of skin), but those aren’t what we necessarily are factoring into the flavor. Chemesthetic reactions are what happen when receptors in our mouths that are associated with pain, thermal sensation, or touch are activated by chemicals within the food. The capsaicin of a spicy chili activates our pain and thermal pathways regardless of the actual thermal temperature of the food. The menthol in mint also trick those same pathways into thinking a cool breeze is moving across our tongues.
You burn me right ’round, baby, right ’round…
In a slightly different manner, when Carbon Dioxide bubbles dance across our tongues, creating that prickly sensation, the CO2 is actually binding to some of the receptors on our taste buds creating the Chemesthetic reaction that feels a bit like you are getting poked. This is found with much welcome in sparkling wines and other fizzy beverages. While there are those who think they can discern something about the quality of the wine from the size and the frequency of the pokes, most of us just take a sip and the only thing that comes to mind is: “Bubbles!” Unlike taste though, there does not seem to be much discernable range in the sensitivity between individuals concerning what we touch inside our mouths. Yet, despite this uniformity, that does not mean that we cannot become accustomed or more tolerant to certain sensations such as those that continually seek out spiciness. That has more to do with the centers of our brains that create addiction.
In wine, there is no capsacin or menthol, so it would be unusual for you to perceive chemically activated temperature fluctuations due to those, but we do commonly find these in the foods we are eating with our wines. Alcohol, on the other hand we can perceive as a burning sensation depending on the other components of the wine, notably acid. Our individual preference to the amounts of these we can handle varies greatly between individuals, especially when it comes to piquance so it is important to understand the two factors that can enhance or dilute this sensation. For those who shy away from spicy things, it would also be best to stay away from pairing spicier foods with wines containing high or very noticeable alcohol. Alcohol will enhance that burning sensation since for those that already don’t like the burn from capsacin, they probably also tend to feel a noticeable burn from alcohol as well. However, for those tolerant of both sensations, they may perceive this to be more of a sweet taste. This seems to be in line with where people fall on the taste spectrum that I discussed in my previous post as well.
On the other end, acid does a fine job of diluting the effects of capsacin. When you notice the rate of saliva flooding into your mouth as you drink a wine, you are experiencing the effects of the acid in that wine. Wines from cooler climates, such as a German Riesling will have the most notable and prominent effects compared to wines from warmer climates.
Additionally, there are a few physical reactions that happen inside our mouths when we take a sip of wine. Most notably, when taking a sip from a wine derived from a cooler climate like a German Riesling, is the saliva inducing effects of acidity. The more acidic a wine is, the more saliva comes rushing into our mouths and the range is anywhere from “Enamel-stripping” to what we call “Flabby”, or such low acid that the wine has no zip. The levels of acidity are measured in terms of pH, which is actually measuring how active ions are in a solution. Why does this matter? If we recall back to Taste, the taste of sour comes from ions entering our taste buds. More acid = more sour.
Mouthfeel and body are two somewhat ambiguous terms that are used commonly in wine descriptors. As we saw in How To Taste, Mouthfeel is undergoing an attempt at hijacking (Bloody pirates!!) by the same Japanese company that brought us Umami. However, for the time being, my personal assessment is that what is being referred to is the viscosity of the wine as well as the wine’s “shape” as it passes through the mouth back to the throat. Imagine the shape of the interior of your mouth for a moment. When closed for consumption, it has a narrow opening, balloons into a somewhat orb-shaped cave in the middle and then recedes back to the narrow opening in the rear. How well the wine coats and conforms to this interior shape is what is being evaluated. Wines can be thin and seem to just splash around playfully in our mouths like water or wines can be thick and full, almost requiring effort to push to the back of our throats. Of course, we also have every variation in between. This is also what is being referenced when people speak of a wine’s Finish which I will discuss in the next post on Flavor.
What actually causes our assessment of Mouthfeel and Body is a combination of alcohol or more likely its by-product of glycerol, the level of acid, sugar content, and in the case of red wines and some whites, tannin. Glycerol, the same stuff you see sliding down your glass in the form of “Legs” or “Tears” when the alcohol of your wine is evaporating faster than the water, and residual sugar in the wine will increase the wine’s viscosity the more they are found in the wine. This is why dessert wines and fortified wines have a bigger body that your table wines. An increase in “fullness” of the wine’s body is credited largely to how many proteins from the wine are binding to either receptors or saliva in your mouth. If you’ll recall, the higher the acid in the wine, the more saliva will come rushing into your mouth. Thus, there are more things to bind to providing that the wine is bringing the goods.
The last part that factors into Mouthfeel which is also evaluated by itself by professional wine tasters, is Astringency. In wine, astringency is found in the form of tannins which bind to our saliva and create that cotton-mouth feeling around your tongue and/or gums that some people (Mostly Super Tasters) can’t stand mostly because in addition to the sensation, tannins have a bitter taste to them. The tannins come from the solid parts of the grapes (Seeds, skins, stems, etc.) and from any oak that has touched the wine while it is being made. Tannins are also found in coffee, tea, and a wide variety of other foods that have bitterness in them.
Of course, each one of these sensations is not acting in isolation. As was already mentioned with the effects of acidity on piquance, it is the balance of each of these interactions that affect our overall perception and create what I will nerdily refer to as the wine’s matrix. For those that skipped through this article looking for a cheat sheet, here are a list of balancing interactions that you may experience within the wine itself, or when mixing wine with food.
First let’s look at the tastes from the last post. Remember how we taste Sweet, Bitter, and Umami when molecules bind to your taste buds and we taste Sour and Salty when ions flow through the taste bud channels? This means that when you have a combination of Sweet, Bitter, and/or Umami tastes, those will all enhance each other. Same goes for mixing the Sour and the Salty.
One of the best pieces of wine and food advice I’ve ever received was from Tim Hanni, MW and that was to always have a lemon wedge and salt nearby. If you are ever noticing that your wine seems a little off or flat when you are having it with a meal, give the food a little spritz of lemon and you will notice a bit of lift in the wine and it will instantly improve. This is the same thing you do when your soup seems a bit bland. You add a dash of vinegar or citric acid to give it lift. Salt can also have a similar effect, but only up to a point. We salt to taste the food, otherwise it just tastes salty. However, salt plays an important role regarding tannin. If a wine is too tannic for you, try adding a bit of sea salt or kosher salt (Not iodized salt. Iodine is bitter.) and then notice the tannins start to disappear. This also works with a spritz of the lemon as well. Historically people have paired a big, tannic red wine with a piece of red meat because they thought the tannins were being softened by the fat in the meat. Good outcome, incorrect reasoning. The tannins are noticeably reduced due to the salt put on the piece of meat and nothing really to do with the meat itself. Red wine with salty/lemony white fish? Don’t mind if I do!
Salt and Lemon. Wine and Food’s BFFs.
Here is a quick reference list for the tactile interactions that can happen and you should certainly experiment with:
- Alcohol increases piquance
- Acidity decreases piquance
- Astringency increases piquance
- Sugar decreases piquance
- Acidity lifts fat
- Acidity decreases astringency
- CO2 in my opinion causes a certain level of confusion amongst your taste buds and tactile sensors. This usually has somewhat of a masking effect on pretty much anything that could be considered an irritant (Piquance and astringency).
Of course, if you want to get really experimental, you can repeat the experience I had when I paired wine with all the things I wasn’t supposed to. Bon apetit!
Additional sources for reading:
Neurogastronomy: How the brain creates flavor and why it matters – Gordon Shepherd
Why You Like The Wines You Like – Tim Hanni