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Yeah, it's a Tempranillo...I can feel it.

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...

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.

Soundwavecut

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.

TasteBalance

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.

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

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He just tasted something bitter.

He just tasted something bitter.

Second part to a sensory series.  Read Part 1: How We Smell.

 

 

Taste is often heralded as being the superior sense to smell, but as I explained in my explanation of How We Smell, this is not entirely true.  Taste works in concert with smell as well as touch to round out what we generally refer to as flavor.  We typically describe taste with names that we all know: Salty, Sour, Sweet, Bitter, and more recently, Umami.  Taste though can be unconsciously blended in with our other two flavor senses.  Improperly, in the case where we think we smell something sweet; when in fact we can’t smell sweet at all, but our mind is associating various aromas with sweet tasting foods.  As well as properly, in the case where we both feel the acid in our mouth and taste something sour which a number of acids are in fact sour tasting.  In wine and food pairing, it is taste and touch that we speak of when we talk about balance.

Exactly how we taste isn’t as much of a mystery as smell has been in the past, but science is beginning to discover now that there may be more to the story.  The 5 tastes accepted by most respectable scientists are detected by the taste buds we harbor in our mouths.  Not just the tongue mind you, but over a variety of the surfaces in our mouths, throats, and even into the nasal cavity.  These taste buds are stashed within the visible bumps in various kinds of papillae which are purely there to increase the surface area of the tongue and perhaps make the terrain a bit more interesting to the bacteria which reside on it.  Each taste bud is a collection of cells, sprouting up like flowers where each cell either binds to proteins to determine sweet, bitter, and umami or channels are created which are entered by ions to determine salty and sour.

Previously it was thought that different areas of our tongue were better at perceiving each of the different tastes. This was disproven (Largely credited to man named Charles Zuker) when it was discovered that each cell within our taste buds has a different taste palette; meaning that they primarily detect a particular taste and then to a gradually ranking lesser extent, the other tastes as well.  This of course means that if you lose the tip of your tongue in a sword fight (You old swashbuckler, you) fear not; you will still be able to taste sweetness.  Also, because each taste cell detects every taste, but at varying levels, when the signals hit our brains, they are being delivered in stereo just like smell is.

TasteBuddiagram

However, the number of those taste buds can vary a bit between individuals.  The most convincing and widely used evidence of this is found in the research of Linda Bartoshuk, PhD who showed not only that individuals vary, but exactly how much we vary.  She is the source of the phrase “Super Taster” which fit so nicely into sensationalist headlines however many years ago, even if it is somewhat misleading.  The term ‘super’ is oft-aligned with things we associated as being good, but in the sense of taste, we will see that this may not be the case.

To see what category of taster you are, you can perform a simple experiment.  Grab some blue food coloring, a piece of paper with a hole punched in it (7mm or 0.5 inches in diameter), and perhaps a magnifying glass by which you will look at your tongue in the mirror with.  After applying a drop of food coloring and painting your tongue blue, place the hole of the paper on the top of your tongue near the tip.  Poking out from the blue, you will see your white taste buds.  Using the magnifying glass, give these a count.  If you are technologically inclined, snap a close up picture with your phone for easier counting.

You will find yourself in 1 of 3 categories, but before you band together with others in your group and go around taunting the other two groups, let’s see what this difference means.

  • Non-Taster or Tolerant Taster: <15 papillae
  • “Normal” Taster: 15-35 papillae
  • Super Taster: >35 papillae
Pictured: Normal to Tolerant Taster...plus a blue tongue

Pictured: Normal to Tolerant Taster…plus a blue tongue

Now that you’ve discovered what kind of taster you are, what does that mean?  Well, it is a measure of the intensity at which you taste.  The more taste buds you have, the more sensory input you are receiving.  What it does not mean is that you are a better or worse taster depending on which category you fall in.  Super Tasters tend to find bitter tastes to be overwhelming and therefore you’ll notice they tend to need salt on everything.  In terms of wine, a lot of Super Tasters prefer the sweeter whites of the reds, because the tannin in red wines is too jarring for them.  On the other end, while a Tolerant Taster may be able to handle their whiskey neat and their wines big and tannic, they might not pick up a subtle sweetness of a wine that a Super Taster enjoys.

It should also be noted that which category you fall in to can change over your lifespan.  With rare exceptions, people tend to decrease in their level of taste sensitivity over time.  On the rebellious side of the wine world, Tim Hanni, a Master of Wine, is trying to introduce these different categories of tasters through his program myVinotype.  He breaks the spectrum down into more categories, which are more geared to how we market wine to people, but the important thing here is to note that it is in fact a spectrum.  This means if you done the above test and categorized yourself as a borderline Tolerant Taster, you might not like your whiskey neat.

Beyond the five tastes that have been agreed upon, more types of tastes are being researched to see if we also have cells that can detect them as well.  For a full description on these potential new contenders to be added to our taste list, see this article.  Here is a preview:

  • Calcium: Yes, that’s right, the stuff that makes bones stronger is also thought to create a taste similar to bitter that can be found particularly in things like spinach.
  • Kokumi:  A term meaning something close to mouthful-ness by the same Japanese company that brought us Umami.  This could provide an additional way to describe the body of a wine.
  • Piquance: Used to describe spicy foods.  This most likely will remain a physiological sensation though and not a taste since what we know of it now is that it trips our temperature sensors and is not tickling any taste buds.
  • Coolness: The opposite of piquance like what you get from mint.  Perhaps relegated to the same fate as piquance due to the trigeminal factors in play.
  • Metallicity:  Again, perhaps physiological factors are more in play here than actual taste.  The theory goes that there might be actual electrical conductivity happening (Shocking, I know) when certain metals are in our mouths.  If you’re wondering why you would ever put metal in your mouth look up silver and gold leaf on pastries…or watch a small child who happens upon some change.
  • Fat: Possibly the most likely candidate for a new spot on the taste list.  Fat taste cells have already been found in mice, but the discovery in humans is still outstanding.
  • Carbon Dioxide: Previously this tingling had been dismissed as a trigeminal sensation, but new research points to some receptors on some of sour taste cells that may bind with CO2.  Again, most of this is happening in mice, but that’s always the step before humans.

As noted in a few of these taste contenders, the experience we are gathering from them are more trigeminal reactions and not necessarily molecules binding to or entering taste cells.  Those will be discussed when I dive into the touch of flavor.  I’ll also show the effects of one taste on another mixing those with the touch sensation.  However, to complicate things a little more now, tastes can be perceived differently due to either mental perception (i.e. Framing and Priming as discussed in How We Smell), the balance of tastes, or due to taste modifiers.

Taste modifiers have been known of for a number of years such as how after tasting an artichoke your glass of water may seem a little sweeter, or how after eating some Miracle Berries our ability to taste sweetness is temporarily diminished.  Have you ever had orange juice after brushing your teeth? Taste modification.  These effects are a result of actual physical manipulation of your taste buds.  Sounds somewhat horrifying, right?  Be rest assured that there have been no negative or permanent effects shown by ingesting either of these so there is not likely a chance that you will lose your ability to taste sweet things anytime soon.  However, a company by the name of Senomyx, linked to the aforementioned Charles Zuker, has been actively mapping our taste buds and compiling a database of thousands of ways to manipulate them.  Their first product in collaboration with PepsiCo is set to be released this year which is a sweet modifier.  In other words the beverage will taste sweet even though there is a lack of sugar or other sweetener in it.

While our sense of smell if in charge of identifying thousands of different aromas, our sense of taste is actually quite limited in scope.  However, it is still a very important part in determining what we describe as the flavor of a food or beverage.  In wine, we even limit this more and we really only focus on sweet, bitter, and sour sensations.  On rare occasions we do mention umami or saltiness when describing a wine, but a lot of those times, it’s not in a good manner.  If you ever want to test yourself and see whether you are truly tasting something or mostly smelling something and then interpreting a taste from that try this: Take a sip of wine into your mouth as you hold your breath.  Do not breathe in or out.  Nope, not even just a little.  Roll the wine all over your tongue.  By not breathing you are able to isolate the sense of taste from smell and really ask yourself how much sweetness you are getting.  You’ll also notice the sensation of touch working, but we’ll get to that next time.

OK, you can breathe now.  Let the flavor be complete.

 

Additional sources for reading:

Neurogastronomy: How the brain creates flavor and why it matters – Gordon Shepherd

The Science of Wine: From vine to glass – Jamie Goode

Why You Like The Wines You Like – Tim Hanni

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