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Posts Tagged ‘flavor’

Flavor

Fourth part to a sensory series.  Read Part 1: How We Smell, Part 2: How We Taste, and Part 3: How We Touch.

The past 3 posts of this sensory series have been about how we smell, taste, and touch.  Each of these factors in to what we commonly refer to as the flavor of wine.  A lot of this has to do with proximity.  Each of these items are being processed next to each other in the brain (especially, smell and taste).  In fact, they happen so close to each other that sometimes we even get confused that things we are smelling are actually what we are tasting.  Something cannot smell sweet.  It can only taste sweet.    When the confusion between senses happens consistently, it is known as the condition Synesthisia. Jimi Hendrix could see color when he heard music (Listen to his song Bold As Love to hear about it).  He was a Synesthete.  I don’t believe there is any research on how LSD effects this condition.

Regardless of which wine evaluation methodology you are utilizing: The Court, International Sommelier Guild, or rating system like Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, etc. the majority of what is being evaluated can be encapsulated into flavor.  How We See (The Color of Wine) is next up in the series which is the other (minor) part of wine evaluation.  Yet, there is so much about flavor as we have seen where we have room to personally conclude whether we have preference for something or not.  The subjectiveness of flavor, whether consciously or not, is always somehow factored in to an evaluation of wine.  Therefore, there is an extra layer of complication for the casual wine drinker in finding a wine that they like.  They can’t simply just go to the experts to see what was rated the highest, they have to factor in whether those experts like the same wines they do or not.

This is particularly telling in the US rating systems which were created by people who generally don’t like sweeter wines even though most of the American public secretly does.  This is also mostly why I never rate wines on my blog and try not to use subjective descriptors.  I don’t know you.  Therefore, I could not accurately judge whether a wine is likable to all of you or not, nor could I trust myself to not subconsciously press my preferences on you.  I do however try and list the objective qualities of the wines I am pairing and then let you conclude whether that’s something you’re interested in trying or not.  The other part to this is that because our perception of flavor is so tightly entwined with our emotion and memories (Remember, you are comparing the aroma “image” to your memory stockpile of images to figure out what it is) that something as simple as you having a bad day when you have the wine, could affect your ongoing perception of it.  Tannat is my go-to brooding wine for instance.  Another example is how I have not drank a glass of wine from Bandol since I had it while breaking up with a girlfriend one time.  Is it any wonder that we have both a taste and feeling called ‘Bitter’?

I’m not saying that if we have a bad experience with a wine that we will continue to have a bad experience with it though.  I will drink a Bandol again, and one day you may actually enjoy that wine you thought you’d never like as long as the circumstances are right.  This is due to what is known as the plasticity of the brain.  We change.  What those circumstances are though is what wine and food pairing is all about at a fundamental level.  Previously in the series I mentioned how mental framing and priming can be used to brainwash you and shape how you experience a wine and food pairing.  OK, maybe brainwash is too strong of a word, but part of what I do during Wine and Food Experience events is to shape how people approach the tasting.  The idea behind matching the aromas of a wine to the aromas in a dish are a way to prime the mind to enhance that particular item.  The new wave of molecular wine and food matching is built entirely upon this concept.

photo-5

Found within this is the secret to wine and food pairing.  To create a good wine and food pairing, you don’t need to memorize the ingredients of thousands of dishes and understand the differences between wines of hundreds of different regions.  All you need to do is meet the [reasonable] expectation of the person who will be consuming the pairing.  The good news is that this is much easier than people think.  Most people have a pretty vague expectation:  They want to enjoy the wine they are drinking and enjoy the food they are having. They aren’t expecting to have their minds blown or taste something they have never tasted before.  The want agreeable flavor.  I know this sounds unapproachable by average home chefs and their non-existant wine cellars, but trust me.  If you can cook (Or buy, I won’t tell anyone) something you like to eat, and you know of a wine you like to drink, you can make it happen.

Here’s how you do it when you know what you want to cook.  First, tell yourself that this meal is going to be pretty good.  Imagine yourself eating a pretty good meal if you want.  Then, figure out the main components of the dish.  This can be as simple as looking at the recipe you are using or just perhaps recognizing what items your hands are putting in to your cooking apparatus.  The easy part about this is that you don’t have to be specific.  Fruit for instance, can be categorized as to whether it is red, dark, tropical, or stone (apples, pears, etc.).  Then you go to the wine shop and ask for a wine in your price range that has one of those main components in it.  This is called flavor matching.  Lastly, you sit down with someone and enjoy the meal you made with the wine you bought and you actively notice the component of the wine that matches with the food.  Huzzah! You are a pseudo-professional at this now.  What if the wine tastes thin?  Garnish the food with some lemon or another acid.  What if the astringency of the tannins are too much for your liking in the wine?  Back to the lemon/acid, or add some large grained salt.  Problems solved!

Here’s how you do it when you know what wine you want to have.  First, tell yourself that this meal is going to be pretty good.  Then look at the back label for some wine descriptors or Google the wine to find some.  Next, search for some recipes that have one of those components from the wine in it.  Now make your meal and sit and enjoy it with someone.  Huzzah again! You are a gastronomical hero.  Follow the troubleshooting tips in the previous paragraph if you run in to any of them.

The whole concept of flavor matching and very importantly, noticing it, is a big part to enjoying wine with food.  All you are is adding two similar aromas together and by their nature, they enhance each other.  Aroma after all is the main component of flavor.  The tastes mostly follow this additive quality as well.  Bitter + bitter = more bitter.  However, tastes can also be used as fill-ins when you think something is missing from a dish.  Keep in mind that good flavor is all about balancing all of them.  Ayurvedic cooking even makes a point of incorporating all of the tastes into ever dish.  Interestingly, they came up with and still maintain 6 different tastes: Sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent.  You’ll note two of those overlap with items discussed in How We Touch.  Modern research is studying how the lack of flavor balance in meals may be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

If the dish would taste perfect with just a touch of sweetness, but you didn’t add any in, have a wine that is a little sweet.  Of course, a lot of times you don’t know this until you’re in the middle of consumption so you’d probably just get a dash of sugar, honey, maple syrup, or that HFCS you have in your cabinet.  The point is, you have to go in expecting that you might change one minor thing, but with the goal of balancing.  Speaking of which, as far as touch goes, as long as you stick with the salt and the lemon, you’ll be fine there too.

Then what are professionals for? You might now assume that since you can deliver wonderful wine and food pairings now and impress your friends and the ever-growing multitude of lovers that a Sommelier or other wine professional is now obsolete in your life.  Being one of those experts, I will brazenly tell you that in a lot of respects you are correct.  However, if you haven’t bothered to memorize all the general wine descriptors of wines and how they vary between regions, you’ll need someone at the wine shop to point you to the right direction.  Also, did you know that the eugenol in the wine that comes from aging it in toasted oak is also found in clove?  No?  Well you’ll probably want an expert to point out some of the more obscure matches that occur.  Professionals can also help you understand some of the general relationships between acid, fat, salt, and such so you can expand your repertoire and not be limited to the same wine and food pairing every Friday night.

The more you learn about how wine and food work, the more you may seek out the novel and expand your experimentation.  Honestly though, if you can match some aromas and know when to use lemon or salt, you’ll have a great time and get be able to have an enjoyable experience 80% of the time.  The other 20% of the time you can give me a call.  Wine, and by extension, wine and food pairing is much like fashion: It’s more important that you wear something that fits than you stay up with the latest trends or try to make a statement.  Those that can pull off the bold statements either know a whole heck of a lot, or they’ve convinced the world that they do.  Also much like fashion, your preferences may change over time.  And that’s OK too.

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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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