Wine Decanted: myths about the tongue and wine

(Photo by AntToeKnee/Flickr)

The tongue is important for many things, amongst them licking stamps, sending popsicles to their death and of course, tasting wine. I recently took my International Wine Education Guild (IWEG) class on taste perception, so I was ready to espouse my new knowledge on tongue sensitivities in this blog post. But after doing some research, my “compact tasting 101″ post was out the window. Everything I knew about the tongue was wrong!

Wine tasting folklore: the tongue edition

In my IWEG class, we frequently referred to the tongue map. The four tastes our tongue can perceive:  sweet, salty, sour and bitter, are neatly divided into distinct areas on the tongue: the tip tastes sweetness, the front sides saltiness, the back sides sourness and the back middle section bitterness. We were taught that when you drink wine we’re supposed to use this guideline to measure residual sugar, acid and tannin levels. After you sip a sweet wine you should taste the sugar lingering on the tip of your tongue. A wine with high acid, great for food pairing, should be felt on the sides of your tongue, making your mouth water. A wine high in tannin or unbalanced alcohol will be felt at the back of your throat, and in the case of tannins, also on your gums. And there you have it, the importance of the tongue in wine tasting 101…but wait, it’s not all true…

Wine tasting truth: a tongue lashing

The tongue map, popularized in the 1940s, was disproven in 1974. Scientist Virginia Collins found that although there were variations in sensitivity to the four tastes around the tongue, these variations were small and insignificant.  Since then, research had confirmed that all areas of the tongue can perceive each taste, and that sensitivity locations vary between individuals.

What does this mean for tasting wine?

It means that the traditional rules in perceiving sweetness, acid and tannins need not apply. When you sip a wine, don’t focus on the tip of your tongue when looking for sweetness, instead use your entire palate. The same applies for acid, tannins and flavours. You are blessed with more than  9, 000 taste buds, use as many as you can to taste the flavours and characteristics in your glass.

There aren’t really four tastes either. The fifth taste, umami, is the taste of glutamate, found commonly in Japanese foods, meats and aged cheeses. Umami, less a taste and more a quality or completeness of flavour, is best described as savory or delicious. Can wine be savory? Yes! Although measuring its exact levels  in wine is almost impossible, the fermenting process imparts some red wine with glutamate levels approaching that of aged cheese (high!). There is no umami location on the tongue, the taste of umami something to think about with the whole palate. Is there a rich delicious quality to the wine over and above any flavour profile present? If so, umami may be the culprit.

Overall the message here is similar to that of my last post dispelling wine myths: when it comes to wine throw out the standard guidelines, the most important teacher is your own palate.

Nicole is a wine blogger and all around wine worker bee at Lifford Wine Agency, Ontario’s largest supplier of wine to the province’s hospitality industry and the number one supplier of fine wine to the L.C.B.O. Wine Decanted is a bi-weekly column about wine.  You won’t find tasting notes or scores here. Instead she’s taking the hot air out of wine writing and giving us tips for folks who just want to learn more about the good grape.

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Comments ( 3 )

I wonder if there are aberrations of the tonuge that identify certain characteristics of wine differently from most other people. For example, I can taste a wine aged in the barrique, and it is very unpleasant – the best word I can come up with is musty. Where everyone else at table can taste the fruit of the wine aged in the oak cask, I cannot taste this – the “musty” taste overrides all else. Have you heard of this reaction?

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