Understanding What You’re Tasting

Understanding What You’re Tasting

Tasting wine can be easy and enjoyable. But understanding what we are tasting, while absorbing the various sensory elements, can be difficult to comprehend given all of the complex underlying interactions taking place. But the big question often arises: “Are all these descriptors necessary just to enjoy the wine?”

There are naturally good arguments on both sides. The casual social drinker may simply rely on the “I like it or I don’t like it” methodology. While the experienced or professional drinker strives to savor and examine the tasting experience by dissecting the wine into its many elements.

First, let’s understand that wine actually appeals to all five senses.

— Visual: What can the color tell us?

— Smell: Familiar scents come to mind.

— Taste: Perhaps this is the most common reference.

— Touch: The mouthfeel can be silky or rough and thin or rich.

— Hearing: The welcome pop of the cork and clinking of glasses.

So how do they all come together in the glass and in our awareness?

I recently read a detailed article by Professor Barry C. Smith of the University of London’s Institute of Philosophy and co-director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses in Issue 50 of The World of Fine Wine.

Dr. Smith is a professor of philosophy who has dedicated himself to the multi-sensory perception of flavor where he combines his expertise in philosophy, neuroscience, language and psychology with a considerable, in-depth knowledge of wine.

Red wine pouring into a wine glass. Selective focus on the red wine.


I agree with Dr. Smith’s observation that the social drinker’s impression of a glass of wine will differ markedly from that of the experienced drinker. The one factor I see as overriding all others for the experienced drinker is the ability to concentrate and focus on the aromatic, flavor and textural elements while comparing them with other impressions stored over time in the memory bank. This capacity results from years of practice. The ability to then express these impressions to others through language completes the circle of the experienced/professional taster.

Is it necessary for everyone to go to these lengths to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner? Absolutely not. But understanding the differences between social and experienced wine drinkers can be an interesting exercise that can also translate to further appreciation of food, arts, literature and many other aspects of our lives when viewed in similar terms.

Social drinkers tend to make quick decisions on what they are tasting and look to first impressions resulting in the “like it or not like it” conclusion. More experienced drinkers tend to slow it all down, examining the many fleeting sensations of smells and tastes, consciously focusing on what the wine is telling them and asking why this message is being sent.

Experienced tasters tend to discriminate and compartmentalize the tasting while relying on their palate memory to categorize each component and compare it to others encountered in the past.

But all tasters do not share a common history. When I taste a wine and the sensation of peaches comes to mind, that is my impression. Yet another taster looking at the same wine may relate it to nectarines or another similar descriptor. Both are right and neither is wrong as the sensations are unique and based on our individual memories.

Critical wine tasting is based on both perception and judgment. And, as Dr. Smith points out, it is knowledge that moves the taster’s perception to judgment. Take, for example, a wine that is very tannic and exhibits a faint, unfamiliar barnyard smell. To the social drinker, either may be unpleasant and lead to a “don’t like it” response.

Yet with knowledge and familiarity of the type of wine (e.g. in this case, a young Southern Rhone red), the professional would expect these characteristics and likely incorporate them positively in his judgment. However, if the wine in this example was a cabernet, the path to judgment would be far different as the barnyard smell is not a part of cabernet’s expected aromatic profile and would indicate spoilage.

Regardless of whether we fit into the social or experienced category, wine tasting is a multi-sensory experience combining our sense of smell (both nasal and retro as we swallow), taste (basic impressions from the taste buds) and texture (mouthfeel) to yield flavor. And when our individual memory is added to the equation, we begin to develop descriptors that can be communicated to others.

Wine is a beverage that is meant to simply enhance the meal and raise our spirits. Many of us are comfortable leaving it at that, while others decide to venture farther and thankfully, there’s plenty of room for both.

Allen Balik has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years. Each year, he and his wife, Barbara, produce the Evening Of The Culinary Winemasters event at Warner Bros. Studios, a benefit for Cystic Fibrosis. He regularly appears on CRN Digital Talk Radio’s What’s Cookin’ Today and What’s Cookin’ on Wine programs.

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