By KL Turner October 1, 2014 Comments Off on Who’s Your Bud? Ten Reasons Why Wine Tastes the Way It Does

Wasn’t that five-star dinner fabulous last night? And that amazing apple crisp! Don’t forget that great bottle of wine you shared, as well. I hope you thanked your buds for the fine evening. Without them, all it would have been was a simple load of calories.

That’s right, just calories. The buds we’re talking about are the ones in your mouth, and they’re an important reason things taste different. Without them, food and drink is just fuel that keeps the engine running.

Whether we love chocolate, can’t stand broccoli, or have a heat-seeking palate that is always on the hunt for spicy foods, depends on the dance our taste buds do with a number of other partners. Our sense of smell, our perception of color, and our culinary experience, and state of mind are all willing dancers. Texture, color, and even the temperature of things about to go into our mouths also play a part. There’s even a psychological aspect that anticipates our response, adding to the “must have” or the “no thanks” factor.

Complicated? Not really. There are a number of factors that go into understanding why wine (and everything else we drink and eat) tastes the way it does. Here are ten reasons why:

1)     Palates Are Unique

We’re all human, sharing basic design similarities like body plan and organ function, but we’re also genetically unique. Different numbers and arrangements of taste buds on our tongues make the same wine taste a little different to each of us.

Refining individual palates even further, each taste bud has a bundle of taste receptors embedded in it. These receptors send messages about what’s coming down the hatch, giving your tummy a preview. Sweet? Sour? An overload? Barely a hint?

2)     Some Of Us (We’re Not Saying Who) Have More Taste Buds

The more receptors you’ve got, the stronger your reaction to the taste. In other words, there are some people with lots of taste buds, each packed to the gills with receptors, making them extra responsive to the nuances of wine. There are other folks with just a few receptors per bud, and not a lot of taste buds in general, who are just wondering what all the fuss is about. In the middle of a big bell curve is where most of us live in the tasting world, with a wide range of average numbers of buds and receptors.

This range of taste sensing abilities explains why one wine expert raves, and another rants, about a particular bottle, confusing those of us who are simply on the search for wines to love. Try using a wine app, like Quini, to immerse yourself in the musings of those that share a palate with preferences similar to your own.

If someone likes a few of the wines that are on your list of favorites, it’s likely you share some taste bud similarities. You’ve probably got about the same number of specific types of taste buds, have aligned food preferences, or even share a common cultural background with them that will lead your buds to dance with the right grapes.

3)     Taste Buds Have Different Tasks, Depending On Where They Live

Four basic types of taste buds, with different shapes assigned to different tasks, give our brains feedback about what’s in our mouths. The buds that do the heavy lifting are at the front two-thirds of the tongue, on the tip and the sides, accounting for a keen sense of gustatory taste in the fabulous five: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory.

4)     Nerve Endings Are Know-It-Alls  

There’s another dimension to taste that adds to the experience. It’s called mouth feel and it comes from nerve endings in the buds. Signaling sensations of astringency, viscosity, temperature, even prickling and pain, these sensory nerves in the buds send messages to the brain as wine flows over them.

5)     Temperature Affects Taste

Temperature also plays a part in this tasting dance. Cooling reduces the bud’s perception of sweetness from sugars. It also tones down bitterness from some compounds called alkaloids, while amping up astringent tannins. It’s why most of us like our white wines chilled, and red wines a little warmer.

6)     pH is a Factor

Taste buds, being pretty good chemists, dance with another partner called pH. The pH measurement of a wine indicates how proteins on our taste buds are affected, changing their shape and activity. Those proteins alter the messages sent by our buds to our brains, giving us detailed information about a wine’s alcohol content, tannins, sugars, and other components.

7)     Even Our Buds Multi-Task

Our buds also multitask here, which causes them to suppress some taste perceptions over others connected to the same nerve endings. Bitter or sour responses are diminished by sugar. Tannins often get both bitter and astringent responses from our buds. Sugars can be both sweet and tart. Depending on your unique palate, these subtle differences influence which wine labels stock your stash.

8)     Yep, We’re Talking Saliva

In addition to variations in taste buds, it turns out that our saliva makes a difference, too. While wine, in general, stimulates saliva production, some people have a chemical makeup in their saliva that causes a stronger response to acidity, such as the tannins in wine.

Lots of saliva dilutes the effects of things like sweetness or tannins. Less saliva tends to magnify those effects. As tannins from wine come into contact with saliva, the two bind together, making the saliva less fluid and causing some friction in the mouth. Yup, that would be what happens when we’re sipping a ‘dry’ wine.

Saliva chemistry is both individual and variable throughout the day. That makes it a bit of a wild card, but consider the additional changes that wine undergoes as it flows through the mouth. Proteins dance with tannins while other compounds choose their own partners in the mix, making for your unique, personal taste experience.

The phrase that “everything’s connected” could not be more true than with wine

tasting, as so many things can affect your own response to a wine. It’s like a square dance or Virginia Reel, where molecules clasp hands momentarily with partner receptors, then move on to other dancers, all responding to a number of different stimuli from moment to moment. There’s more. 

9)     Olfactory Is All-Functioning

Olfactory functions in your nose make a difference. Ingredients in your toothpaste make a difference. Cultural backgrounds and cuisine make a difference. Over-stimulation, which can happen if you’re tasting several wines in succession, certainly makes a difference. The nerves that send the messages from the buds get tired or confused, reducing or mixing the messages. Medications, energy levels, perfumes, and aromas from foods or even household products can all affect the taste response you have to a specific wine at a specific time.

10)  It Comes Down to Genetics

Everyone’s genetics, then, make for an individual tasting palate that tempts them with specific preferences. It’s why I absolutely adore a big, round Cabernet Sauvignon, or an RM grower/producer Champagne, and you might be a Pinot Grigio fan who likes your bubbles sweet. It’s also why you should drink wines that you like, or look for others with palates similar to yours for recommendations on new sips.

The wonderful conclusion to this tasting discourse? We should drink what we like. It might not be what some experts prescribe, but it will have your taste buds dancing with joy. So let’s spend time discovering our likes and dislikes, and take note, lest not forget. And yes, there’s an app for that.

A votre santé!

KL Turner

KL Turner

KL Turner writes about water and the things we do with it, like making wine. She also writes about sailing, travel, and luxury markets through the lens of sustainability. A veteran of 20+ years in the Rocky Mountain West and the Sawtooths of Idaho, she recently traded her skis for sailing gear and life on the magnificent Florida gulf coast.

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