Where does the taste of wine come from? While most of us would refer to the grapes, winemaking techniques or vintages, few approach wine tasting from the neurological perspective. In his new book and paper, Gordon Shepherd of the Yale School of Medicine provided an explanation of how our brain mechanisms help form our perception of wine flavors.
Dr. Shepherd’s insights come from a new multidisciplinary field called “neurogastronomy”, which study bio-mechanisms contributing to food flavors. It has the potential to help chefs improve the dining experience and provide insights into health conditions like obesity. Some of the key ideas of neurogastronomy include:
- Flavor is created by the food from the brain.
- Flavor involves all sensory systems and motor systems. In fact, the movement of the food through your body activates the sensory pathways and the central brain systems.
- Retronasal smell, the smell that occurs when we breath out, has a huge contribution to flavor.
- We are unconscious of the contribution of the retronasal smell.
In his research, Dr. Shepherd outlines several key stages of wine tasting as below:
- The cephalic phase: The brain forms expectations of the wine based on vision and imagination.
- The preliminary analysis: We examine the wine closer with our eyes and first experience the wine aroma.
- The ingestion phase: We put the wine inside the mouth.
- The initial analysis: As we start sipping the wine, our senses became activated: the taste, touch and mouth-feel, and the retronasal smell. Each sense begins to form a sensory image.
- Forming the wine perceptual image: We begin combining images from different senses to form a perceptual image. What’s interesting is it is actually an illusion that wine tastes only come from the mouth. In fact, tasting techniques such as breathing in through the lips can alter the perception of taste.
- Forming the wine flavor object: We start to form central representation of the wine flavor in the central brain, which involves memory, emotion and motivation systems.
- Swallowing: As the prefrontal cortex determines that we’ve reached the peak of the experience, we make the decision to swallow.
- Post-swallowing: Now that the wine has been swallowed, the wine coating the pharynx enables us to make the last evaluation of the wine through the smell coming to our nose (retronasal smell).
Dr. Shepherd’s research provides important insights into one of human’s most complex flavor experiences. With regard to bitterness in wines, for example, Dr. Shepherd pointed out that the perception of bitterness can vary from one individual to another. Whether you can sense bitterness depends on the number of taste buds (2000-8000 for humans), whether you are a supertaster and the amount and composition of your saliva. Understanding how these different mechanisms work enables vineyard managers and winemakers understand the different components of “taste” and adjust their practices to enhance different characteristics in order to produce more desirable wines overall. Check out some of our previous posts to understand how winemakers and vineyard managers can adjust harvest and irrigation practices to influence wine sensorial properties.
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