Tasting and Science: the pleasure depends on the ability to remember scents

We try a food or beverage product to understand if we like it and whether we want to consume it or not. But tasting is different because it means trying to understand what constitutes the flavor of the product and what its desirable attributes are. So what's the use of tasting? Why try to better understand which aromas and tastes we perceive?

Let's start by saying that tasting is usually a pleasure. In the case of wine tasting, the pleasure can be for beginners discovering new territory and for experts assessing a product. More generally, understanding and being able to recognize the attributes of a wine enables us to feel more comfortable with wine and our wine choices at home and in social contexts (e.g. choosing a wine in a restaurant). This "confidence" gives us pleasure.

That said, there are also "scientific" reasons for this pleasure and for these we can look to the work of scholars (psychologists, chemists, etc.) who over the decades have carried out research and experiments aimed at understanding what happens in our head when we put food or wine in our mouth. Here are the three main reasons.

1. The act of tasting is one of the activities that most involves our brain because it connects sensations from our different sensory systems: sight, smell, taste (bitter, acid, salty, sweet, umami), and tactile in the mouth (the sensations of spicy, fatness, astringency, etc). It is therefore a very stimulating activity. Among the various senses used it can be understood that "the sense of smell is the most powerful tasting tool we have" and "the scent of a wine is probably its best attribute, but it is also the most difficult to describe and evaluate" according to renowned wine critic Jancis Robinson. The sense of smell comes into play both externally, when we smell a food or wine, and internally (retronasally), when we put the food or wine in the mouth and swallow.

2. Our olfactory memory is "plastic", in the sense that when we associate an odor with a memory, it is difficult to change that memory and also difficult to forget it. It means that the more sensations we perceive and memorize, the more we will be driven to go in search of, and therefore to appreciate, new and finer smells. This explains why those who approach wine tasting initially prefer fruity wines ("immediate" smells), while expert sommeliers and tasters prefer wines with evolved, less common aromas, such as those due to the barrel-aging process.

3. The ability to remember smells plays a fundamental role in the pleasure we derive from the wine tasting experience. Some studies seem to indicate that we are able to recognize on average 3 smells (only 3 smells!) within a bouquet made up of many different scents. But at the same time, if we have previously memorized a combination of smells, this constitutes a new "smell" in our brain, in its own right, which we will be able to recognize. For example, if we previously memorized the aromas of clove + banana = A and peach + lemon = B, when we taste a wine with combinations A and B our brain will understand that there are the four scents: cloves, banana, peach and lemon. So if we have tasted-perceived-memorized many combinations of different smells, then we will be better at recognizing the composition of even very large and complex bouquets. How gratifying! 

In closing, we have two suggestions. The first is, if you want to taste a wine, try to do it before a meal or at least not on a full stomach. This is because the feeling of hunger actually sharpens the senses related to tasting. The second is, the ability of our sense of smell decreases with repeated and exaggerated use, and returns to normal after a little rest. This phenomenon occurs due to fatigue, adaptation (for example, the brain tends to "filter" the smells already sensed) and desensitization (the olfactory receptors become saturated with odorous molecules). It is therefore difficult to taste many wines in a row unless you are well trained and take breaks in the open air.

For a complete reading on the subject, we recommend the book Neuroenology, by Gordon M. Shepherd. The book at times is a little technical, but is full of details on experiments and useful theory regarding the science of tasting.

To start training your olfactory memory, discover TasterPlace Aromas collections by clicking here!


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