“Eating wine” isn't for everyone. For some it will be so obvious that it is irrelevant. For others, their assumptions about wine will be challenged. Others again will have their confusion cleared. Fortunately, there is a simple test that will help decide this, and answer the eternal question: “Is it me or is it the wine?”
Place a quality red wine in an ISO/XL5 glass (small tulip or port). First, have a drink of water, and then taste the wine as you would normally do. Now try this: place a small portion of wine at the front of the mouth i.e. at the tip of the tongue. Leave it there and gently chew, without swallowing or holding your breath. Wait.
This is “eating” wine, precisely what you normally do with food!
If you perceive no difference at all between the two wine experiences, then it is likely that you have been eating wine all along, which is what smart tasters already unconsciously practise. Observe yourself in the mirror or watch others taste. You will notice that many people throw a wine into the mouth and swallow quickly or even lift their nose like they are about to swallow a sword! It is educational watching the different ways in which people drink wine and then listen to their description. How people drink determines their experience. That is to say that the quicker the swallow, the less flavour they discern, although they do pick up on mouthfeel. The main characteristic of popular wine styles is that it makes an impression or is obvious, no matter how the wines are drunk. They have either aromas that leap out of the glass or enough tannin to give a definite feeling. It is with the more flavoursome or subtle wines (and perhaps more expensive?) that one hears comments like, “not much there” or the abysmal “it’s not me”.
However, if there is a difference, like a softer mouthfeel or more intense and lingering flavours, then you have made a discovery.
To understand why this eating of wine offers more than simply drinking requires a review of the whole sensory process. We are already very familiar with the stimulation of the senses by wine; the colours to the eye and the aromas to the nose, but in the mouth it is more complicated. Many people believe that this third experience happens entirely in the mouth and use confused expressions like “mid or end palate flavours”, “soft flavours”, “lemon acidity”, “creamy texture”, “silky spicy tannins” and so on. In fact, the mouth is the conduit to two sense organs; the mouth itself (i.e. the tongue plus lining) and the nose (smell receptors) for the second time. Of course, these senses are competing for your conscious attention (more on this later…!).
Knowledge of how our senses function is an evolving area, but the following makes use of the little we do know. It has recently been understood that there is a nerve at the tip of the tongue that warns the rest of the system to prepare itself as the wine enters the 37°C environment. If the wine lands on the middle of the tongue, the experience will be diminished because the sensors are not ready.
Wine is a mixture and as it rapidly spreads across the tongue it stimulates the various receptors- acid, sweet, bitter, cold etc. while the tannins react with the saliva to give a perceived dryness. All of this mouthfeel information (viz. “taste”) goes to the back of the brain, checked by the amygdala for bitterness (poison?), and then the cortex constructs from these components a sense of balance/unbalance, the structure, and texture. In the warm oral environment of the mouth the aromas have been liberated and move to the back of the mouth where they are whooshed out through the nose. This is the reverse direction of when the wine was smelt in the glass, the aroma, and, I propose, deserves its own word: “bacaroma”(!).
Note that as we breathe back in, there is no aroma; it is only in the breathe out part of the cycle. So, the perception of bacaroma pulses, in harmony with our breathing. This contrasts with the mouthfeel, which is a continuous and declining experience. We call the combination of taste/mouthfeel and bacaroma the “flavour”. If you have a cold or hold your breath, then you will only perceive mouthfeel.
Taste the wine as in Exercise 1 and breathe out. When breathing back in, hold the breath for a few seconds, focus on it, and you will become aware of the mouthfeel. You then breathe out. Any bacaroma will come in over the top. If there is no difference between the breath in/breathe out experience then the bacaroma has ceased (i.e. the wine is considered “short”) or is unperceivable. If there is a difference, and it lasts several breaths out, then it is said that the wine has “lingering flavours”. Basically, breathe in = mouthfeel/structure; breathe out = flavour/bacaroma.
I have met former footballers with a history of nose damage who, not surprisingly, only appreciate sweet or big tannic wines and are unaware of the aroma aspect. Other styles seem invisible to them. The sense of smell is vital from the point of view of mankind’s evolution. It has its own part of the brain (olfactory bulb), can discriminate 10 000 different odourants, has the same amount of DNA as the immune system (1%), is linked to the forebrain and can draw on memory, emotions, sex, pleasure etc., and is apparently the only sense that need not deteriorate with age! Although sickness and physical injury can easily damage this sensitive organ.
Imagine going to an Art Gallery and everyone is talking about the frames but not the paintings!? The Archibald or Turner Art Prize goes to the painting with the biggest frame! The equivalent in wine is considering only the structure and sidelining the aroma/bacaroma/flavour aspect, like the colour and substance of the painting.
The longer journey of the mouth aroma impulses finally meet in the cortex with the other mouth messages, except the they are now out of sync, maybe by a fraction of a second! Under what we could call “The First Principle of the Senses”, it is a case of first in, best dressed. That is to say that the mouthfeel will make the initial impression and if it is strong will obscure the perception of bacaroma.
Our consciousness is easily overloaded; try reading a book as you listen to the radio or having a conversation while watching TV. Although there are individual variations, it is a fact that as we age, the ability to focus with our senses is reduced, and it is widely accepted that women have a better ability to multitask (as well as having a more sensitive sense of smell!)
The balance of the mouthfeel components is well known and has become a speciality of the Bordeaux approach, especially their concept of “suppleness”. However, there is a second balance, between mouthfeel and bacaroma. Beyond a certain point, bacaroma will be overlooked in heavy mouthfeel wines- it is possible to be too big!
Notice how the aroma in the glass seems to “disappear” on the palate with big wines, despite the 15-20°C increase in the mouth, which you would expect to enhance aroma. Heavy bodied wines in barrel have an amazing ability to absorb new oak flavours. It takes perhaps a minute after tasting such a wine before there is a sudden burst of bacaroma, after the mouth feeling has ebbed (the so-called "peacock’s tail”?). Another example of an unbalanced wine style are the reputed “fruit driven” ones that have strong up-front aromas with little mouthfeel and bacaroma, such as many popular sauvignon blancs.
Winemakers have to deal with grape varieties from differing climate zones that can each pose a challenge. Typically warm area wines can tend to high alcohol and tannin with baked fruit or low aromas, whereas Tasmania struggles with high acid and under ripe tannins, whilst alpine valleys and New Zealand’s south island can have both high acid and high alcohol.
The ideal would be a balance between mouthfeel and bacaroma where both can be perceived, with their length being indicators of quality.
Writing as a winemaker and a viticulturist, the former’s responsibility is to create a balanced structure without losing the fruit flavours, and perhaps enhancing them with oak and yeasts. In my view, it is the viticulturist who delivers the quality fruit, which primarily determines the richness of flavours of a memorable wine. It is possible to say, “This is a well made wine, but not a good one” i.e. the wine is balanced and has structure, but lacks flavour.
Balance is satisfying, structure tells you about the wine’s ability to age and aroma/bacaroma gives the pleasure and memory.
In summary, to improve your wine experience:
- Slow down and use the front of the mouth.
- Be aware that the oral experience has two sensory parts. This is the path to discerning quality.
- We are built around our sense of smell, and this needs to be at the centre of our wine experience.
- The mode of enjoying wine is the same as for food.
Let’s drink beer and water, but eat wine!
Winemaker & Viticulturist
Nicholson River Winery
August 2008 (updated March 2013)