Thu 12 Nov 2015

Snobbery or Science? Perceiving Flavours


A common thought that crosses the minds of the vast majority of us at some point when tasting wine is:

‘Why can’t I smell these flavours that everyone else seems to be picking up?’

Flavour perceptionTasting and appreciating wines’ flavours can be fascinating, but it can also be a barrier for beginners. Wine is one of the most written about, analysed, and discussed of products, and has built up what seems like a language of its own to outsiders.

But we are all born with similar taste and smell receptors, so all have the potential to be able to be top tasters!

It’s not uncommon once you start to methodically taste, and try and pull specific flavours from a wine, for disappointment to strike when a flavour is picked up which may at the time seem way off compared to everyone else’s impressions of the same wine.

Do not fear: there is a science behind it!

When a cork is pulled, different aroma compounds, stereoisomers, are released by the alcohol in a wine. When these compounds hit the smell receptors in your nose they trigger your brain to match these to a smell it remembers.

As there are only a set amount of receptors, the compounds will hit these in a certain pattern, like Morse code, which your brain then identifies to recall the smell. Some compounds can be very similar and share comparable traits, such as honey and apricot, or more surprisingly cinnamon and bell pepper.

So it’s no surprise that flavours which may initially be thought of as polar opposites can become confused by the brain if it takes a shortcut to try to second guess the flavour.

This becomes even trickier when many of these aroma compounds are released at the same time, as they can trick the brain, muddling the flavour profiles. And with primary, secondary, and tertiary flavours thrown into the mix, it can create an in-depth and complex flavour profile for the brain to deal with.

The most important point to remember is that indulging in wine should be an enjoyable pursuit, and you shouldn’t to be disheartened if you can’t pick out certain flavours, because as with many a skill in life, practice makes perfect!

Thom Buzzard
Member Services Adviser

Categories : Miscellaneous


  1. Peter Bowden says:

    Food for thought and will perhaps reassure my wife who never seems able to detect that hint of vanilla or petrol……. Just one little pedantic quibble prompted by my long ago chemistry degree:- are all the aroma compounds stereoisomers….?

  2. Keynshamwine says:

    Two thoughts. First, it’s quite easy to proclaim the scent of red fruits when you know you’ve been poured a Pinot Noir; apricots and peaches in that generous glass of Viognier; or blackcurrants and pencil shavings in that tightly defined Bordeaux. But the best way to really tutor your senses is to do more blind tasting – keep sniffing until you can put a name on that scent, uninfluenced by that leading label. Or second, take a leaf out of Jay McInery’s book ‘A Hedonist in the Cellar’. He writes that he was more comfortable comparing wines to actresses, rock bands, pop songs, painters, automobiles than he was with literal parsing of scents and tastes. You might not pick up stone fruits but you might find the Rolling Stones!

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