By Charles R. Thomas, M.D.
One of the essential tools used to teach students to learn how to taste wine is a component tasting. There are four basic tastes: Salt (Saltiness), Sugar (Sweetness), Acid (Sourness) and Tannin (Bitterness.)
Although all these tastes can be appreciated anywhere in the mouth, there are areas which are especially gifted in detecting an individual taste. On the tongue, there is a virtual map showing the various areas and the tastes they detect:
Saltiness is detected on the tip of the tongue.
Sweetness is found just behind the tip of the tongue.
Sourness is located on the sides of the tongue and the cheek pouch.
Bitterness is found on the back of the tongue and the soft palate.
When tasting, one should take about a tablespoon of wine into his (or her) mouth and circulate the wine around the mouth. Try to leave the wine in your mouth as long as you can. As the wine touches all the parts of the mouth, it will stimulate the various areas that are endowed with tasting those special tastes. Since there is rarely a salty taste in wine, we are really dealing with the other three tastes.
As the wine courses into the mouth, the first area to come in contact with the wine is the front of the tongue where one can detect sugar, if present. As the wine courses backward in the mouth, the acid content will become apparent. (All wines have acid.) Take time to notice each component. Keep moving the wine around and ask yourself what you are tasting. Lastly, as you finally swallow the wine, notice whether or not you feel the roughness or bitterness on the back of the tongue or palate. Some wines contain tannins; some don’t. Some are sweet and some are not. You cannot just taste the whole wine; you must acknowledge each area separately in order to arrive at a judgment.
Some tastes will alter your appreciation of others, especially acid and sugar. Prominent acid will cover up sugar, so the wine will not seem as sweet. High sugar will cover up a strong acid taste. In order for you to appreciate this, do this simple test. Pour a half glass of Coca-Cola or some other soft drink and let it stand for about four hours. Then pour a fresh half glass and compare the two. The fresh glass has lots of acid in the form of carbonic acid (fizz) so the Coke is pleasantly sweet, but the flat glass will taste sickeningly sweet because the acid has bubbled away and no longer balances the sweetness with the acidity of the carbon dioxide.
Now for your exercise. You will mix up some samples using about five ounces of either water or a white wine as the base. Make four samples. In the first glass, place one teaspoon of lemon juice. In the second glass, place one teaspoon of sugar and mix until it dissolves. In glass three, put one teaspoon of lemon juice and one teaspoon of sugar and mix. In the fourth glass, place a teabag and then microwave the mixture for 90 seconds on high power. Let it stand until cool.
You are finally ready to test these samples. Taste No. 1 and notice the sting on the sides of the tongue. This is what acid or sourness tastes like and, more importantly, where in your mouth it is perceived. Next, taste sample No. 2 and notice sweetness on the front of the tongue. Thirdly, taste No. 3 and see if you can distinguish both sweetness and acid independently. Also notice that it doesn’t seem as sweet although you added just as much sugar as you did to No. 2. The same goes with the acid. As a follow-up, you may want to add twice as much sugar or acid and see if you can tell which is the sweeter or more acidic. Lastly, taste No. 4 and appreciate the bitterness on the back of your tongue. For additional experience, mix equal parts of No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4. See if you can pick out all three tastes in the same mouthful.
Your ability to separate the different tastes of the wine in your mind is comparable to listening to a symphony orchestra while being able to hear the individual sounds of each instrument. It’s easier than you think.
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