What’s More Important When Tasting Wine, Smell Or Taste?

Whether it’s wine or anything else, when we taste something, our flavor impressions are determined more by our sense of smell than our sense of taste. How is that possible? It’s because while we can only perceive five tastes, our ability to identify smells is virtually unlimited. The interplay of taste and smell allows us to taste the difference between, say, a raspberry and a strawberry, or a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon. Hold your nose, and you’ll taste some bitterness, some acidity, perhaps some sweetness, but none of the subtle flavors that set the two wines apart. We are able to identify six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, acid, bitter, and umami, the savory sensation associated with meats and the additive MSG. That’s not a lot of “flavor bandwidth”. In fact, researchers believe that only 20% of what we consider taste comes from our tastebuds. When we sip a wine, we’re bringing in some air with it which flows through our nasal passages, creating the interplay of aromas and tastes that create flavor sensation. When we think about taste, we often recall flavors that are linked to memories. These flavors are more about smell than taste; you may recall something that tastes sweet, but our memories and emotions are more fully engaged when we recall more complex scents such as those wafting from a bakery in the early morning, or the smell of the forest floor on a hike, or the lingering perfume of a long-lost friend. We also perceive texture or mouthfeel through the nerve endings in our mouth. Things like temperature, body, spiciness, and weight are perceived this way. That’s why a very light wine like a Rosé will feel different from a richer wine such as Syrah. So when tasting wine, it’s important to pay attention to the aromas that affect the taste. If you have a cold, for example, you’re not going to taste as well. And you’ve likely seen tasters who swirl their wine around and slurp air while sipping their wine. This isn’t just an affectation; it’s all intended to introduce air into the wine and allow the aromatics to get into the nasal passages to thoroughly taste the wine.