Putting the ‘Taste’ into Wine Tasting

This summer I was lucky enough to take a wine course at UC Davis called Introduction to Sensory Evaluation of Wine. I learned so much! I’ll be sharing what I took away from the course here at Valley Crush, but I encourage you to sign up for the course yourself. There’s always more to learn, and more wine to drink!

Intro. to Sensory Eval. of Wine is taught by Professor John Buechsenstein of UC Davis. He is a delightful instructor, personable and knowledgeable. A winning combination. On our first day of class we were privileged to hear from guest speaker Dr. Hildegarde Heymann, also of UC Davis in the Food Sciences Department. She shared her wealth of experience and expertise to give us a crash course in our senses.

5 Basic Tastes

Although the first feature we look for in wine is color, the taste is where it’s at. Taste is made up of both taste and smell. I knew the two are related but I didn’t quite appreciate how much so until I took this course. We have 5 basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.

Umami? What in the world is that? Umami is our most recently discovered taste that resembles a hearty broth or savory meat. The taste receptors for umami were discovered in the early 2000s, but the Japanese created the name umami 100 years earlier. Umami translated means “delicious taste”. Dr. Heymann told us that right now researchers are looking for taste receptors for fatty acids, and she believes they will be discovered in the next year or so. Who knew there was so much uncharted territory on our tongues?

Tongue Maps

Remember when you learned about the different regions of the tongue in school, like which part of your tongue can taste bitter things and which part can taste sweet? Well hold onto your hats folks because tongue maps are a myth! Our tongues taste all flavors equally well from the front to the back, and from side to side. Now there’s a chapter in my middle school science textbook that’s in desperate need of revision.


Surely we all recognize that we don’t all taste things in the same ways. We each have flavors that delight us and those that disgust us. And there are genetic reasons for many of these preferences. One reason is that some of us are – da, da, da-da –  supertasters! No, this doesn’t mean our tongues can fight crime. But it does mean that for about 25% of the population, wine tasting is a hypertasting experience. Those of us who are supertasters, like Julie, basically have more taste buds and nerve endings than the average wine drinker, so we experience taste and even pain differently. Yet another problem we can blame on our parents. Ah well, at least there’s wine to drink!