Why Wine Tasting Is a Big Brain Game

Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd has lots of surprising things to say about how we taste wine.


Photo by: AzmanL ©AzmanL

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So much has been written about the complexity of wine tasting — the science and subjectivity behind the sip — that you might think there was nothing new to learn about the subject. Think again.

In an interview with NPR about his recent book, “Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine,” Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd has lots of surprising things to say about how we taste wine.

Among them …

--Shepherd says wine molecules are, in an of themselves, devoid of flavor, but create it by stimulating our brains, much the way we perceive color in response to the way light strikes our eyes and activates our brains.

--To fully taste wine you really have to move it all around your mouth. Fluid dynamics factor into our ability to appreciate its flavor, Shepherd says.

--Smell plays a role in the taste of wine even beyond sticking our noses in our glasses and inhaling its “bouquet” (aka “orthonasal” smell), Shepherd explains. We also perceive wine’s flavor by smelling it after we take a sip, through nasal receptors in the back of our throats (“retronasal” smell).

--Saliva dilutes and interacts with wine and affects its flavor. The amount of saliva and its content can affect our perception of wine, as can age, gender, mood, time of day, making wine tasting highly individual, according to Shepherd.

--The wine glass you use doesn’t make much difference, although it’s important that the glass is not overfilled in order to allow for the “aroma.” What does make a difference is taking small sips. “If you take too large a sip, you’ve saturated your system,” Shepherd told NPR.

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