It's about scent memory, not tasting!
When people learn I’m a sommelier, they often ask some variation of, "What's your favorite wine? Have you tried my favorite wine? Do you like it?” And last, but certainly not least, “How can I become a better taster?”
While I have some quick responses to the first two questions, "how to become a better taster" requires a bit more. So much so that I think Üllo could produce a whole series of "Improve Your Tasting Skills" posts for a year and still not cover every way to improve. (Hint: feel free to take a moment to 'Comment' or 'Like' this post so we can get working on the next tasting post.)
Tasting isn't an exact science making every person’s path to becoming a better taster different. Thankfully, our biology (insofar as smelling and tasting are concerned) provides some insights on how we could improve.
Most articles that focus on tasting neglect mentioning neuroscience and dive right into mechanics of how to taste. I believe this is a shame. After all, the question we are trying to ask is one of chemistry; what taste does my brain think these chemical compounds in my glass taste will have?
Most sensory experiences have to pass through the thalamus. The thalamus is comprised of nerve cells that serve as a gateway to the neocortex, which is the portion of the brain responsible for human's higher-order functions. Along with cognition and spatial reasoning, the most important of these higher-order functions is sensory perception. We now know that unlike most sensory experiences (say the sense of touch) our sense of smell operates in a radically different way.
When we smell, our brains don't require the thalamus to perceive aromas. It turns out, our sense of smell is part of the limbic system, the same system for processing emotion and memory, in addition to processing scents. Presumably, this is why scents can create such vivid memories! Using this connection between scents and memories, we can start to uncover how some elements of becoming a better taster.
Putting our memories to work!
No matter what skill level you're at, learning and memorizing aromas is a fundamental skill. For instance, you've probably read tasting notes that go something like this, "This wine is rich and powerful, full of black fruits, blueberries, and dark cherries. The finish shows balsamic waves with herbs, incense, sweet licorice, with smooth rounded tannins." There’s no magic in tasting notes like these, but there is a heck of a lot of comparisons that come from the taster’s memory. And no, there is no actual blueberry or cherries in the wine, although the compounds responsible for such flavors may also be present in the grapes (or result from fermentation but that’s a whole other story).
If you have a wine with aromas of strawberries, raspberries, and cherries, you would know this because at some point you've smelled those fruits and can now recall those memories. Most of what we do when we taste a glass of wine is compare it to other things, whether it be fruits, herbs, flowers, soils, or even fungi. Who doesn't love a glass of vintage champagne that has distinct aromas of our favorite fungus, yeast!
At a fundamental level, to be a better taster means our memories need to recognize these aromas so that when present in a wine, we understand them and appreciate them. A trip to virtually any grocery store provides opportunities to improve your scent memory. Next time you are about to buy or eat a piece of fruit, take a few seconds to smell it. Try to memorize that smell in your mind. While perhaps strange at first, if you repeatedly take time to focus your attention on aromas to remember them, you may surprise yourself with how well you can detect them in your next glass of wine. And it's drawing these comparisons that will make you cream of the crop at your next tasting! Soon you'll be picking out wines by varietal on blind tastings and on the road to being a sommelier.