How does taste work?

On our palates (our tongues) we can taste 5 main things – sweet, salty, bitter, umami (savoury), and sour. Do you know the others?

How does taste work?
The main sense needed for tasting wine.

Having a basic understanding of how our sense of taste works can be handy.

Taste as most people think about it is actually more about the smell (the picture might give you a clue).

On our palates (our tongues) we can taste 5 main things – sweet, salty, bitter, umami (savoury) and sour.

There are a few others like metallic, chalky, fatty, chilli (heat), menthol (cool) and Kokumi (I’ll let you look that one up - research is good for you, honest).

It’s really about aroma

Everything else that we think of as taste, be that lemon, lime, raspberry, chocolate, coffee, mushroom, etc are all really aromas.

Don’t believe me?

It’s fairly easy to prove – if you’ve ever had a cold, you will have experienced the inability to taste – your nose is blocked and that means that whatever you eat is fairly flavourless.

You will be able to pick up the sweet, sour, savoury, salty and bitter characters though.

If you don’t want to wait until you get a cold to prove me right, you can always hold your nose when you next taste a wine, and then taste it again without holding your nose. The difference will be fairly noticeable.


This is because, at the back of your mouth, you have a passage called the retronasal passage – this links your mouth to your nose so that when you are eating the aromas travel from your mouth to your nose and allow you to taste all the wonderful flavours in your food.

This is why sommeliers do that strange thing that makes it look like they are gargling their wine.


The sensations that we pick up on our palate (sweet, sour, umami, bitter and salty) combine with the aromas we pick up on our nose and this gives us flavour.

This is also why we recommend not to taste wine in an environment with very strong aromas – whether that is a cleaning product used on the floor, or the person sitting next to you with really strong perfume/aftershave (so no tasting wine on the Tube). Because this will interfere with your sense of smell and affect the aromas from the wine.

If you want to know more about how our senses affect our enjoyment of wine – see this much, much longer blog post.