From wine gums to wine tasting: Why your palate changes over time

wine glasses ion table

Candy that explodes on your tongue.

Bottles of garishly coloured fizzy pop.

Penny treats (think sherbet dips, cola bottles, those pink shrimps).

All a staple part of many children’s – perhaps even your – diet once upon a time.

These days, probably not so much. Haribo sweets excepted…

What does this mean for your future palate? Will your enjoyment of wine fade away in the same way? Let’s find out…

Chief Cherryade Officer

As youngsters, most of us had a natural ability to put away piles of sweets and salty snacks. At any time of the day or night.

This dates back to our evolutionary ancestors. Before a time of ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ labels. When hunter-gatherers relied on their sense of taste (and smell) to know if food was safe to eat.

The only way to develop those acute senses was to seek out extreme tastes. From an early age. As we get older, our senses have less of a need to seek out these sweet and sour tastes.

So, the next time you see a child filling their face with sweets, take pity on them. They’re not being greedy. They’re just grappling with evolution.

10,000 on your tongue

On average, humans have as much as 10,000 taste buds, which renew every couple of weeks. However, one-in-four of us are ‘supertasters’. These people have tongues with up to 30% more taste buds. They experience the five major tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami/savoury) at greater intensity. And they’re hypersensitive to PROP, a chemical compound which leaves a bitter aftertaste to saccharine.

glasses on table

Taste buds each have 10–50 taste cells

While this might sounds great in theory, in practice it means you’d be less likely to enjoy strongly flavoured food.

Want to find out if you’re part of this top 25%? Take one of those circles of paper you find from a hole punch. Put it on your tongue, and then count how many taste buds leave a mark. More than 30 and you’re probably a supertaster. CWO tip: to make your taste buds show up, try drinking some red wine beforehand.

Of course, your tongue is only part of the experience. Your sense of smell is crucial. Swirling to release the aromas, triggering around 350 odour receptors that are hanging around at the top of your nasal cavity.

It’s true this may decline over time. However, that doesn’t mean your enjoyment of wine will decrease. Robert Balzer, one of the original wine writers, was judging wine competitions at 93 years of age.

The height of taste

Apart from logistics, there’s a reason wine tastings rarely happen on aeroplanes, up Everest or in other lofty locations.

“Your senses are dulled at altitude, making it difficult to appreciate the complex scents and flavours wine has to offer,” explains Delta’s Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson. ‘In addition, the lower atmospheric pressure — versus tasting on land — means those flavour molecules are jetting past your sensory receptors so fast, you miss a lot.’

Further challenges arise because the sound of the engine dulls your taste. In a series of scientific tests, participants were given food in environments with either loud, quiet or no white noise. Participants reported that senses of sweetness and saltiness were significantly lower in the loud compared to the quiet sound conditions.

So if you’re planning to drink wine on your next flight, first put on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

Destination Burgundy

Does this mean your palate’s evolution is purely down to genetics? Susceptible to shifts when things are loud, at altitude, or when there’s little sense of smell?

No.

Among oenophiles, there’s a long-standing maxim – ‘All roads lead to Burgundy’. The idea that every cultured wine tasting palate eventually starts demanding a certain level of sophistication. One that only wine from the famous French region can deliver.

While this may be up for debate, there’s one thing that’s undisputed. If you want to develop your palate, the best way is to attend a Chief Wine Officer event. Here’s what’s coming up.