A good vintage: science suggests appreciation of wine grows with age

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Changes in composition and production of saliva as people grow older appears to intensify perception of aromas

Red wine in glasses on outdoor dining table .
Volunteers were tested on their ability to perceive smokey and peppery aromas in red wine. Photograph: fstop123/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Volunteers were tested on their ability to perceive smokey and peppery aromas in red wine. Photograph: fstop123/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Last modified on Fri 25 Dec 2020 23.37 EST

Just as a bottle of wine improves with age, so may our ability to pick out the subtleties of its scent. Changes in the composition of our saliva and how much of it we produce appears to intensify our perception of smokey and peppery aromas in red wine, new research suggests.

The findings could lead to the development of wines that are more tailored toward specific groups of consumers. “We could diversify winemaking production to make more enjoyable wines based on consumers’ physiologies,” said Maria Ángeles del Pozo Bayón, of the Spanish Research Council’s Institute of Food Science and Research in Madrid, who led the research.

Although people can be trained to appreciate the subtle aromas and flavours in wine, perception of them is also linked to memories and experience. “If we are very familiar with a smell that has an emotional connection in our mind, we will recognise that smell regardless of physical conditions,” said Federica Zanghirella, vice-president of the UK Sommelier Association, who was not involved in the research.

Our perception of wine is also shaped by physiological factors like the shape of our mouths, or the composition of our saliva, which transports and dissolves the aromatic compounds in wine, as well as transforming some of them through the actions of the enzymes it contains.

Previous studies had suggested that our saliva becomes less plentiful and more concentrated as we age. To better understand how such changes might influence people’s wine perception, Bayón and her colleagues recruited 11 people between the ages of 18 and 35 and 11 over 55-year-olds, and trained them in how to recognise and rate the intensity of aromas in wine. They also took samples of their saliva, and assessed how much of it they could produce, as well as its pH, protein content, and the activity of various enzymes.

The volunteers were then tested on their ability to perceive smokey and peppery aromas in red wine. Older individuals were more sensitive to these aromas, and rated them more intensely and for a longer time compared with younger drinkers. The research was published in Food Quality and Preference.

The findings fit with Zanghirella’s experience as a professional wine taster: “However, it is not only age that can affect the perception of particular aromas, but also the content of a taster’s last meal, if they have an empty stomach, or ate carbs, proteins, acidic or salty food,” she said.

As for why older people’s saliva might improve their ability to detect smokey and peppery flavours, Bayón explained that the amount of saliva they produce could affect the dilution of aromatic compounds, with lower volumes resulting in a greater number of aroma molecules being released into the airflow and coming into contact with the smell receptors in our noses as we exhale.

Varying proportions of enzymes their saliva may also metabolise these molecules in different ways – or trap them, lengthening the amount of time people perceive them for. Whether older individuals are also more perceptive of other wine aromas needs further exploration, Bayón said. Her team is also exploring how the foods we eat might alter our saliva, and therefore our perception of wine.

However, just as cellaring wine for too long can cause it to deteriorate, there may be also be a sweet spot for wine appreciation. Other research has suggested that people’s sense of smell becomes blunted as they progress into their 90s. So if you have been saving a fine vintage, and are yourself approaching a ripe age, it may pay to consume it sooner rather than later.