The Geometry of Taste

by Robert Millman

The importance of olfaction in the experience of wine is pretty well understood—at least the objectively determinable aspects of smell. Those with a cold know very well that taste is all but blocked under this condition. I want to focus on the experience of wine not from the perspective of taste per se but the structure of textural experience of wine. For want of a better term I will call this the geometry of taste.

We usually discuss perceived acidity, alcohol, fruit and what we all call minerality. The lack of a proven molecular basis for “minerality” has little bearing on the experience of aspects of wine which cannot be reduced to the fruit/acidity/alcohol experience: Taste through several different Premier Cru Chablis and the mineral configuration is as clear as a bell. Indeed, the variable intensity and specificity of Chablis minerality is what makes these wines so fascinating and mouth-watering. Somehow the famous Kimmeridgian bedrock (a mix of clay, limestone, and ancient marine fossils like oyster shells, forming a crumbly mix that drains well while retaining just enough water) of the vineyards easily translates into flavour and texture. It is risible to deny this subjective reality. The subjective experience of wine is wine’s ultimate dimension for those of us who actually drink the stuff!

I want to focus on the structural aspects of the experience of wine which, as already mentioned, I will call the geometry of taste. I begin with the dimension of front, center and back of the palate. We all know that as wine travels from initial taste to last swallow, sweet/fruity notes are experienced in the front of the mouth, acidity on the sides of the palate and tannins right down the center of the palate. Alcohol, depending on the level of a given wine is most evident in the aftertaste or finish. Alcohol levels at 13% or below are often hardly noticed. At 14%+ alcohol level very much influences both the effect and pleasure we take in the wine. (Tasters vary greatly in their sensitivity to alcohol levels). Minerality may be the very last impression of a wine. In some cases, it in fact dominates the sense of a wine—its ultimate aspect which befits its role as the defining aspect of a wine’s terroir.

This leads me to the three dimensions of the wine experience. The palate is three-dimensioned, not a flat surface. Therefore, all experienced tasters know that taste can seem all about the surface of the palate but in the best cases there is an experience of what Stephen Tanzer used to call “palate penetration”: Not the quality of the taste but its depth and persistence.

Time, the fourth dimension, is also very important aspect of the wine experience. Robert Parker used to measure the length of a wine’s finish. This alerted many of us to pay full attention to the way a wine finishes. Is it long and lingering? Is it a final burst that then disappears? Does it fade gracefully—as is often the case with fine old wines? One aspect of the textural dimension of wine, often overlooked, is what I call mid-palate expansion or constriction: Some wines seem to expand the mid-palate, dominating the experience until the finish finally kicks in. I find mid-palate expansion to be in most circumstances one of the most impressive aspects of fine wine. Narrow wines—wines with constricted mid plates—can be frustrating. The value of the finish of a wine is very much a function of what has happened before the finish!

My recommendation to tasters, especially those buying expensive wines, is to learn to pay attention to the geometry of the wines you drink. It will add immensely to what is usually front and center—the sensuality of a wine.


Robert Millman

Robert Millman’s wine career began in the early 1980s, when he began working from Morrell & Company, one of the USA’s top wine retailers. During that time, he co-founded Executive Wine Seminars (EWS) with Howard Kaplan, which over the years became one of NYC’s most highly regarded wine events companies. EWS organized and conducted over 1000 wine events during its prestigious thirty-three year history. High points included Robert Parker being a regular guest presenter at the tastings, and through 2011, the results of the tastings were published on the Wine Advocate website. Having reached an age where taking a step back from the wear and tear of life in the wine fast lane made sense, Millman currently enjoys being a taster and wine writer for Grapes the Wine Company, an excellent, leading e-retailer based in Westchester (NY). 

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Robert Millman