SYMPHONY OF SENSES The Anatomy and Physiology of wine tasting

 The Cranial Nerves

The Scent of wine A Neuro-physiological study of wine perception

Part 1 The Brain

Wine making production, creation, becomes an art when all elements in the finished product are totally balanced. This of course, requires a set of strict and precise actions in all minute details from the vineyard to the winery, through the barrel to the bottle stages, which result in a refined and balanced drink with unique taste, smell and color qualities which cause the consumer, even at the glass stage a profound experience beyond a mere quench thirst.

Drinking wine can be an act meant to quench thirst: just tilt your glass and gulp. On the other hand the art of wine tasting is a challenge, an enigmatic quiz with all the clues stored inside the bottle behind the cork. To solve the quiz one needs specialized tools, all of which are “stored” in our cranium (the part of the skull that contains the brain) our 5 senses: Smell, Sight, Hearing, Taste and Touch for wine tasting you also need good memory and a colorful imagination.  Between us this quiz is a game of associations.

I know that tasting wine adds an extra dimension to the basic daily function associated with eating and drinking. It turns the act of consuming food and drink for sustenance, as a source of strength and nourishment into an act of pleasure a celebration of our senses combined in an intellectual act.


Cranial nerves are nerves that emerge directly from the brain and not from the spinal cord. In humans, there are 12 pairs of cranial nerves. Only the first and the second pair emerge from the upper part of the brain, the remaining 10 pairs emerge from the brainstem the lower connection of the brain to the spinal cord.

The Cranial nerves all have specific task to execute and are highly specialized (unlike other motor or sensory nerves that emerge from the spinal cord). Although their function is diverse and spans on many different tasks along our body,


All of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves take part in the process of wine drinking and wine tasting


List of the 12 Cranial Nerves and their function

  1. 1.                      Olfactory- sense of smell
  2. 2.                      Optic- Sense of sight
  3. 3.                      Oculomotor – eyeball and eyelid movement
  4. 4.                      Trochlear  –  downwards and sideways movement of eyeball
  5. 5.                      Trigeminalchewing touch & pain of the face and palate
  6. 6.                      Abducens – eyes side movement
  7. 7.                      Facial – mimic muscles, tear glands, salivary glands sense of taste
  8. 8.                      auditory– Hearing and body balance
  9. 9.                      Glossopharyngeal– sense of taste and carotid arteries blood pressure
  10. 10.                   Vagus– Aortic pressure, initiator of digestive system,sense of taste 
  11. 11.                   Accessory swallowing action and neck muscles
  12. 12.                    HypoglossalTongue movements



The Cranial Nerves and wine tasting


Nerve No. 1  Olfactory Nerve – sense of smell well this one is too obvious. Without it you’re a goner where wine in concerned. This is one of the easier senses to “train” and improve. The smell center although small (around 2cm2), contains ten million neurons (sense cells), and can detect around ten thousand different smells. You think this is a lot? A German Sheppard dog has one billion neurons within the same size smell center.  Still as far as wine is concerned it does the Job!

Nerve No. 2  Optic Nerve The first encounter with wine is through sight. Colors, hues, clarity and depth are all perceived through the eyes, as well as your company and the surrounding of your wine experience

Nerve No. 3  Oculomotor Nerve  – Very important during wine drinking. Who knows who’s after the last sip in your glass of Richebourg 1929 DRC or Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982 or 1945, it’s always handy to have the capacity to look around discreetly.

Nerve No. 4  Trochlear Nerve – downwards and sideways movement of eyeball, helps you see where your wine glass is before you pick it up or alas spill the above wines (and many others) on the white table cloth!!

Nerve No. 5  Trigeminal Nerve – chewing muscles touch and pain of face and palate. Very important nerve to on all aspects of food and wine, apart from chewing it controls our ability to sense Touch which is important to our taste sensation. This is where we try to feel the wine on the palate the texture, body, temperature, astringency, aftertaste, finish, and length of a wine are all things we feel on our palate cheeks and lips.  Wine’s weight (light, medium, full) or texture (silky, austere coarse, chewy velvety). Palate sensation or perception is the scales with which we judge the BALANCE of Wine.

Nerve No. 6  Abducens NerveControls the eyes side movement, carefulwho’s sitting next to you, who sneaks a hand towards you glass during conversation with the person next to you!!!

Nerve No. 7  Facial Nervemimic muscles, tear glands, salivary glands and parts of the sense of taste. It’s not always useful that everyone knows (by the expression on your face) what you really think of a wine especially if the tasting is in the winery. But what would we do without the sense of taste where would flavor be if smell and taste would not combine?

Nerve No. 8  Auditory Nervesense of Hearing and body balance. The chatter of people the clutter of cutlery and dishes the clinging of glasses the heavenly echoing sound of the perfect handmade glass of wine, cobined with the ability to keep your balance inspite of having a glass or two too many…

Nerve No. 9  Glossopharyngeal Nervesense of taste and carotid arteries blood pressure. Controles most of the sense of taste all 4-5 basic tastes. Also controls the proper pressure of freshly oxygenated blood to the brain keeping the brains analytical capacity intact.

Nerve No. 10  Vagus NerveAortic pressure, initiator of digestive system,sense of taste . This one basically keeps us alive (very important to wine tasting) not to speak of its importance in digestion of food and parts of the sense of taste.

Nerve No. 11 Accessory Nerveswallowing action and neck muscles. Without swallowing we would have to spit wine all the time and it is nice to swallow wine from time to time for some wines spitting is a obligatory some wines swallowing is a MUST. As for the neck action it’s nice to be able to nod yes to an extra top up or to nod nay if you had one too many.

Nerve No. 12 Hypoglossal NerveTongue movements, There’s no swirling of wine around the mouth without the tongue moving folding and caressing the wine. We sense we taste we smell better with the tongue moving. Needless to say we will not be able to let the “world” know what we think of the wine we have all just tasted or drunk. Speech is nonexistent without tongue movements.

Combination of bits of information provided to us through observing, looking, smelling, tasting wine Touch by tongue palate will be used as a means of helping to solve a riddle: What wine is before us?

That’s it for now , anatomy and physiology of all the different senses: vision smell, taste and touch in future Posts


One comment

  1. sensation

    This post could not be written much better! Going through this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He continually kept preaching about this.
    I will send this post to him. Fairly certain he’ll have a good read.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s