Is it accurate to teach the "tongue map"?


I recently attended the Level 1 Sommelier Course in Campbell (it was a very enjoyable experience by the way).  During the tasting portion of the lecture, the Master Sommelier presenting brought up the famed "tongue map" in which each part of the tongue has a strength for a different tastes.

I raised my hand as asked, "When I took a physiology course in college I was taught this was a thoroughly debunked myth?"

The response from the lecturer was roughly, "In my experience it has been the case.  Its certainly what we teach.  I have also attended Riedel seminars where they talk about how the glasses are designed to help wine reach certain parts of the tongue.  I don't think they'd put all the money into that research if it was a myth."

I left it at that, but I'd like to expand and discuss this:

1) As someone who deals with marketing every day I can tell you that it isn't odd for a company to market a design based on a common myth or psuedoscience, or even put large amounts of money into research and design based on myths or psuedoscience.  It isn't even frowned upon, if wine lovers believe in the tongue map, why not design to that belief?

2) When researching this, and asking a few friends with a little more medical schooling than I, I found that the debunking of the tongue map is pretty common knowledge.

3) Here are some resources online to review:

These four pages discuss how the myth came about (1910s research) and how it began to be debunked.  The first big study from 1974 found that all taste buds for tasting all flavors were present in equal amounts all over the tongue.  There was difference in sensitivity in certain places on the tongue, but they were different from person to person, and insignificant.

When you further examine how tastes really work, the idea of a tongue map does seem a bit absurd:

There are many reasons why it could be perceived this way, mentioned in many articles, they include:

1) When people are taught the map exists, they can start to perceive taste that way.  This a form of experimenter's bias.

2) Taste buds die in reaction to heat/acid.  Areas of your mouth less used have more living tastebuds, so they can be more sensitive in general.  This could mean you taste (for instance) acid on the sides of you mouth that you couldn't notice on the tip of your tongue because the tip of your tongue has less tastebuds at that time.

3) Similar to number 2, nerves coming from one region can become desensitized to repeated stimulus.  So, if through the day you have one type of flavor more than others, more used areas of your mouth can become less sensitive to that taste.

4) Many people confuse anecdotal (personal or one-off) experience with scientific evidence.  What's true to one person doesn't prove or disprove research.  Also, if you want to believe something, it can influence your perception.

I am curious what everyone's thoughts are on this.  I did try to find research in support of the tongue map, but I couldn't find any credible scientific studies supporting it.

Is this an issue the scientific community has a consensus on, or is it being debated?  If the debate is order, how can this affect the way wine tasting is taught?  What does this mean for Riedel's marketing?

  • Stephen, you bring up many great points. Indeed, the tongue map has been debunked enough to lack empirical fact and the Court of Master Sommeliers should be teaching only of its existence as an historical frame of reference. Certain Master Sommeliers do utilize it, but generally with the caveate that it is most likely is not true and mere suggestion for learning students to explore for themselves. In general, 'tis not a standard we espouse.

    Interestingly, I found that it worked well for me when I was taught it 15 years ago only in that it made me train my mouth to focus on certain areas to sense certain flavors, which helped me gauge and form sense memory synapses all the quicker. But, you could mix the entire diagram around and achieve the same results should your brain work like mine (oy - the horror!). Of course, it may very well be confusing for others (vs. just tasting for flavors).

    All that being said, I do find physical, structural aspects definitively located in certain areas. Alcohol, acid, tannins, ethyl acetate, sulphur, etc. seem very much to me to hit specific areas of my nasal passage/mouth/throat/chest/stomach. And, in informal polling of fellow beverage professionals who are sensitive to such specific aspects in wine beyond flavors, they seem to be at least more universal than the overall tasting map of the tongue and olfactory bulb.

    The good news is, the CMS doesn't test to any kind of sense memory skills, knowing full well the individual differences. We only care that you are somewhat accurate with the final impressions ("What do you taste?" vs. "Where do you taste?") in that it will help all candidates learn the classic wines of the world that much quicker. Sorry if our Introductory Course impeded your progress by confusing you on the matter. Seems you have figured it out for yourself. Bravo!