If you've ever taken a wine class, there a good chance you've seen this map of the tongue. Wine experts love to talk about which areas of the tongue can taste sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. But the truth is, the taste map is a total fallacy. Scientists have known the taste map is wrong for quite some time now, but for some reason the myth persists in the wine world. Wine people, it's time we woke up and kept up with science from the 1970's! Please, lets stop confusing people with all this useless pseudo-scientific dribble that doesn't even make sense when you try to demonstrate it.
For example, the taste map says that you can only taste sugar on the tip of your tongue. Iif you stick sugar on the back of your tongue without letting it touch the tip, how come you can still taste sweetness? When I took classes at the WSET certified International Wine Center, at that point they preached this stuff like it was the gospel (Just so you know, they don't teach it anymore because they do now know it's not true). We were supposed to feel a tingle on the tips of our tongue when we tasted the sugar, because supposedly all the taste buds that perceive sugar are concentrated there. When none of us really felt anything, we were told that was normal for Americans, because we eat so much sugar that our tongues are numb to the effect. Try it in Japan however, they told us, and people will freak out at the new-found tingling effect. Sounds pretty good right? I certainly bought it. I've heard veteran sommeliers discuss the map. And once I went to an American Sommelier Association presented cigar seminar at Davidoff of Geneva and they busted out the good old taste map. I always had a hard time sensing the different tastes in different areas, but I just chalked that up to my inexperienced palate at the time.
So where did this myth come from exactly? It seems that the original research was done by a German scientist named D.P. Hanig in 1901. He was trying to understand taste, so he designed an experiment to measure the sensitivities of tongue in certain areas to different tastes. He have his volunteers things to taste, and mapped out the areas of the tongue that responded the most to each taste. Then later, in 1942, a Harvard scientist named Edwin Boring used Hanig's research to plot a graph of these sensitivities. It seems that the tongue does have a very slight concentration of tastes in certain areas, so the tip of the tongue does sense slightly more sweetness than the rest. People saw this graph, and for some reason took it to mean that the tip was the only place that could sense sweetness, thus the taste map was born. Then in 1974, Virginia Collings came along and re-examined the data. She realized that while there were concentrations in some areas, all areas of the tongue could still taste each of the 4 primary tastes. The difference in sensitivity to sweetness in the tip of the tongue compared to the rest of the tongue is, in fact, negligible.
So if scientists have known this since 1974, what's taking us wine folks so long? I personally feel like wine snobs love having something complex and vague to hold over less knowledgeable folks heads to ensure their own superiority. But maybe that's being a bit conspiratorially minded of me. I guess wine people just aren't that into science. But we love to talk about the science of vinification, fermentation, and such things. It just seems like we've lagged behind on the science of taste. Apparently there are really 5 tastes, and possibly even 6, when you add Umami (the savory taste of glutamate, like in MSG) and perhaps the taste of fat. Ever see that in a wine text book? I bet not.
In the interest of science, I'm going to list a bunch of sources to prove that the taste map should be abolished from wine education. Spread the word, down with the taste map! Here's a wikipedia article talking generally about the taste map. I know, you're thinking Wikipedia, that's not an authoritative source! But it cites this article from livescience.com, and this one from Scientific American. Still not convinced? Well, maybe you should head on down to the library and look up Collings\' original research paper, titled Human taste response as a function of location of stimulation on the tongue and soft palate. In the meantime, here's a very sciencey document discussing the reasons for the persistance of the myth, to tide you over.