The same white wine can seem fine to one person and too acidic to another. Why?by Barry Smith / October 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Do we live in different taste worlds? You find a white wine unbearably acidic and I find it balanced. The reason may be that you are a so-called “supertaster,” which means that you have more papillae on the tongue than other people. You react more quickly, and negatively, to acidity, bitterness and astringency, all qualities we find in wines. Our reactions can make us wonder whether we have, not just different preferences, but different perceptions of tastes.
About 25 per cent of the population in the west are supertasters. At the other end of the scale are so-called non-tasters, another 25 per cent of people, who have widely-spread papillae and can tolerate high doses of salt and sugar and find acidity and bitterness less aversive. Although the term supertaster suggests great proficiency in discrimination and enhanced eating sensations, it’s not a blessing. Supertasters are often fussy eaters and over-sensitive tasters. When it comes to wine, they tend to find white wines acidic and red wines bitter. Of course, it is a sliding scale, with some supertasters so acutely sensitive to bitterness or acidity that many foods and wines are ruled out, while extreme non-tasters are those for whom no dish is too sweet or too salty. They’ll take five sugars in their tea.
When confronted with the term, most wine critics thought they must be supertasters, and were disappointed to learn that they were not so high up the scale. However, it should be clear by now that they couldn’t perform the tasks they do if they were.
Testing for where people are on the supertaster scale is usually done by assessing their sensitivity to substances like PROP (6-n-propylthiouracil) or PTC (phenylthiocarbamide). People can find them anything from extremely bitter to tasteless. Though the most reliable way of spotting a supertaster is to count the papillae on the tongue. Their distribution is genetically determined and affects how intensely we taste tastes. Is that bound to affect our liking of a wine?
Not necessarily. I’ve written before about the study by John Hayes and Gary Pickering who claim there is a higher percentage of medium-tasters and supertasters among wine experts than among consumers, and that the latter should beware recommendations by the former. But Pickering was clear that much of the difference was due to experience, something consumers could in principle acquire. The researchers merely wanted to point out that the appreciation of wine involves both biology and culture. If so, how do we tease these factors apart?