Do wine experts and wine consumers experience wines differently? If so, perhaps consumers should exercise greater caution when considering experts’ recommendations. That is the conclusion of a recent article by John Hayes and Gary Pickering that led to much media attention—as well as cries of caveat emptor.
The article, in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, claimed that there is a higher proportion of “medium tasters” and “supertasters” among those identified as “wine experts” compared to “wine consumers.” According to the press, this was scientists telling us that wine experts, because they have different taste buds, taste such notes as grass or grapefruit that normal drinkers cannot even detect. No wonder normal drinkers cannot understand what critics are talking about when they write of a white Priorat as fat, creamy, with firm minerality and satisfying bitterness. Are they describing something we lack the tongues to discern?
As so often with the reporting of science, the facts are slightly different—and, of course, much less dramatic. Of the 331 subjects tested by Hayes and Pickering, only three were wine writers, and we are not told if they were supertasters. I suspect they weren’t. People divide into three groups: supertasters, tasters, and non-tasters; and most of us are in the middle. Supertasters do not taste things the rest of us cannot: they simply taste some things more intensely.
This is not because they have different taste buds. It’s because they have more taste buds on the tongue than the average taster, making them more sensitive to bitterness and sourness. Some also show greater susceptibility to the astringency of tannic wines and feel irritation on the gums as a result of fruit or wood tannins. All of which makes it much less fun to be a supertaster than it sounds; many of them find wine too acidic or bitter to drink with any pleasure. That’s why the term “supertaster” is therefore something of a misnomer—“hypersensitive taster” would have been more accurate—and why wine critics should not be disappointed to find out they are not supertasters but mere tasters.
The biological difference between supertasters and the rest of us may make a difference to liking or disliking of a wine, due of the intensity of the razor-like acidity in a dry Riesling, or the bitter liquorice finish of a Valpolicella Ripasso. However, many of the notes wine makers and wine critics pick out in a wine are found not by the tongue but by the nose. We have no receptors on the tongue for the grapefruit flavour of a dry Jurançon, or the grassy character of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Nor do the aromas of leather or violets arise from the tongue. In fact, when odour is prevented from reaching the nose from the mouth we cannot tell the difference between the taste of a raw apple and a raw potato.
The lessons are clear: properties like the creaminess or weight of a wine are due to touch; the subtle notes of rose, cherry, violet, or melon are due to smell; and what taste delivers is a measure of sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness (savoury and metallic tastes are in here too). How powerful a measure of these components we find in a wine may come down to biological differences on our tongues. But as tasters we have much else to go on, and much more still to discover about the complex and endlessly fascinating experience of tasting. So why not explore for yourself? Enjoy the rich variety of experience that the world of wine provides. And don’t believe everything that you read.