Wine subtleties mostly irrelevant to consumer palates

Biology appears to play a major role in wine experts’ acute sense of taste, suggests a study from Penn State that found consumers are “taste blind” to many of the subtleties of wine. The findings indicate that expert recommendations in wine magazines may be too subtle for average wine drinkers to experience.

“What we found is that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different,” said John Hayes, assistant professor at Penn State’s sensory evaluation center. “And, if an expert’s ability to taste is different from the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations?”

The research involved two groups. The first made up of professional winemakers, wine writers and wine judges and the second being wine consumers, or non-experts.

The participants in the study sampled an odorless chemical (propylthiouracil) that is used to measure a person’s reaction to bitter tastes. People with acute tasting ability will find the chemical extremely bitter, while people with normal tasting abilities say it has a slightly bitter taste, or is tasteless. The findings, in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, show that wine experts were significantly more likely to find the chemical more bitter than non-experts.

Wine critics typically rate wines on a 100-point quality scale that incorporates a range of characteristics, including tartness, sweetness and fruitiness, varietal typicity and overall liking, among others. Their descriptions of the wines can be specific, highlighting grapefruit or grassy notes, or the balance of sugar and acid.

However, according to Hayes, average wine consumers probably cannot discern these subtle differences between wines. While prior experience matters, biology seems to play a role. “Statistically, the two groups were very different in how they tasted our bitter probe compound. Just like people can be color blind, they can also be taste blind,” said Hayes. “It’s not just learning, experts also appear to differ at a biological level.”

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Source: Penn State
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