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wine studentI often here it said that people differ radically in their sensitivity to the chemicals found in wine. Either you have the natural ability to sense them or you don’t and if you don’t you’re out of luck. This is usually accompanied by the claim that our abilities differ so much that  any consensus about what a wine tastes like is illusory. But there is little evidence that this is true. It is true that some people are more sensitive to certain odors than others but evaluating a wine is seldom about detecting single molecules. Wine involves hundreds of  molecules that interact in complex ways which is not captured by measuring individual thresholds.

In most of the studies that I’m aware of there is no difference in olfactory thresholds between wine experts and novices. There are of course super tasters who can taste particular molecules in very small quantities but that usually has to do with the detection of bitterness. To supertasters the alcohol and tannins in wine are a source of bitterness and will be unpleasant. Thus, being a supertaster confers no advantage on a wine taster and may be a serious disadvantage.

Each of us is probably deficient at smelling some aroma or other—we don’t share the same package of olfactory receptors. And some deficiencies could be serious, meaning that a small minority of people just may not be very good at wine tasting. But the vast majority of people will fall into a range of normal with minor differences and there is no evidence that good wine tasters are good because they are physiologically different from the rest of us.

What distinguishes an expert from a novice, then, is not physiology but experience. If you are able to compare a present aroma or pattern of aromas to a previous experience those aromas will seem sharply delineated. If you lack that previous experience the present aroma will seem vague and difficult to sense. To become a competent wine taster you don’t have to get better at smelling; instead you have to build up a storehouse of aroma and taste memories and gain a knowledge of the types of aromas typically found in wine so you can properly label them.

In other words, to get better at wine tasting, read more and drink more.

What’s not to like.

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