We Make too Much of Individual Variations in Taste

super tastersBob on Sonoma, in a blog post entitled “Science Says No Two People Taste the Same Wine,” links to some of the science showing that individuals differ in the functionality of taste and smell mechanisms. But the broad conclusion he draws from this, suggested by his title, is unwarranted. In general, it’s starting to become an article faith that each individual is so unique in their ability to detect flavor and aroma compounds that it’s pointless to talk about what a wine tastes like.

But I don’t think the science shows that at all.

I don’t want to get mired in interpreting the results of the studies he links to (here and here), one of which is almost 20 yrs. old. But both studies simply point out that there is lots of variation among individuals regarding genotypes that control aroma and taste perception. Neither study has much to say about phenotypes—the actual flavors and aromas people experience–except for the widely reported differences regarding the perception of bitterness associated with our sensitivity to 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP). Science does show that there are super-tasters who are very sensitive to PROP and thus react strongly to tannins. There are non-tasters who have a significantly reduced sensitivity to PROP and won’t mind a young Aglianico, and medium tasters who fall in the middle. It was estimated in 1998 that about 25% of the population are super-tasters and 25% are non-tasters leaving the majority happily normal.

But there is a lot we don’t know. For instance, we don’t know the degree to which cultural differences, training, and experience influence our sensitivity to these compounds.

More importantly, discussions about variations in flavor and aroma perception seldom focus on the fact that most people will fall within the range of normal. Yes there are individual differences but only at the far ends of the bell curve will these differences matter much.

If it were really true that no two people taste the same wine, establishing typicity for wine regions and varietals would be impossible. The vast majority of people with sufficient experience can recognize that Chianti has a sour cherry aroma. Pinot Noir tends to taste of strawberry or cranberry. Some aged Riesling smells of diesel fuel, Sauternes smells of apricots, etc. How did we arrive at these generalizations if there is nothing shared about our perceptions.

If no two people taste the same wine how does anyone pass a tasting exam?

It’s important for each of us to realize that there are many people who will taste a wine differently. And Bob is certainly right that lengthy lists of esoteric aroma descriptors are not helpful.

But we’re in danger of over-interpreting the variations that science discovers.

2 comments

  1. “More importantly, discussions about variations in flavor and aroma perception seldom focus on the fact that most people will fall within the range of normal. Yes there are individual differences but only at the far ends of the bell curve will these differences matter much.”

    Ah, Dwight. But you don’t have any documentation to support this statement. Because this is, to a large extent, uncharted territory. We don’t know how much these difference make in perception, and we don’t know the distribution outliers.

    It is also quite possible that wine education, by demanding that students recognize certain aromas or flavors, categorically excludes those who cannot perceive them. Wine appreciation may do the same–many people who “don’t like wine” simply taste things they find unpleasant in wine. And we tell them that they are wrong. The students who taste what the teacher tastes pass the course. The students who taste something different fail, or drop the course. And then we congratulate those that pass–because they are truly smart and gifted.

    Or at least, agree with the teacher.

    1. Hi Paul,
      It is uncharted territory with regard to taste but most human characteristics roughly fit a bell curve. It’s going to be exceedingly odd if taste turns out to be a series of single factor on-off switches. Almost all complex traits have multiple causal factors that fall within ranges under various conditions and traits like that will approximate a bell curve.
      And sure it’s possible that wine education selects people with certain capacities and not others. All education does that. And obviously there are people who don’t like wine. That may well have to do with genetic predispositions. But within the group that pass exams or learn to appreciate wine there is nevertheless enormous variation. There doesn’t appear to be some kind of narrow selection going on.
      Until we figure out how plastic and educable taste is we can’t assess the degree to which biological variation rigidly determines what we can taste.

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