Differences in taste and smell, and their effect on wine tasting

We’re all different. So it’s not surprising that we should have different tastes.

Still, I’m fascinated by differences in flavour perception and appreciation.

The really interesting question is how different our perceptions of flavour are, and whether these then lead on to preferences for certain wine styles.

Perception of flavour is quite complicated, because we aren’t measuring devices. It’s a conscious event in our brains, and it follows quite a bit of brain processing that we aren’t aware of, bringing together the senses of sight, touch, taste and smell, and adding in factors such as our knowledge and experience, and even our mood.

Research has shown that there are some basic biological differences among people in terms of their taste and smell abilities. There’s a large literature on marked differences in the ability to taste the bitter compounds PTC and PROP. Those who are very sensitive to PROP (hypertasters or supertasters) really don’t like bitter tastes, and seem to be more sensitive overall to taste. Conversely, there’s a group of people (non-tasters) who don’t notice bitterness so much, and like their food and drink much stronger flavoured. There’s also a new phenomenon called thermal taster status: people who ‘taste’ a change in temperature on their tongues. They seem to be more sensitive tasters.

With smell, there is also variation, with many people having specific anosmias – the inability to detect certain smells. For example, around a fifth of people don’t smell rotundone, the compound responsible for peppery smells (for example, the pepperiness of a northern Rhône Syrah).

But aside from these biological differences, we have to factor in learning. With many of the flavours we love most, we have acquired a taste for them. I used to hate cheese; now I love it. I spent time trying it even if on a hedonic level I didn’t like the taste. After a while, I gained a taste for it. Now, a strongly flavoured cheese s something I love.

There’s an evolutionary reason why we should have plastic preferences. There’s a selective advantage to being able to exploit new food sources. Gaining a taste for novel flavours is a good thing, as long as you can remember the flavour of novel foods that made you sick. It is good if you can exploit new food sources.

In our evolutionary history as hunter gatherers, there was a division of labour. The males were the hunters, and it would make sense for them to be more able to acquire novel tastes. Females would be less able to explore the flavour space, because of the possible adverse effects of toxic food exposure during pregnancy. This may explain why females generally have a more sensitive sense of taste (a higher proportion of females are supertasters).

Wine is an aesthetic system. It’s a system in which we benchmark, in order to learn what is good. So there’s a strong element of learning involved in being able to appreciate fine wine. This learning – engaging with the culture of fine wine – to some measure is able to offset biological differences. Even if we are experiencing things differently, by being able to talk about them, we reach some sort of aesthetic convergence.

So, while I think there are real differences in perception of flavour, and that this will influence wine preferences, to some extent the shared culture of fine wine will offset this. It makes it possible for us to discuss together the wines we taste, and reach some sort of consensus. All the time, though, we should remain humble in the face of wine. It is bigger than us, who all see in part.

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