What determines your taste? Why I disagree with Tim Hanni

tim hanni vinotypes

Tim Hanni MW has become well known in the wine trade for his work on separating people into different groups according to their taste preferences. He has some interesting things to say. For example, there’s this recent interview published in Meininger’s. This isn’t the first time that consumer segmentation has been applied to wine, but Hanni goes further in terms of his claims about sensory physiology and neuroscience.

I agree with some of what Hanni says. There’s some interesting work on taste preferences, and quite a bit of interesting evidence has come to light over recent years that suggests that there are some significant biological differences that lead us as individuals to prefer certain flavours over others (there’s a discussion on this in my latest book, I Taste Red).

But it’s in his application of this research to wine that I have some problems with what Hanni has to say. And I find his recommendations to wine producers based on these findings a bit alarming.

Hanni’s main point is that people have innate taste preferences and that you can separate people according to these preferences. He suggests that by selling mostly dry wines, the wine trade is ignoring the taste preferences of those who prefer sweeter styles. His thesis is that 25-40% of wines would be sweeter styles if the wine industry recognised the real taste preferences of people.

He mentions, but is somewhat dismissive, of acquired tastes (indeed be puts the word ‘acquired’ in parentheses as if to suggest that it isn’t real). But I think this is a mistake. The fact that most of our tastes are actually acquired, not innate, is the fly in the ointment of Hanni’s thesis. It changes everything, and makes much of what he says redundant.

Our preferences are extremely malleable, for good evolutionary reasons. Innate preferences for nutritious, high calorie foods are pretty universal. But we possess the ability to acquire novel tastes. Our sense of flavour combines with our memory, allowing us to explore novel, possibly nutritious food items, and these then become new flavour preferences (the memory bit is important, because we need to reject quickly things that have made us sick in the past).

Think about some of the flavours you enjoy today. I like strong cheese, but 15 years ago I wouldn’t eat cheese at all. The cheeses are still as pungent and extreme as they were 15 years ago: it’s my response to the cheese that has changed. I now love strong cheese. When I started drinking coffee as a teenager I had it with two sugars and milk. Now if you put sugar in my coffee I would find it unpalatable. I still find espresso quite bitter and a little bit aversive, but I enjoy it. When I was a kid I used to like fast food restaurants. I admit that they can sometimes make tasty food, but I’m glad that I moved on to more challenging flavours, which are much more compelling and interesting. And with wine, I began with richer, sweetly fruited reds that were easier to understand, and moved to more interesting wines over time. Now I wouldn’t find the wines I loved at first all that interesting, and I wouldn’t want to drink them. This sort of journey is not unusual.

Most of the things I love now, when it comes to flavour, were tastes that I found challenging when I first experienced them. Experience has largely trumped biology. This is what Hanni has to say:

We are all genetically pre-programmed with attractions and aversions. Changes in preferences, from about four years old to very late in life, are largely reorganising what certain sensations represent. So, with observation, culture, peer pressure, and learning we adapt to associate things we didn’t like with aspiration or attainment – something we often refer to as an ‘acquired’ taste. We also equally associate things in a negative light, ‘disposing’ of tastes as well, such as the current hysteria over sweetness in wine for those who have become more ‘sophisticated’…

…Dry wines are the new fad (in relative terms) not the historical standard; the 1947 Château Cheval Blanc had over 30 g/L (3%) residual sugar. Most prized white Rhône wines were vins de paille – dried on mats and made into sweet wines. Countless sweet wines, including Château d’Yquem, were thought completely appropriate with fish, beef, or oysters. Montrachet, in the greatest vintages, was very sweet, not dry. Champagnes, as consumed in France, often had 140 g/L (14%) residual sugar – a lot more than American Coca Cola which has 108 g/L (10.1%) residual sugar. The global sweet wine opportunity was, and still is, about 25% to 40% of the total available market. Things have just gotten out of control with the dry wine fashionistas. And keep in mind that as wine has gone dry, consumption in France and Italy has plummeted.

Where do I start? This last sentence is just silly. To suggest that the reason behind reduced wine consumption in markets such as Italy, France and Spain is connected to the fact that wines there used to be sweet but have become drier is absurd, and that’s the clear implication to what he is saying. The reduced consumption in these markets is because of social changes, and the baseline was very high to start with. In no sense has the wine got drier in these countries. If anything, it’s got a little more palatable at the bottom end, and sweeter in terms of flavour.

In terms of the ‘genetically preprogrammed’ line, it just isn’t as simple as this. We are genetically pre-programmed, if you will, to have malleable, adaptable tastes.

Hanni seriously thinks that the fact that most wines are dry these days is a push from the wine industry rather than pull from consumers, and that ‘dry wine fashionistas’ are to blame. I disagree. There’s very little market for off-dry or sweet wines not just because they are unfashionable, but because they don’t work so well with food (although there are some notable exceptions).

Another problem is created by Hanni’s refusal to segment the market. This is a common problem in these sorts of discussions. If there is a market for sweeter wine styles, it is at the bottom end. And it’s there that the sweet blush rosés of California, and the Moscatos, are doing well already. A lot of commercial reds have a bit of sweetness, too, with some grape juice concentrate added at the blending bench. Just a bit of sweetness rounds them out and covers over some of the tannin. But this is for the most commercial wines. And there’s also a market for very expensive sweet wines (some of the wine world’s great bottles are sweet), but this market is tiny and unlikely to grow.

The fact that most wines are dry, more-or-less, is because this is what the market wants. The market for mid-price to expensive wines with significant residual sugar is precisely zero. People who pay a bit more for wine want their wines dry. The market for fully sweet wines is also tiny: this is why Sauternes is having such a hard time and so many producers are struggling, while the market for high-end dry Bordeaux wines is surging.

I think it would be a huge mistake for producers to start sweetening up their wines because this is, according to Hanni, what people prefer. Once we are away from commodity wine, sweetened-up wines are usually not authentic, interesting wines. This is not the direction the wine industry should be heading. To pander to perceived biological preferences of consumers like this takes wine into the realm of manufactured alcoholic beverages. This would be a disaster, because it would mean joining the race to the bottom in terms of pricing. Profitability is a huge issue at the bottom end of the market, and in order to escape this ruthless price competition, a wine has to have authenticity and a sense of place, and not just be a wine of style.

Wine isn’t like other drinks. You get one vintage a year. You have a big winery lying unused most of the year, waiting for vintage. It’s an expensive way to make a fruity, semi-sweet alcoholic beverage of the sort that Hanni thinks we need more of. Much better to aim at producing something more sophisticated, that has some flavour characteristics that are derived from the combination of place and grape variety. This is the way out of the race to the bottom.

23 comments to What determines your taste? Why I disagree with Tim Hanni

  • Damien

    Hmm, this is a fun one to put out there.

    If Hanni’s last sentence (in the extract) is so silly, how would you account for the tremendous rise in the popularity of Prosecco?

    Its off-dry nature and stellar rise in sales would seem to back Hanni’s point, no?

    A lovely grudge match between a plant biologist (Jamie) and an ex-chef (Hanni), one with the MW belt, the other with numerous publications belt.

    Now, what are the odds?

  • Claude Vaillancourt

    Not sure acquired taste works all the time. I hate 4-ethylphenol and brett aromas in wine since I discoverred it 12 years ago. I hate all the other aromatic deviations made by yeasts and bacterias after alcholic fermentation. I never understood the love some have for these wines. In acquired taste there is a lot of conformism toward what you should love according to some trendy experts like you.

  • Like in all arguments, there’s a bit of truth on both parts. Is nature v nurture playing a part in one’s appreciation of wine. Yes, to a point. Life is a journey that is unique to an individual, and in that journey, the individual encounters different experiences, stimuli and other life changing moments which gives that person their taste profile.
    Now we can try to box individuals into easily understood groups for marketing purposes, but this group understanding is a snapshot in time. People ‘move on’..
    Personally I believe it’s all down to education and having an open mind to understand that we live in a complex world, and that there’s a lot of different wines being produced in areas of the world, once considered questionable-China giving one example that are producing excellent wines in many styles that may or may not catch on.

  • Jamie – your misunderstandings and misrepresentations of my work is so far off base i do not even know where to start. If you would ever like to have a direct conversation (and glad to open to others) i would be delighted to set up a Zoom webinar session and discuss the issues you raise. FYI, on the ‘acquired’ taste front (it is also confusing in that it is generally using the word ‘taste’ in an aesthetic context and includes adaptations to things someone smells, touches, hears and sees over time), I am only pointing out that is a neural plasticity phenomenon (and we also ‘dispose’ of tastes) and plays a very important role in preferences forming. The key thing is we are looking at modern neuroscience and psychology behind the loose terminology and gross misunderstandings that have been bandied about for decades. Let me know if you would like to learn more about the work I am doing rather just sniping and taking misinformed pot shots. I have time next week if you would like to discuss! I would be delighted to share and invite others as well.

  • Tim, I’m not trying to mis-represent your work. I’ve tried to be very careful not to. But you do make some extraordinary claims, and use provocative language (the dry wine fashionista bit, for example). This is an area I’ve written a book about, so while I’m not an academic in the field, it is a subject area that I’ve thought about widely and deeply. I’d welcome a discussion on this matter – you could always start here by explaining why you think the declining consumption of wine in Italy and France is because wines have got drier. I just don’t see that.

  • John Koopmans

    Interesting articles.

    A day or two serving or observing in a tasting shop frequented by consumers from all “walks of life” can give a person some real insight into peoples preferences.
    Regardless of the science behind the reasoning’s in both theories our observations are that a bit of sweetness goes a long way in selling wine.

    Regarding consumption declining in France and Italy it may be related to government initiatives against alcohol consumption (France) and the younger generation working with hard lemonade and such.

    Cheers

    John Koopmans

  • 1. Bring those semi-sweets to Romanian market! Success guaranteed :)
    2. What about Port, which is down 50% in the last ten yrs?

  • Donna

    Dear Jamie what are these social changes of which you speak…

    such as Italy, France and Spain is connected to the fact that wines there used to be sweet but have become drier is absurd, and that’s the clear implication to what he is saying. The reduced consumption in these markets is because of social changes, and the baseline was very high to start with. In no sense has the wine got drier in these countries.

  • As the other half of the Meininger’s interview to which you refer, I guess I should respond. I do not, as it happens, disagree with the points you make regarding acquired taste/ Italians are groomed from childhood to accept and possibly – though not necessarily always enjoy bitterness in foods and drinks that would be unacceptable to most Britons and Americans. In the last two countries, however people are ‘learning’ to enjoy the bitterness of IPA thanks to craft ales.
    However, these are a minority of the population.
    Your point, that “There’s very little market for off-dry or sweet wines not just because they are unfashionable, but because they don’t work so well with food (although there are some notable exceptions).” goes directly against the daily experience the US wine industry – currently the most profitable in the world. Re blends such as Apothic and Menage a Trois currently represent the second fastest growing category in the US market, at prices of up to $15/bottle – and residual sugar levels of up to 15g/l
    The trend is less visible in the UK, thanks in part to UK professionals preferring not to sell these kinds of wines, but Apothic and Yellow Tail sell very nicely thank you – as does Laithwaites’ Black Stump.
    Jamie, you and others like to draw attention to the popularity of zero dosage Champagne. Look at most Duty Free outlets (an important showcase for the sector) and what you will see piled high are recently-launched sweet styles such as Moet & Chandon Ice.
    I agree with you that the link between falling French wine consumption and the ‘drying’ of French wine is weak. But… the link between the explosion of the market for sweet fruit-flavoured wine cocktails in France and the halt in that decline is far easier to establish. France is also now buying more rosé in supermarkets than white, and lots of that pink wine is a lot fruitier and sweeter than the Provence the chatterati like to focus their attention on.

    The theory of acquired tastes sits alongside the theory that humans ‘grow into’ classical music and great literature. It’s a nice idea but that’s not what necessarily happens.
    The first President Bush famously revealed that he’d never developed a taste for broccoli, and as president, he’d never have to do so. Obama apparently had more sophisticated tastes, but there is no evidence of his successor enjoying anything classier than a steak and ketchup.
    Jamie, there will be Champagne houses who do well out of selling the kind of bone dry fizz you like, and big name Champagne houses making money out of frankly sweet Champagne.
    Tim Hanni’s Vinotype may be a blunt tool, but it’s a lot more use than personal ideas of what/how people ‘ought’ to behave and think.

  • Jamie,

    Let’s look at the US market alone. What trends have we seen over the past few years:

    Moscato ‘took the market by storm’ a few years back, and these were far from dry . . .

    Red blends are huge now, wines like The Prisoner that have tons of residual sugar in them.

    Roses are ‘hot’, and many of the ‘mass market’ ones that are actually helping to fuel growth in the category in the US are far from dry.

    There is no doubt that the general adage of ‘talk dry but drink sweet’ applies to a vast majority of the ‘general public’, and the ‘wine geek’ segment, which may prefer dry wines except with their rieslings, for instance, makes up the ‘micro-minority’ . . .

    Cheers.

  • Larry, the key word in your piece is trend. We’ve seen them before and will continue to see then going forward. The “micro minority” in most endeavors drives the market and will continue to do so. Wine is no different. Ask yourself: why doesn’t the sweet wine crowd seek out blackberry or raspberry wine or any other fruit-based wine? They are sweet by nature and can be quite good.

    I believe it’s because wine made from grapes is aspirational and the nuances it highlights are real and compelling. It has an ability to translate place and time and is inherently thought provoking and intellectually interesting. People want a part of that and that’’s a good thing. I want my leaders to lead and not to follow trends.

    The sweet palate is already being served in the market by the manufactured, confected wines of the super market aisle. I’m not sure why Tim is so strident about this issue. Where is the shortage? Who’s clamoring for more sweet wine except Tim? People actually want to understand wine on a higher level and that’s where people like Jamie come in. If they are super tasters and can’t abide certain qualities in a dry wine then so be it. Adapt or switch.

    In the end there is a niche for the intolerant segment much like the gluten free world survives at a modified, perhaps less interesting, level.

  • Dennis: “Wine made from grapes is aspirational”

    SOME wine made from grapes is aspirational. MOST wine is – and has always been, since the days when it was sold direct from the barrel, and the days I recall in the 1970s when most wine in France was bought in returnable, litre-bottles priced by their alcoholic degree, a DRINK.

    The French used to imbibe two litres per person per day. Many of them started at breakfast time.

    NO “People DON’T actually want to understand wine on a higher level”

    SOME people want that. There is zero evidence that the millions of people who buy and happily enjoy Barefoot andJP Chenet want anything more than a pleasant, alcoholic beverage.

    Translate your elitist attitude to food and McDonalds wouldn’t exist. But it does. And flourishes.

  • PS Dennis. how do you define trend?

    Would your definition include the switch from Entre Deux Mers being almost uniformly medium sweet + Semillon based to dry and Sauvignon?

  • There is a lot more to this … genetics, psychology, education, social pressure, semantic confusion, sensory misinterpretation.

    Lots more details, a number of scientific studies and other relevant observations at: Recommendation Insights (http://recommendationinsights.com/)

  • Fascinating that none of my replies are showing up for the past 3 days. Am I being blocked?

  • John A Stallcup

    I employ Tim’s methods everyday and have for over half a decade with thousands of humans from all over the world who visit tasting rooms in California’s wine country. I track the results and note, the age, sex and where people are from around the world. Tim’s work applied to the real world of tasting room visitors has a reliability and validity if it were a batting average of about 980. I like to remind people that it is not genetically adaptive to eat poison and poisons are bitter. So having a low threshold of rejection for bitter compounds is a genetic advantage over those who are not sensitive to bitterness. I have never met a taste of coffee/tea/diet soft drink hating, salt loving, label cutting, bright light/loud noise avoiding person ever liking a dry red wine. I’m sure there must be one or two out there somewhere, But having poured wine for thousands of people and always inquiring about their taste preferences I haven’t met them yet.

  • Ron Saikowski

    One thing I know about human nature and tendencies is that they never follow strict rules. However, Tim Hanni’s generalizations based on years of documented observances come as close to being accurate as anyone as ever achieved to being accurate. I have never understood why so many winemakers expect you to enjoy high alcohol wines with foods.

  • 40% of the wine consumed in America already IS sweet. Add the total production of Barefoot, Gallo, Kendal Jackson’s lower tiers, Woodbridge, etc. etc. and you’ll get a significant double digit percentage of all the wine consumed in America, and most of it has RS.

  • Fascinating discussion. I do think that many people like / prefer / may prefer sweetish wines but those who know something about wine feel that they should shun them, as they are unsophisticated.

    Here in Spain, the declining wine consumption is due to many factors, probably the biggest factor is that it is seen as unsophisticated peasant-fare from another era and it’s cooler to drink spirits / beer. I wonder about sweetness though. Many young Spaniards share a bottle of spirits let down with fruit juice / coca cola etc. and it’s also not unusual to see simple red wines let-down with “Gaseosa” (lemondade) across the country.

  • No Tim, once you have had one comment approved they no longer require me to approve them, although I do have the power to remove comments if they are inappropriate once they have been posted. In this case, it’s likely you haven’t entered them properly.

  • I disagree. We are aversive to bitter flavours, but we can learn to like them if they are safe. In evolutionary terms, hypersensitivity to bitter might be a disadvantage because it would make it harder to exploit new food sources.

  • So let me get it right.

    Mr Hanni said that “He suggests that by selling mostly dry wines, the wine trade is ignoring the taste preferences of those who prefer sweeter styles”. There are many sweet wines in the market, don’t know the percentages. He is advising producers to increase the production of their sweet wines cause this is the trend, or peoples needs, what basically did the soft drink companies, since sugar addictive. hence make more $$$$$$$$

    I ALSO DISAGREE WITH MR HANNI, because with all the respect to Mr Hanni we can’t always look at the needs of people and what’s the easiest way to make money, because to me this is what seems to be all about. We produce, or work in what we believe and adore at least for us.
    When producing leaving things, with a life span of 1, 2, 5 up to 40 & 50 years then we should follow it for the love of the game.

    Because as Josko Gravner said once “one day we will wake up and not be that happy of what we have been doing so long”

  • Georgios Hadjistylianou – BTW, “Mr Hanni said that “He suggests that by selling mostly dry wines, the wine trade is ignoring the taste preferences of those who prefer sweeter styles” is what Jamie says I said taken out of context with a much larger set of insights and data. he, and others on this thread, seem to be fine with commenting with no hint of trying accurately determine by position or what I do. Welcome to the group!

    French Champagne has been clearly shown to have more sugar added that Coca-Cola. “There are many sweet wines in the market, don’t know the percentages. He is advising producers to increase the production of their sweet wines cause this is the trend, or peoples needs, what basically did the soft drink companies, since sugar addictive,” is a statement that ignores the history and traditions of wine.

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