On raw tasting ability: is there a Messi of wine tasting?

wine science

On raw tasting ability: is there a Messi of wine tasting?

As a Manchester City fan, it was a little uncomfortable watching last night’s game against Barcelona. The Catalans were much the better team, and had it not been for the heroics of Joe Hart, the City goalkeeper, the scoreline could have been a lot worse than the 1-0 it ended up as. Lionel Messi, one of a scary Barcelona front three, was just a genius. There’s perhaps only one other player in world football who is in his league.

Messi’s talent is something he was born with. If you could coach this talent, then because of the value of a player like this, there would be incredible resources directed towards producing new Messis. Certainly, good coaching is needed to produce the finished article, but without the raw talent in the first place – and at Messi’s level this is clearly incredibly rare – you won’t get there.

This raises an interesting question. Are some wine tasters simply better than others by means of raw talent? Do some wine critics have an innate gift that sets them apart from others? Or are those of us who taste wine and write about it all more or less in the same boat with regard to raw tasting ability? Is wine tasting about experience and intelligence in interpreting and applying the information we get from our palates? Could most people become effective wine critics given the right aptitude and experience, aside from any innate tasting gift?

I was prompted to ask these questions by a comment on a post I made on when critics disagree a few years ago. Neal Martin of The Wine Advocate commented: ‘The probability is that the most gifted taster in the world might have no interest, nor have ever have tasted a single wine.’ This suggests that Neal thinks that being a great wine taster relies on innate ability, in the sense that just as there may be an undiscovered Messi out there who has never tried playing football, there might be a supremely gifted taster who has never had a chance to taste wine.

But what would such a gift consist of? Are some people naturally endowed with incredible palates? The top critics seem to quite like this idea, because it makes them unchallengeable. ‘I have a gift,’ they might say. ‘To me, the ability to understand and rate a wine comes naturally. I was born with it.’ If they are cast as rare geniuses who can lead us to the ‘best’ wines, then their talent becomes highly marketable. It’s also pretty much unchallengable: which critic would subject themselves to the likes of the Australian Wine Research Institute’s AWAC, where palate abilities are measured and fed back to participants?

Let’s look a little at the individual differences in flavour perception.

There is, of course, the distinction between hypertasters (also known as supertasters) and non-tasters. This relates to the ability to taste specific bitter compounds, and it’s quite a controversial field. Some people are more sensitive to these bitter compounds (notably propylthiouracil, PROP), and it is said by some psychophysicists that these people live in an enhanced taste world where all taste sensations are more intense. It seems that the different PROP taster status groups have more or less foliate papillae on their tongues which would account for this observation, but the relationship isn’t totally clear. There’s a really good discussion of this in an article in Contemporary Aesthetics which looks at whether supertasters would make ideal critics.

Then we have the thermal taster status, a more recently discovered phenomenon where certain individuals have a phantom taste with a change in temperature on their tongues. This doesn’t correlate with PROP taster status. Interestingly, there seem to be a number of different individual differences in oral sensation across individuals that may be independent of PROP taster status, but these haven’t been well researched.

One thing that no one seems to talk about is salivary flow rates. These differ across individuals, and saliva has a key role in the mouthfeel of red wines and, in particular, in the sensation of astringency. People with low and high flow rate experience astringency more intensely than people with medium flow rate.

Then we have smell. In Patrick Süskind’s best selling novel Perfume, set in 18th century France, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born into poverty but possesses a remarkable talent: he can smell better than anyone else. Much better. Grenouille finds his vocation, creating wonderful scents. But he knows he is missing a magic ingredient, and to find this he embarks on a grisly, murderous quest. It’s an interesting idea: are some people just so much better at smelling that others they inhabit a different world? For most of us the sense of smell is imprecise and somehow incomplete. It’s a sense that has the ability to communicate in a very direct and raw way with our emotions, but much of the time it is strangely muted. I know from walking my dog that there is a whole world of olfactory sensations out there, which, to us humans, is out of our reach. The idea that someone could inhabit that world is a really interesting one. Is there a wine tasting Grenouille?

It’s clear that we all have different sets of olfactory receptors, and this means that some people can hardly smell particular chemicals while others are very sensitive to them. A great example is rotundone. In general, though, unless your sense of smell is diminished by illness or old age (smell does fall off with age, much more so than taste), it doesn’t seem that overall there are massive differences among individuals across all odours. But there are certainly individual differences: for some brett is more of a problem than others, and some people aren’t good at spotting cork taint, even though they might be very good tasters.

The flavour of wine is, of course, a combination of taste, smell, vision, touch and hearing. But our learning, expectations and context all feed into our perceptions directly, outside our own conscious control. Because of this, I don’t think that being a talented wine critic is something innate. It may well be that those who are drawn to wine as a career are self-selected because they gain particular pleasure from flavour, but the large part of being a good critic is using intelligence and working hard to gain the right experience, and then being able to make the right calls about individual wines, and communicate this effectively. Having a good memory for taste and smells is probably also an important contributor.

It’s an interesting topic and there’s a lot more to be said about it. I haven’t even mentioned ‘liking’, and the way that we can grow to love flavours that we initially find repellent or distasteful, which shows that we can over-ride our biology. If we are going to discuss wine tasting practically and intelligently we need to consider all these issues.

There is, I suspect, no Messi of wine tasting.

UPDATED (December 2015): there’s support from this argument from studies that have looked at expert versus novice wine tasters. It turns out that the experts don’t have greater perceptual ability. Instead, their expertise is ‘top-down’, in that they have better memory for tastes and smells, are better able to describe these sensations in words, and have better cognitive strategies for dealing with wine tasting situations. This is reassuring for those starting out in wine appreciation: there’s every chance that  your physical apparatus won’t limit you in your learning to taste. It’s a question of developing a vocabulary and a memory for the flavours you encounter.

13 Comments on On raw tasting ability: is there a Messi of wine tasting?Tagged
wine journalist and flavour obsessive

13 thoughts on “On raw tasting ability: is there a Messi of wine tasting?

  1. As long as the purpose of tasting is to describe a wine to other people, being particularly good at detecting very elusive aromas and nuances that most people would miss would be a problem that would need to be solved with training and experience. Otherwise that hypothetical gifted taster would be describing something the rest of us would not recognize.

    On the other hand, maybe it could be useful for winemakers. Particularly for those who have to master the art of blending to achieve a brand style year after year.

    Before asking if there is a “best taster” maybe we should also consider “best for what purpose?”.

  2. Here are some studies that examine Saliva and sensory evaluation.

    Why Do Wines Taste Bitter and Feel Astringent?

    Salivary Protein Profiles and Sensitivity to the Bitter Taste: http://chemse.oxfordjournals.org/content/37/1/87.short

    Saliva Characteristics and Individual Sensitivity to Phenolic Astringent Stimuli

    Potential for rapid classification of saliva flow during panel screening.

  3. Of course, Brokesy
    Tony – thanks for those references
    Man in Blacl – great point. yes, you’d be a very useful winemaker but a lousy critic with these special abilities.

  4. Great post and interesting links to articles that I had not come across before. Being more adapt at identifying different aromas or remembering them may be a natural aptitude up to a certain point, but this does not automatically make you a good critic. I often have difficult with the claim that someone is a good critic because he or she is a good taster. I am not a genius when it comes to blind tasting far from it. There are a lot of aromas that I simply cannot remember. What I lack in blind tasting skills though can be compensated for a large part by being articulate about wine.

    You can taste a thousand wines and rate all of them individually but I do not think that this is enough to be a good critic or wine writer. You need to be able to make precise recommendations, to identify a wine that needs some time, or a wine that would great with food. Identifying aromas can be of great use in this but to me it is a secondary concern. Tell me something about the sensation of the wine, the structure and the possibilities and you will be far more likely to keep my interest instead of listing all possible flowers you encounter in a wine.

  5. I think Man in Black hit the nail on the head: “best for what purpose?”

    There are certain basic abilities a good critic should have, but more fundamentally being a good critic is about connecting with an audience. If a given individual is somewhat off in their own world with regard to taste, they will experience wines in a different way than most, and thus be unlikely to connect; unlikely to be useful in the role of critic; although perhaps some find a niche, but again it’s about connecting to an audience.

    If you enjoy tannic wines, do you really want a hypertaster giving you buying advice? They are unlikely to enjoy the same style of wines. But if you find tannin difficult, then perhaps you are a hypertaster yourself, and thus a hypertaster critic might be the one for you. Of course, most of us don’t know if we are a hypertaster, a regular taster, or a hypotaster, so we just rely on the tried and tested method of reading different critics and over time finding which ones seem to align with our own tastes best.

    While Messi would be a great soccer player in any club in any league, the same generalisability simply isn’t true of wine critics – no one critic could ever connect with every wine drinker.

  6. I would put forward the name of Simon Grant, a gifted amateur found on wine-pages.com/forum Writes brilliant notes,seemingly without any effort,and posts the detailed notes within an hour or so of the event—normally a lunch/dinner in which numerous wines are drunk.
    Just amazing

  7. It has been mentioned above but one of the boring but necessary things to have is the ability to mentally catalogue so that you can put what you have in front of you in context. Over the years if I come across an aroma or sensation that’s new I will consciously try to remember it. When my partner Laura and I taste bulk she has a much sharper palate ( aren’t women statistically better? ) But, I will more likely be able to picture the previous vintage at the same stage in its development. She’s the Messi, I’m the Makelele.

  8. I’d like to start from another question: What’s the aim of wine tasting? It depends.
    Being a winemaker is different from being a wine critic and different from being a sommelier who wants to win a price being able to recognize a wine tasted blind.
    Being a good wine taster, for me, deals much more with culture than with nature. There are sommelier able to discover every wine blind but totally uncapable to describe it (i’m forcing the concept) or to explain why this is better or worst than that, due to absence of language abilities, ethics and so on. Looking at them is funny but often useless, i fear. There’re gifted tasters, surely, but confusing those who recognize wines with those who understand it is as much frequent as wrong, i think.

  9. Interesting article Jamie, it’s an issue I have been contemplating recently. Mark is surely correct in that a critic needs to be able to communicate effectively his/her thoughts. A taster could be someone who simply does so for their own pleasure.
    Nice links thank you Tony.

  10. I made the test with PROP and I was strongly positive. Never tasted something as bitter as that. I don’t know if I am a better taster because of that, but I know I hate wines with microbial deviations (brett, high VA, etc…), and I have a hard time understanding those who likes these wines.

  11. I came to wine by stumbling into vineyard work, gradually developing an interest in wine, working in wine retail and taking sommelier courses. Eventually, I decided to and go back to school for winemaking. As an assistant winemaker who has had plenty of opportunity to taste with winemakers, many of whom do not have an extensive background in wine appreciation prior to embarking on a winemaking career, I feel that tasting with winemakers is a trying experience. They generally do not approach wine with an open mind and an accepting attitude. They are generally very skilled at detecting and determining which components are high/low/out of place, but there is often a lack of big picture vision and their assessment of overall quality is suspect, in my opinion. I feel like it is like looking at a beautiful person with a plastic surgeon who can only see the features that they would like to change… Of course there are the exceptions, which I hope to be counted amongst when I eventually get a head winemaking job!!

  12. Language is paramount in all this. What use are highly sensitive taste buds if you do not have the words to translate the sensations into? One piece of indirect evidence for this: the success rate for MW exams is far lower for non-native speakers of English. Besides, if you look at tasting notes of the same wine by different expert tasters, they might agree on the structural descriptors (acidity-tannins-alcohol, balance, etc.), but the aromas encountered vary wildly.

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