It’s astringent! It’s an oak finish! It’s … supertaster!!

You’re recently married, going to your in-laws for the first big family meal. They’ve asked you to bring a bottle of wine.

Which one do you buy?

If you’re like most people, you’re so not an oenophile that you’re not even sure how to pronounce the word. So how do you choose?

Read reviews, of course. Trust the experts.

But what if the experts aren’t like you? New research suggests that many wine aficionados – reviewers, vintners and the like – have genetic and physiological differences that allow them to taste, smell and feel wine characteristics that most of us will never experience.

That flavour profile, that bouquet, that mouthfeel – the endless subtlety and nuance that allow  writers to fill the pages of wine-lovers’ magazines and sommeliers to ramble on about any bottle on the menu – they might not be speaking to you at all.

It’s not that the critics are making anything up. But they might be talking about experiences that are as good as imaginary for many of their readers.

Brock oenology professor Gary Pickering has been a driving force behind research into a phenomenon he reluctantly refers to as “supertasters.” (The reluctance comes from the implication that supertasters have some sort of enhanced sensory power. While supertasters do indeed experience many flavours, smells and textures more intensely, this can actually be quite limiting, reducing their tolerance for spicy, bitter or even sweet food and drink. The term was coined by a former Yale researcher in the 1970s.)

“Our lab is involved with researching ‘taste phenotypes’ and understanding how they apply to wine perception,” Pickering says. Some people seem to have quantitatively more intense wine-related experiences than others. Scientists have identified genes related to these sensations, as well as differences in the tongue structure of different types of tasters.

Pickering uses a simple test – a kind of advanced-research sorting hat – to determine what kind of taster you are. The test uses a small circle of paper impregnated with a compound called 6-n-propylthiouracil or PROP for short. When super-tasters (who comprise about a quarter of the general population) put a PROP-soaked tab on their tongue, they experience it as unbearably bitter. Non-tasters (also about a quarter) experience nothing, and medium tasters (the remaining half) taste mild bitterness.

“PROP sensitivity ends up being a useful proxy for your general taste responsiveness,” says Pickering. “That is, if I experience PROP as being very intense, I’ll also tend to experience the sweetness of sucrose, the saltiness of salt and so on more intensely.”

Additional studies have found similar correlations between PROP-sensitivity and other wine-related sensations.

“We’ll often describe the wine as tasting fruity or oaky. Of course it’s not a taste, it’s actually an odor; it’s called a ‘retro-nasal odour.’ Our lab is showing that PROP sensitivity also predicts how intensely you experience retro-nasal odour,” Pickering says. “The feel of the wine in the mouth is also an important quality perception, and we found some clear evidence that as your sensitivity to PROP goes up, your capacity to discriminate finer mouthfeel sensations also increases.”

In a subsequent study, Pickering examined the tasting phenotypes of about 1,000 people, ranging from wine pros to novices.

“We found if you are a wine expert or a wine professional, you were significantly more likely to be a supertaster than the average consumer,” he says.

Does that mean that all those genetically distinct wine reviewers should just be holding their (supertasting) tongues? The wine media sure took it that way when Pickering’s research was first published.

“Because we mentioned genetic differences, I think people thought somehow we were saying that your genes dictate whether you’re a wine expert or not, and therefore how much pleasure you’re going to derive out of wine,” he says. “Of course, this type of finding was never in the paper.”

In fact, the data leave plenty of room for individual variation – while PROP-sensitivity does predict other sensitivities, the correlations aren’t universal. And of course, any type of taster can become a wine expert – all individuals experience things differently, and no one tongue offers a more authentic or authoritative experience than another.

To bring things back to the original dilemma – Can you trust the experts to help ingratiate you to your new family? The answer is yes. You just need to be thoughtful about it.

“I think it’s okay to exercise some caution when you look at recommendations from wine professionals,” says Pickering. “That’s all I think the data would suggest. Over time, learn to recognize differences between their palate and your palate. But shall we replace them? No, not at all.”

Pickering is a scientist who finds this kind of research satisfying merely for the knowledge and insight it creates. But he also sees some interesting marketing opportunities emerging from his work.

“If we can get the funding, I’m really interested in looking at how this can be exploited in terms of wine sales. There’s no reason why we can’t segment the market in terms of taste phenotypes. How can we target supertasters with wines that they may particularly enjoy?”

PROP-sensitivity might not only lead to more targeted products, but also variations in marketing – some research from the field of evolutionary biology suggests that supertasters might actually respond differently to emotional cues as well.

“Likely, being a super-taster was extremely advantageous in terms of poison detection, when our ancestors relied primarily on vegetable diets,” Pickering says. “Plant toxins can kill us, and those toxins are almost always alkaloids. Alkaloids are almost always bitter tasting,”

It’s one thing to be able to detect bitterness, but the real survival skill is reacting to it – quickly and viscerally, spitting out the poison before it gets into your system.

“I’m very keen to collaborate with a marketer or consumer behaviour specialist who’s really interested in these sorts of connections,” he says.

Then there is yet another spur of this research he’d like to pursue – being a super-taster might also offer some defense against alcohol abuse and addiction. Pickering’s initial studies show that in general, supertasters drink less than others, possibly because the experience grows overly intense.

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