Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Supertasters and Wine Criticism

I was reminded recently of the idea of supertasters, roughly 25% of the population who have a higher density of taste buds on their tongue and are especially sensitive to bitterness as well as sweetness. Supposedly about 50% of all people are normal tasters, while 25% are non-tasters, though I saw the term hypotaster used as well (less stigma attached to it).

Slate columnist Mike Steinberger was tested a few years ago and wrote a column. It turned out genetically he was a non-taster, but a PROP test indicated he might be a supertaster, while another diagnostic showed he had an average number of "fungiform papillae" on his tongue. I'll take the average of the results and say he's a taster.

Jancis Robinson was given a PROP test, tasted bitterness, and it was assumed she is a super taster, though maybe she is a taster given that this PROP test is not 100% reliable. Parker claims to be a supertaster, though I don't know that there's any evidence of him being tested formally. It does seem a bit dubious given his tastes for high octane wines, though from a standpoint of aromas and taste memory it's probably not important to be a super taster. A good nose and taste memory are probably the most important tools for a critic.

Finally, I'm left with a controversial CellarTracker user, Rajiv. He always finds the smallest flaws in every wine. I'm left almost certain he's a super taster for whom every flavor is amplified almost to pain threshold, especially flavors associated with oxidation.

It makes one wonder, doesn't it? How useful is wine criticism, at least from a flavor standpoint, when taste intensity is experienced so differently by everyone. I really like cilantro, for example, but apparently some people find it tastes overwhelmingly like soap! Conversely, I cannot understand why some people love cabbage and cauliflower when to me they have a horrible sulfrous quality.


David J.D. said...

Astute points. Taste is absolutely relative and I think that when you suggest that "a good nose and taste memory" are important, you're right on the money.

There's also a pronounced psychological aspect: if you seek out flaws, you'll find flaws, if you don't you won't. Perhaps Rajiv is merely that, a "flaw" seeker.

Also, I love cauliflower. If you find it sulfurous, it's probably because where or whomever is preparing it is overcooking it. All brassicae when overcooked do, in fact release a sulfurous compound.

Relatedly, the cilantro & soap thing is probably genetic.

CabFrancoPhile said...

I definitely appreciate cauliflower much more when it is fresh or only lightly steamed. I probably am traumatized from eating overcooked cauliflower as a kid. I am always surprised by how relatively innocuous it is compared to my memory, but still it's not my favorite food.