In the same way that wines differ hugely depending on a number of variables, an international team of researchers has highlighted the significant differences between a wine expert’s palate and that of the ordinary wine drinker. A wine expert’s acute sense of taste may therefore mean that his or her ratings and recommendations may be totally irrelevant to wine consumers who were not born with the ability to discern small differences in a broad range of tastes. “What we found is that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different,” said John Hayes, assistant professor, food science, and director of Penn State’s sensory evaluation center. “And, if an expert’s ability to taste is different from the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations?” The researchers used an odourless chemical – propylthiouracil – to measure people’s reaction to bitter tastes. People with acute tasting ability will find the chemical extremely bitter, while people with normal tasting abilities say it has a slightly bitter taste, or is tasteless. The researchers said that wine experts were significantly more likely to find the chemical bitterer than non-experts. “Just like people can be colour blind, they can also be taste blind,” said Hayes who worked with scientists from Brock University in Ontario, Canada.
Amongst other findings, the researchers also ascertained that people who were more adventurous in trying new foods were also more willing to drink new types of wines and alcoholic beverages, but this food adventurousness did not necessarily predict wine expertise. Conversely, while wine experts were more likely to try new wines and alcoholic beverages, they were not more likely to try new foods.
Although wine scores and recommendations may flatter the wine buff’s ego, the chances are that his or her biological make-up may be a barrier to a true understanding of extremely specific wine descriptors used by experts. In fact, Hayes goes as far as to suggest that experts may be drawn to the wine industry because of their enhanced ability to taste wines. Obviously learning and experience play a significant part in a wine taster’s expertise, but the research seems to suggest that the capacity to discern small differences in wine may well be innate. “It’s not just learning,” said Hayes. “Experts also appear to differ at a biological level.”