Most Of Us Just Can't Taste The Nuances In High-Priced Wines

Mar 6, 2012
Originally published on March 7, 2012 3:18 pm

Have you ever splurged on a highly rated bottle of Burgundy or pinot noir, only to wonder whether a $10 or $15 bottle of red would have been just as good? The answer may depend on your biology.

A new study by researchers at Penn State and Brock University in Canada finds that when it comes to appreciating the subtleties of wine, experts can taste things many of us can't. "What we found is that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different," says John Hayes of Penn State.

So what explains this? Part of it has to do with training and experience. But our ability to identify nuances in wine is also influenced by physiology in our mouths and brains.

"We evaluated hundreds of wine drinkers," says Hayes, by having them sample/taste a chemical that measures their reaction to bitter tastes. He found that wine experts — people such as wine writers, winemakers and wine retailers — were about 40 percent more sensitive to the bitterness than casual consumers of wine. They have a more acute sense of taste.

Hayes says his findings fit with prior research on so-called supertasters — people who are more sensitive to the sweetness of sugar, the sting of chili peppers and the saltiness of chips.

The experts I reached out to are not convinced that "biology" is as deterministic as the research may suggest. "There may be some people who are gifted tasters," Dave McIntyre, who writes about wine for The Washington Post, wrote to me in an email. "But I think it's mostly experience."

He says he's taken the time and made the effort to taste many, many wines. "If you taste enough Cabernet Sauvignon you'll learn to tell it from Merlot," MacIntyre says. And over time, if you pay attention, he says he thinks most people will heighten their ability to detect nuances.

But for those of us who are not inclined to invest a lot of time in wine-tasting, should we pay attention to those wine reviewers' ratings and scores?

A 90-point rating may tell us that an expert thinks the wine is a good choice. And the higher the point rating, the higher the price point. But what if the critics' palates are not in sync with ours?

"Wine shopping can be confusing and overwhelming," Katherine Cole, a wine writer in Portland, wrote to us. She says to some extent, the point ratings can help us narrow our choices. When you spot a bottle in your price range, and you see one of those "shelf talkers" (the term she uses to describe those little tabs affixed to store shelves) that tout a 90-point rating (on a 100-point scale), it can make the decision easier. "Oh, Wine & Spirits magazine likes this wine, so it must be good."

Experts all seem to acknowledge that there's quite a bit of subjectivity involved in reviewing wine. "Every critic has his or her own taste," Cole says, "so the same wine might garner wildly differing scores from a variety of critics."

All of this leads me to the conclusion, that yes, I'll try to use experience as my teacher. But I'm not going to be ashamed by my affordable favorites. I may not have the most experienced of wine palates, but I've found plenty of pleasant $10-$15 Syrahs and Malbecs — two of my favorites — and I'm sticking with them!

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Some other news now. A new study explores a question that has occurred to almost anybody who's looked at an expensive bottle of wine and wondered if it was really that much better than the one that costs a few bucks. As NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, the answer may depend on your biology.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: When I got the assignment to look into the science of wine-tasting subtleties, the obvious place to go was a wine shop.

JON GENDERSON: You are in Schneider's of Capitol Hill and my name Jon Genderson.

AUBREY: As we navigate the narrow rows of his shop, I ask Genderson if he could find us a wine that the experts of the wine world, the people who come up with those ratings, absolutely love.

GENDERSON: There's quite a few.

AUBREY: He places his hand on the neck of one bottle.

GENDERSON: A Charmes Chambertin from this grape producer Domaine Dublere.

AUBREY: And the price tag...

GENDERSON: It's $150.


Oh, wow.

GENDERSON: It's Charmes Charbertin Grand Cru.

AUBREY: Okay, I'm confused.

GENDERSON: And that one is very, very expensive, very highly rated and very expensive.

AUBREY: Genderson says in the high-end wine world, ratings really do drive prices and trends. And reviews are based on a complicated vocabulary that lots of us pretend to understand.

GENDERSON: It's soft. The tannins are balanced and integrated into the wine. It has lovely fruit.

AUBREY: But as Genderson talks in this language of wine, I realize to some extent he's lost me. I mean, sure, I can fake it, but honestly, I don't know how to detect notes of plum or eucalyptus. Now, it's possible that with some training I could learn, but it's also possible that what separates me from experts like Genderson is a matter of biology as well. That's what scientist John Hayes thinks.

JOHN HAYES: It may be that he actually has different physiology in his mouth and nose and brain that allows him to pick out some of those nuances that no matter how much training you have you'll never find.

AUBREY: Well, okay, but Hayes and some of his colleagues at Penn State have just published a study that offers some proof of this theory, that in the world of wine tasting there are super tasters and then there are the rest of us.

HAYES: Well, we evaluated about 330 wine drinkers with a specific bitter chemical that measures taste ability. And when we did that, we found that the wine experts, people like wine makers or wine judges or wine writers, were much more sensitive to the bitterness of this chemical.

AUBREY: It's similar to the studies that have found super tasters are more sensitive to the sweetness of sugar, the spiciness of chilies or saltiness of chips. So if it turns out that lots of us don't or can't taste the subtleties of fine wines, it makes me wonder, why do people pay for them? Outside the wine shop, I asked a group of law students, including Jim Stanton (ph).

JIM STANTON: I think a lot of times when you pay more for a bottle, you sometimes don't want to admit to yourself that it's not something good.

AUBREY: But now that we know that lots of us can't taste the difference, maybe we won't feel insecure about sticking with our more economically priced favorites. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.