May 4, 2010

Not a Supertaster? So what...

At our last wine club we had we had an array of fresh (read acidic) white wines in time for spring. A great selection was put together , with some real gems, like a Pouilly-Fumé, and a white Rioja. But the most interesting, or entertaining bit of the evening was when our host pulled out strips of paper soaked in PROP. The "Supertaster" Test. With a bit of build up, and some concern that these may be "broken", we all put the strips in our mouths. Every one in the room immediately noticed the harsh bitter taste in their mouth, except for me. It tasted like paper. So there it is, I'm not a Supertaster. Boo-Hoo, right?

There has been a bit of discussion, if not controversy, about super tasters and their supposed powers. Wine writers and critics would love to be able to tout their above average ability, and with a name like "Supertaster", how could you not want to call yourself one? Consumers, I think, also want to believe that there are supernaturally gifted tasters out there; it would explain their difficulty in describing the wines they taste, and whey they are not able to put their experience into flowery terms - their tongue simply cannot interpret the poetry in the glass.

Well, what is a supertaster? First off, physiologically a supertaster is sensitive to PROP and has a higher density of  papillae on their tongue. Also, supertasters tend to have higher sensitivities to, and often avoid the taste of alcohol, spicy food, carbonation, black coffee, spinach and cabbage. They may be able to discern between artificial sweeteners and regular sucrose. Of course, we all have individual preferences, based on physiological differences, and experiential ones too. Most people I know relish the experience of eating a lobster or shrimp. I do not. I happen to be allergic to shellfish, but I don't feel like I'm missing out because I never grew up eating shrimp or lobster, and have not developed a taste for shellfish.

Michael Steinberger investigated his own idiosyncratic tastes, as well as the philosophical side of supertasters. He quoted Gary Pickering, of Brock University saying "I would speculate that supertasters probably enjoy wine less than the rest of us. They experience astringency, acidity, bitterness, and heat (from alcohol) more intensely, and this combination may make wine - or some wine styles - relatively unappealing."

Most importantly, in regards to "Supertasters" Steinberger asks us "Why is objective tasting, e.g., genotyping, important to validate what people say they experience about the flavor of wine? We don't ask music critics to take hearing tests."

Personally, I'm glad to not be a supertaster. I love coffee, whiskey, beer, wine, spinach, and chilies of all types. I like bold flavors and balk at bland food. But I don't think this puts me at a disadvantage for tasting wine, or describing the experience of drinking one. Here's the real truth about what differentiates wine writers and critics: they are critical thinkers. Its not their tongue that is gifted, its their brain that has been trained. They are able to concentrate on their experience, break it down into isolated sensations, then synthesize it back together and describe it using language. Research suggests that we are not able to discern more than three or four aromas in a given wine. What allows critics the ability to create wordy descriptions is the associations formed through experience. A whiff of black berry brings up images of plum and black currant, which then can be compounded into stewed black fruit and jam. A note of vanilla may suggest oak, which reminds us of toast and cedar boxes, then on to cigars and leather. This is a skill acquired and honed over time, and any wine drinker can learn it, if they care. Most North Americans didn't grow up in wine drinking households, and lack memories, associations, and experience that help form an understanding and appreciation of wine. I also believe that North Americans are not in the habit of talking about food they way other cultures may be, and so we don't develop a lexicon around food (though this seems to be changing).

Now, these associations may be personal or even fantasy on the part of the taster. I've already written about why the typical tasting note may not be useful to understanding a wine. But it reminds me of a what Karen McNeil stated in a recent interview on Fermentation, "Get better at wine." She was encouraging bloggers to become more grounded in wine knowledge. However, if we take the advice at face value, and endeavor to know more about our wine, from its style and characteristics to its provenance, then we are better equipped to taste what is in our glass.