We all have unique preferences when it comes to wine. There are people who hate White Zinfandel, others dislike Merlot, and some people are “ABC” (anything but Chardonnay). While there is no right or wrong when it comes to these inclinations, it’s interesting that some wines score better than others.
What if the person judging the wine has a different palate (flavor preference) than you? Chances are you’re not going to like that wine, even if it scores in the 90s. So what’s the average wine consumer to do when he/she cannot taste the wine in advance of purchase and is relying on scores alone? New research suggests that each individual can be categorized into different "taster groups" via several different methods: DNA testing, Tim Hanni’s Budometer (tongue analysis), and Hanni’s Wine Tasting Continuum Questionnaire.
Your wine palate is defined by your senses of taste and smell, which are mostly determined by your genetics. There are over 400 genes (of about 20,000) that code for the cells on your tongue and in your nose, that allow you to distinguish between different tastes and smells. Even small variations in the DNA code for these genes can result in big changes in your taste and olfactory receptors. One of the first discoveries of this phenomenon was in 1931, when chemist Arthur Fox was working with powdered chemical compound, PTC (phenylthiocarbamide). When some of it blew into the air, a colleague in the room commented that the powder tasted bitter, while Fox detected no flavor at all.
More recently with the help of two sensory scientists at the UC Davis, Tim Hanni, California wine consultant and expert in sensory science, developed the Budometer. Hanni uses an industrial magnifying glass and camera to photograph a taster’s tongue; a process he calls “getting your buds done.” He says that taste buds hold clues to how we experience wine. It takes into account a decade of research on taste and sensory perception, or what Hanni calls “neurogastronomic
Hanni also developed the Wine Tasting Continuum, which divides wine tasters into four categories, or “Vinotypes." Tolerant Tasters
rarely notice tannins and bitterness in wine and often prefer more intensity. They find that alcohol has a “sweet” taste and have a preference for higher alcohol wines like Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. They often find smooth reds and light whites insipid, but can learn to appreciate them. Men outnumber women two to one among Tolerant Vinotypes. Sensitive Tasters
are moderately sensitive to tannins, bitterness, and acid in wine, and are open to a broad range of styles. They usually enjoy all types of wines, but often start out preferring smoother reds and lighter whites, before moving into bigger, more tannic reds or acidic whites. Sensitive Vinotypes make up about 25% of the wine drinking population. Hypersensitive Tasters
are highly sensitive to tannins, bitterness, and acid in wine and prefer less intensity. They find alcohol very harsh and “hot” and usually prefer lighter wines, such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Merlot, as well as sweet wines like Riesling and White Zinfandel. However, they can learn to enjoy big, tannic reds over time. Slightly more than one-third of both men and women in Hanni’s surveys are Hypersensitive Vinotypes. Sweet Tasters
are at the top end of the scale in terms of sensory sensitivity and tend to be very picky about wines, among other things. They are defined by having a preference for sweet wines at all times. Women (about one in five) are three times more likely to be Sweet Vinotypes.
Want to know which group you’re in? Take the mini-questionnaire.
Acknowledging that people live in different sensory worlds, Hanni’s system has the potential to change the way we think, judge, and even talk about wine. Rather than 100-point scales, drinkers would only need to understand their own personal palate, which helps narrow down the overwhelming number of wine choices available in stores, online, or on restaurant wine lists. According to Hanni, knowing your group is like knowing your shoe size. Wearing a size 7 isn’t good or bad, it just helps you find something that fits.