Do you have to be a “supertaster” to be a better wine taster or top foodie? You would think the mere mention of anything with super status would be a good thing, much like a superpower. It’s wonderful to have heightened senses like sharp hearing or better than 20/20 vision, but a heightened sense of taste — no matter how much superhero status it implies — may be a hindrance for wine drinkers.
The term “supertaster” was coined by psychologist Linda Bartoshuk in 1991. Bartoshuk studies sensory perception of food. A supertaster is someone who has twice as many taste buds as the average person. The science behind supertasting could be linked to people’s sensitivity to a bitter chemical called 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP), which makes supertasters much more sensitive to bitterness. It’s thought that this sensitivity developed as an evolutionary defense mechanism, one that would prevent us from eating potentially toxic foods.
Many test experiments have been done using PROP with wine consumers. I have a firsthand look at this test because I use it in my wine study classes. My students are given a paper strip treated with drops of the chemical and asked to taste. Some find it tasteless (nontasters) while others either mildly (medium-tasters) or extremely bitter (supertasters). Without fail, each class has a large division of those extremes.
The flavors of wine, acidity, astringency, spiciness and bitterness may make some styles of wine relatively unappealing to the supertaster. In the book The Science of Wine, Gary Pickering, professor of Biological Sciences and Psychology/Wine Science at Brock University, writes “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.”
This simple concept of a person’s taste perception offers a probability as to why many also have such diverse preferences in their wine choices.
So, a question I am continuously asked in my profession, “Am I a supertaster?” Yes, most likely professionally when I am assessing wines. But, when enjoying and exploring the exceptional world of wines when drinking … I enjoy all styles of wines from sweet to dry, raging tannic cabernets to dainty tannic pinot noirs and intensely acidic sauvignon blancs to soft subtle chardonnays.
To gauge your detection of “bitter” consider a tasting homework with cabernet sauvignon. Ask yourself, what do you taste and how does it feel? Does the wine make your tongue tingle? Does it make your mouth pucker? Is it acidic? Can you taste/feel the alcohol? Is there a long aftertaste? Does your mouth feel dry?
- 2015 Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $15 retail)
- 2015 Stoller Family Estate Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, Oregon (about $27 retail)