Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Is Taste Trainable?

By Julianna Hayes

Five years ago, almost to the day, a familiar name from days long past popped up in my email inbox. It was from an old college buddy who “googled” me during a sudden quest to reconnect with some forgotten pals.

His web search uncovered my connection with all things wine and he gushed about his own recent, but enthusiastic foray into the vinous world. He asked me to recommend some wines, without revealing what styles he preferred.

“Hmmm, let me guess,” I replied, “You’re into big, full-bodied Australian Shirazes.”

“My god, that’s amazing,” he exclaimed. “How did you know?”

Lucky guess. Well, actually, not so lucky. I took a cue from the fact that the majority of new wine enthusiasts at that time were cutting their teeth on these bottles and were seduced by their affordability and bold, easy-drinking properties. I know my audience.

After revealing my powers of deduction, I explained that if he pursued his interest in wine, his tastes would become more sophisticated. I predicted that in five years time, he’d be asking me for recommendations on Pinot Noirs.

But now I’m not so sure.

As a fledgling wine enthusiast, I was always assured by the experts that my palate was trainable. They said that it was natural to start out liking certain wines and detesting others, but that over time – and after many, many bottles – I would very likely begin to revere what had turned me off up about some wines. Like oysters, scotch and Cuban cigars – the more challenging aspects of wine were believed to be “acquired taste.”

I’ve repeated this same theory in my classes and my columns, soothing harried beginners who are inclined to spit out their first sip of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But new research is suggesting that taste isn’t necessarily as acquirable as we thought it to be.

Now I have always argued that taste is subjective – even at the risk of rendering myself and my wine recommendations redundant. But I have always believed that this subjectivity was rooted in personal preference.

Yet according to Tim Hanni, a California wine consultant and researcher, wine consumers will often have physiological differences in their tongues that will cause the same wines to taste different to each of them, regardless of their level of knowledge.

For example, at a tasting last month in Washington, DC, he presented 11 wines to two individuals with similar vinous experience. Tom Natan, a DC-based importer and retailer, identified a full-bodied, fruity Tuscan red as his favourite wine in the group. Adam Manson, a wine bar owner, hated it.

To Natan, the wine was big, juicy and luscious. Manson thought the same wine’s characteristics were overwhelming, even bitter.

After watching them taste and examining their tongues, Hanni determined that Natan was a “tolerant” taster – having fewer taste buds overall, which helped explain his preference for ripe, concentrated wines. Manso was dubbed a “sensitive” taster, with more taste buds and thus liked more balanced wines without strong tannins or high alcohol.

One might think that having more taste buds would be desirable in an enthusiast or a critic, the opposite is actually true, as they’ll intensive the bad components as well as the good, such as the bitterness in tannins.

Hanni can’t scrutinize everyone’s tongue to determine what kind of taster they are, so he developed a computerized palate assessment tool based on his research. It is called the Budometer and asks consumers a series of questions. Depending on the answers, they can be classified as a Tolerant, Sensitive, Hyper-Sensitive or Sweet taster. You can try the online version at

I thought the name alone was absurd and questions simplistic – asking testers things like if they take cream in their coffee and prefer pale or dark beer. Turns out I’m a “tolerant” taster – meaning I like intense wines with plenty of oak and power. That doesn’t surprise me in the least, but the assessment isn’t terribly scientific, in my opinion.

Yet, Hanni’s work is being taken with real seriousness, warranting section front articles in the Washington Post and San Fransisco Chronicle, plus furious discussion in wine forums and chat rooms.

On Wine Spectator’s popular discussion forum – where posters routinely discuss things like Bordeaux futures and wines rated 90 or higher by Robert Parker – regular blogger “Indybob” was the first to weigh in on the subject. “In using this logic, it makes sense why I don't ‘get’ Pinot Noir at all.” A “sensitive” taster, he covets wines that are rich, smooth and well-balanced – attributes not often associated with Pinots, particularly youthful ones.

While “Ozarks21” shared my skepticism on the accuracy of the test, he concurred it had merit. “I think there may be something to this. I took the overly simplified budometer test and it aligned about where I am. It explains my love of ‘over-oaked’ wines, my difficulty in finding whites I am crazy about, and why I don't get rose. I would like to see this further refined and a large number of wines cataloged based on this criteria.”

“I tested out as hyper-sensitive,” replied Purple Teeth. “The test appears to have at least some validity, as it nailed my wine preferences.”

Those that would appeal to Purple Teeth are delicately balanced wines with finesse and reasonably lower alcohol, such a unoaked Chardonnay, dry or off-dry Rieslings, lighter Italian and Spanish reds.

For the most part, though, the people who remarked on the test were enthusiasts already comfortable and secure in their knowledge of wine and found the Budometer an “amusing novelty” at best. Where they thought it might be useful is for beginners who have difficulty trusting their own palates and tend to rely on the recommendations of others – particularly writers and critics.

Some thought it might also serve as a marketing tool aimed at wine drinkers who have a low tolerance for high intensity wines.

“I was thinking this could be to wine what hot, medium and mild is to salsa. Not really telling me what grapes I like, but a type of intensity gauge,” suggested Spo. “I moan and cry about bitter wines all the time. I would love to see bottles with a little sticker that says ‘sensitive taster approved.’

“No matter how much you know, there will always be a bottle out there you know nothing about,” he added.

Which is precisely why people like Hanni and writers like myself keep trying to make it easier on you.

Wine Notes

95-100 Sets the bar.
90-94 Outstanding, has wow factor.
80-89 Good to very good.
70-79 Average, may have minor flaws.
60-69 Drinkable, but not recommended.
00-59 Undrinkable.

CedarCreek 2007 Dry Riesling
Appearance: Pale golden colour with crystal clarity
Aromas: Green apple, mineral, mango, peach, honey
Flavours: Orange, green apple, mineral, tropical fruits, peach
Body and Finish: Crisp but luscious fruit bomb of an entry, nice acidity on the mid-palate with an extended lemony finish.
Overall Impression: Delicious, racy Riesling for those who love all those aromatics but want a drier package
Would I Buy It? Definitely.
Cellaring Potential: Drink now
Score: 90/100
Price: $18.10
Availability: BCLDB, VQA shops, private retailers

Joie 2007 Rose
Appearance: Brilliant salmon hue with twinkling light reflection
Aromas: Strawberry extract, cranberry, citrus peel, rhubarb, mineral
Flavours: Bright berries, sour cherry, pink grapefruit, mineral, citrus
Body and Finish: Slightly off-dry entry is at once crisp on the palate with lovely fruit extraction, racy, palate cleansing finish.
Overall Impression: This blend of Pinot Noir, Gamay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Gris is drier than roses of previous years, but there’s plenty of fruit and fresh acidity to be a patio pleaser all summer long
Would I Buy It? Yes
Cellaring Potential: Drink now
Score: 89/100
Price: $18.90
Availability: Restaurants, private retailers

Van Westen 2005 Voluptuous
Appearance: Inky rich black cherry colour – no murkiness
Aromas: Blackberry, plum, blueberry, chocolate, black pepper, tobacco, herbaceous
Flavours: Ripe black fruits, mocha, pepper, herbaceous, spice
Body and Finish: Dark and luscious on the entry with some dustiness on the palate and grippy tannins. Extended, slightly hot finish.
Overall Impression: A blend of 67 per cent Merlot with the balance Cabernet Franc, it’s a big youthful wine with loads of potential.
Would I Buy It? Yes
Cellaring Potential: Keep your paws off it for at least two years
Score: 89/100
Price: $30
Availability: Restaurants, private retailers

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