If you have ever participated in a wine tasting event alongside “expert tasters”, you may be left to wonder how these wine jargon-sputtering enophiles can possibly detect so many aromas and nuances or, perhaps, if your own tasting abilities might be subpar. And if you are of the male type, chances are you may be further disadvantaged. It can be quite daunting when time comes to opine on the wine’s attributes.
Do supertasters really have special abilities to discern so many aromas, flavors, and discriminate all the subtle nuances, or are they mere snobs trying to impress the average wine enthusiast?
Although science has not confirmed this, it is believed that the human nose can perceive several tens of thousands of odors; estimates range between ten and fifty thousands. Robert M. Parker, Jr.-unquestionably the most influential modern-day wine critic who popularized the 100-point scoring system known to either make or break wine sales-is believed to be endowed with super tasting abilities, presumably capable of identifying specific producers as well as different vintages of the same wine. Others claim that it’s all nonsense, but not according to Parker; he had his nose and palate insured for $1 million. Interestingly, Avery Gilbert cites an experiment in What the Nose Knows where even professionals could not identify more than three odors from a prepared complex mixture, and that “no one could bust the four-odor limit,” or what is known as the Laing Limit based on Australian psychologist David Laing’s work. This begs the question “How can anyone smell a multitude of odors in wine?” And could Parker be able to bust the Laing Limit under laboratory conditions? Who knows? (Okay, the pun was intended.)
Let’s try and make sense of this by first looking at the physiology of tasting-that is, how we perceive and interpret flavors and aromas through our gustatory (mouth) and olfactory (nose) senses, respectively.
Note: The words “aroma,” “smell,” “odor,” “bouquet,” and “flavor” are often used interchangeably as synonyms. Here we make no distinction among the first four terms, which we use to refer to odors or what the nose can smell; “bouquet”, in wine sensory analysis, is more specific though-it refers to odors resulting from fermentation or wine aging. And the term “flavor” refers to what can be tasted by the palate. In wine appreciation, some will even include tactile sensations, as those delivered by astringent tannins, in the definition of flavor.
Our tongue consists of several types of gustatory receptor cells in taste buds on the tongue’s papillae, each sensing or perceiving different flavors. There are approximately a couple of dozen receptor cells in each of the roughly 10,000 taste buds in a normal adult individual. As we taste wine (or any food), taste molecules first dissolve in saliva-necessary for the taste to be detected-and trigger nerve signals that are then delivered to the gustatory cortex in the brain for interpretation.
Taste buds can discern four primary tastes or flavors: sweetness, saltiness, acidity, and bitterness. Until recently, science claimed that these flavors were detected on specific areas of the tongue: sweetness is detected at the tip; saltiness on the sides, towards the front; acidity on the sides, towards the back; and bitterness at the back of the tongue. The science of taste now also defines a fifth taste, umami, a Japanese word meaning “savory,” which can be found in high-protein content foods or those containing glutamates (glutamic acid), such as food treated with monosodium glutamate (MSG). Recent research now postulates that these five primary flavors can be detected all over the tongue.
Unless individuals have suffered physiological taste bud damage from, for example, heavy smoking, it can be assumed that we can all discern all five primary tastes and conclude that we can all taste the same flavors in food and beverages. Of course we all have different detection thresholds based on the physiological conditioning of our taste buds since birth. Gustatory acuity also decreases with aging as the number of taste buds greatly decreases-to less than 5,000 by some estimates.
But without an olfactory sense, we might as well eat insipid food and drink neutral beverages. We would not be able to tell apart a glass of Château Le Pew from a fine vintage of Château Latour. It is through the nose, through voluntary and involuntary stimulations, that we get to be able to discern all those attractive odors (and repulsive malodors, better referred to as “wine faults” in winespeak).
In voluntary stimulation in wine tasting, we first swirl the glass of wine to volatize aromas and then bring it up to our nose to smell the various aromas; the volatized aromas flow inwards from the nose and up to the olfactory receptors. As we then take a sip, involuntary stimulation is activated through retronasal olfaction at the back of the mouth and aromas flow upwards to the olfactory receptors.
At the molecular level, volatized aromas from, for example, alcohols, aldehydes, esters, and terpenoids in wine, comprise a plethora of complex molecules, or odorants, which first dissolve on the mucus lining. If odorants cannot dissolve, they cannot be detected. When detected, the odorants then chemically stimulate olfactory receptor cells-some 50 million according to Émile Peynaud in his authoritative book The Taste of Wine-in the nasal chamber to trigger nerve signals sent to the olfactory bulb and then to the frontal lobe of the brain. The nostrils and nose chambers serve only as conduits to the olfactory receptor cells located just below the brain, and so, a bigger nose does not necessarily mean superior olfactory abilities.
So we have millions and millions of olfactory receptor cells but cannot identify more than two or three odors in a complex beverage such as wine. Quite the conundrum! So how are supertasters able to differentiate and identify so many odors and nuances?
Medical science states that differentiation and identification of odors actually happens in the brain, which is so conditioned through our development and experience. This is to say that those who were exposed to vast numbers of odors since childhood from, for example, their mother’s cooking, would have developed an extensive “registry” in their brain. Specific smells then trigger the individual’s cognitive and memory skills and be able to describe the smell using words. If one cannot smell an odor, it might well be that the individual is not able to recognize it, as opposed to not being able to detect it, unless the odor concentration is below the threshold of detection. The same can be said of other senses, namely, sight and sound: Is Vivaldi’s Quattro Stagioni music to one’s ears or simply a series of incoherent noises? It could well be the latter if one has never experienced music.
Then, with the proper training and development, particularly if initiated early in life, and with experience tasting many, many wines, it is possible for a wine taster to become a supertaster. But given that there is some physiological degradation of olfactory receptors in the nose and of mental acuity with aging, we can then expect olfactory abilities to diminish. Training one’s nose with vials of aroma essence, such as Le nez du vin wine aroma kits, can thus only improve one’s wine tasting ability so far.
And yes, according to scientific studies, women do have more acute olfactory and gustatory senses than men, but only until menopause.