Wine Critics More Sensitive to Flavors Buyers Can’t Taste

The flavors described so effusively by top wine critics may not be shared by consumers who buy products based on their opinions, a researcher suggests.

Winemakers and critics surveyed in Canada were found to be much better able to sense a test chemical as intensely bitter, compared with average consumers who weren’t bothered by the taste, according to a report in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture.

The chemical is an indicator of oral sensitivity, the researchers wrote. The data suggest people born with a talent for identifying tiny differences in wine may have naturally gravitated to an industry where their abilities give them an edge, said John Hayes, director of the Pennsylvania State University’s sensory evaluation center.

“Wine experts are more likely to have a very exquisite, acute sense of taste that the rest of us can’t sense,” said Hayes, one of the authors of the report, in a telephone interview. “Some of that is biology.”

Because consumers may not have the same tasting ability, they probably don’t benefit as much from drinking highly rated wine, Hayes said. Still, there may be a psychological lift.

“If you think the wine is supposed to be good, you’re going to enjoy it a lot,” Hayes said. “But to me the simplest rule in wine is if you like it, drink it.”

The work builds on earlier data finding similar “super tasters” among chefs and food experts, the researchers wrote. The bitter chemical used by the researchers was selected because it’s been linked in studies to taste sensations that typically are associated with alcoholic beverages, such as the bitterness tasted in scotch and beer.

Intense Changes

The wine experts in the study experienced intense changes in taste, depending on the concentration of the chemical, as well as differences in mouth sensations, the research found.

They may be unique in their ability to appreciate the “somewhat cooler, soil-driven flavors and sexy dusty minerality” of the 2007 Domaine La Romanee pinot noir, as described on The wine, being discounted at $735 a bottle, “still boasts impressive breadth and fat,” according to the site.

With thousands of wineries and varieties to choose from, consumers depend on experts to help make purchase decisions for wine, which had a U.S. retail value of $30 billion in 2010. While comments about flavors may be useless to the average consumer, people still want help identifying the best wines, Hayes said.

Hayes conducted the study with Gary Pickering, a wine researcher at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. The work was partially sponsored by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.