Wine tasting is a sensory experience. You hear the pop of a cork, see the color and viscosity in the glass and feel the sensation of the liquid in your mouth. But arguably the most important senses are taste and smell. These senses vary from person to person, with some people identifying as super-tasters.
Once we understand our ability to taste and hone in on our sense of smell, it can create a platform to take tasting to a new level.
How to Know if You’re a Super-Taster
When it comes to how we taste, around 45-50% of people fall into the category of “average” taster—someone who senses the flavors of bitter, sweet, salty, sour and umami but isn’t overwhelmed or underwhelmed by them, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. But 25–30% of the population are non-tasters, those who taste very little extreme flavors, and the remaining 25–30% are what is deemed as a super-taster, those who are extremely sensitive to strong flavors. This is especially true when it comes to tasting bitterness in foods and drinks.
Your sense of taste is something that is passed down through genetics. When it comes to super-tasters, their taste receptor gene (TAS2R38), which increases bitterness perception, is extra sensitive, explains Beverly Tepper, Ph.D. a professor of sensory science at Rutgers University. Additionally, super-tasters can be genetically predisposed to have more taste buds than average and non-tasters. These taste buds provide additional receptors for pain and irritation, which is why super-tasters tend to dislike spicy and astringent food and drinks.
One of the easiest ways to determine taster status is with a PROP test—a strip of paper containing a compound that, when placed on the tongue, can taste bland (non-taster), bitter (medium-taster or average) or extremely bitter (super-taster). You can easily find these strips online for a safe, at-home test.
Beyond her expertise in sensory science, Tepper happens to also be a vineyard owner and a super-taster. For a wine lover, being a super-taster can make tasting a radically unique experience.
Tepper uses her super-taster status to help her partner, Mark Pausch, create wines on their eight-acre vineyard in Allentown, New Jersey. “He’s the viticulturist and the winemaker,” she says. “He depends on me for the sensory part.”
This is because Pausch happens to be a non-taster. “He’s not sensitive to bitter or astringency,” Tepper says. “I can taste something that we’ve made and say, ‘Oh, this is pretty bitter,’ or ‘this is pretty astringent.’ So we kind of move to the middle when we’re trying to finish our wines.”
Well before they started making wine together, the pair recognized differences in their food and drink preferences. A PROP test confirmed their taster status. “He likes bitter things like Guinness beer and broccoli rabe, and hot condiments like wasabi,” she says. “I can pass on any of those items.”
The Connection Between Taste and Smell
Tepper admits that flavor isn’t all about taste. “When I talk to my classes about what is flavor, I say it’s about 90% aroma, about 5% basic tastes and about 5% trigeminal sensations.” Trigeminal sensations refer to the feelings foods give you, like a cooling sensation from menthol or the feeling associated with red wine’s astringency.
We smell wine via our noses in a process called orthonasal olfaction. What is less well-known is that we also experience wine aroma from inside our mouths, which is referred to as retronasal olfaction.
“When we take something into our mouths, and we’re manipulating it and swallowing it, those aroma compounds are making their way up through our nasal passages to the olfactory or smell area,” says Tepper, who last year created the grape and wine science certificate program for Rutgers, a four-week program that touches on sensory perception.