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Supertaster? Reading between the vines

The wine world is nearing what’s probably the most-confounding season of the year.

It’s hard enough to decide what wine you’ll be serving with (or taking to) the annual Thanksgiving Day get-together; listening to what comes from writers and critics will make your head spin.

Ratings, vintages, big oak vs. no oak, residual sugar, smells and tastes and “notes of cassis, blackberry, black fruit, incense and camphor.”

Incense and camphor? At risk of sounding more like gifts from the Magi instead of fruits of the vine, those are notes from wine critic Robert M. Parker as written about by Nocholas Hines on the Grape Collective website (www.grapecollective.com).

Hines wondered if Parker, or anyone, actually could notice slights hints of such exotic smells and flavors.

Could it be that Parker, as many people in the wine world suppose, is a “supertaster and getting more out of wine than the rest of us?”
Or is he merely a snob, confounding the masses with a vocabulary, if not a palate, unavailable to most of us?

First, though, we need to figure out what a supertaster is.

Linda Bartoshuk, a physiological psychologist at the University of Florida’s Center for Smell and Taste, is credited with coining the term “supertaster” in 1991 while she was working at Yale.

Bartoshuk discovered certain people found the distinct bitter tastes of the chemical propylthioracil, or PROP, acutely unbearable while others hardly noticed.

The first group was dubbed supertaster, while the latter was dubbed nontaster. Those sensed the bitterness but had neither extreme were the average tasters.

John Hayes, professor of food science at Penn State, said in an interview with Live Science, “Supertasters are more sensitive to the burn from ethanol, the sweetness of sugar, the burn of chili peppers and the astringency of red wine.”

Simply put, says Bartoshuk, “Supertasters live in a ‘neon’ taste world, while others live in a ‘pastel’ world.”

Supertasters also have more of those tiny mushroom-shaped bumps (called fungiform apillae) than less-sensitive tasters.

Bartoshuk said supertasters can have as many as 60 fungiform papillae packed into a small space; nontasters can have as few as five.

“If you look at a bunch of tongues, some are covered with fungiform papillae,” said Bartoshuk. “Others are just polka-dotted and don’t have that many.”

Bartoshuk’s research says about 25 percent of people are either supertasters or nontasters, while around 50 percent of people are average tasters.

Research indicates people of Asian, African and South American descent, as well as women, are more likely to be supertasters than male Caucasians.

Evolution may have a role in this. If you had to survive by eating what and when you could, being able to discern quickly what’s poisonous or not could save your life.

“When it comes to settled environments, however, average and nontasters are open to trying and consuming more foods than their supertaster companions,” said Hines.

So which are you?

Jay Youmans, Master of Wine and owner of the Capital Wine School, and a professional wine taster for more than 30 years, offers his students a quick question, “How do you take your coffee?”

According to Youmans, people who drink their coffee black are generally in the range of nontasters (look for tannin-rich, single-variety Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec) while those who add cream and sugar to their coffee might prefer a blend of lighter reds, such as Burgundy (Pinot Noir).

But as Hines noted,“In the end, wine is all a matter of personal taste.”

And if you read closely all those Thanksgiving wine columns, that’s just what they are saying.

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