originally published May 6, 2013
Having been an avid wine drinker ever I was eight days old and Jewish law demanded that I receive a belt of Manischewitz whilst some stranger slashed at my shvantz, I still can’t wrap my brain around wine reviews. Seriously, after spending my childhood sipping on dry red during every Sunday dinner at my grandparents’, you’d think I should be a veteran of vino, a veritable wine Jedi with an insight into the subtle nuances of every aspect of a wine’s intricate flavors.
But I just don’t have it. I look at wine review sites like this one, and I get lost in the ornate descriptions. “A savory and brooding red”. “Chalky tannins throughout and wild briary fruit layered with dark carob.” “Smoked notes underscored with dark chocolate and leather.” I’m sure with a bit of practice I could learn to tell a chiraz from a merlot, but this sort of intricate tastery is beyond me.
Also, this site invites readers to rate each wine on a scale of one to six. Six? What kind of pretentious scale is that?
(on a scale of 0-2 tinted-glass goblets, I give this vintage a 1.25)
Admittedly, I would rather contemplate the cavalcade of flavors bunny-hopping their way through an intricate craft beer than those waving their grapey hands in a bottle of wine. That’s simply a matter of preference. But I’m still swimming in the shallow end of the pool when it comes to acute flavor sensation.
While I was touring the Big Rock brewery in Calgary last week, I asked brewmaster Paul Gautreau if he happened to be a supertaster. He replied in the affirmative, which likely explains his exquisite talent for cultivating the elaborate flavors in Big Rock’s latest creations. While a part of me is jealous of the ability to sense each subtle nuance of a textured beverage, being a supertaster can be a double-edged sword.
As much as I’d like to blame dumb luck for my lack of lingual superpowers, I’ve actually got demographics stacked against me. About 35% of women and only 15% of men are supertasters. Those with the gift are also more likely to come from Asian, African or South American descent. It’s not clear if there’s an evolutionary advantage, though I suppose back when we were picking berries for survival, being able to discern which ones would kill you might be a plus.
What causes the supertasting skill is not entirely clear. It’s likely due to having more fungiform papillae on the tongue, which sounds grotesque but isn’t. Those are the little bumps atop which rest your taste buds. This makes sense – more taste buds, more tasting. But there may also be a genetic component, with the TAS2R28 gene being fingered for potentially tweaking this ability.
As with most scientific discoveries of the past century, the origins of our understanding the supertaster concept comes from the creepily-lit black and white laboratories of the DuPont corporation in the early 1930’s.
Arthur L. Fox, whilst looking for a way to chemically alter our food in order to fight the Nazis (I think), discovered that some people found phenylthiocarbamide (PTC to us lay-folk) to be bitter, while others didn’t even notice it. Roughly 70% of the population can taste PTC, ranging from only 58% of Australian indigenous peoples up to a whopping 98% of North American Native peoples. Non-smokers and those who stay away from coffee and tea are more likely to perceive PTC. In the end, Fox determined that about 25% of the population are supertasters, with another 25% landing in the nontasters camp. Nontasters can still taste, but their relatively thin crowd of fungiform papillae (plus whatever genetic keys have been left out of the ignition) have resulted in a reduced sensitivity.
These folks would probably rate every wine on that webpage with a solid ‘3’.
If you’re unsure where on the spectrum your flapping tongue might land, you can get ahold of some black-market PTC and test yourself. Alternately, you can grab some blue food coloring and dye your tongue. Slap on one of those sticky reinforcement rings we used to buy for school supplies, only to use mainly to decorate our desks. Using a magnifying glass, count the big bumps. If you’ve got more than thirty inside that little ring, you are probably a supertaster.
The upside to being a supertaster is that you’ll have the ability to detect every delicate tweak employed by the chef who prepares your food. If your lifestyle happens to include a fair amount of gourmet restaurants and/or time-consuming recipes at home, being a supertaster could really work to your advantage. But there’s a sour side to this gift (mediocre pun sadly intended).
First of all, you aren’t going to want to judge any chicken wing or chili contests. Supertasters have an exaggerated sensitivity to spicy foods – the capsaicin in chili peppers is amped up for those sensitive tongues. So your buddies may deride you for being too much of a sissy to handle Big Ethel’s Smoldering Magma Suicide Wings, but they’ll probably never be able to discern the toasted brown spices and char atop mulberry in a Barossa Valley gold shiraz. So fuck them.
My own personal vegetable nemesis, the brussel sprout, tends to taste particularly bitter and awful to a supertaster, which might mean I’m a little closer to the top end of the scale. Or maybe I just can’t stand those little balls of leafy green toxic grotesquery.
Cabbage and kale don’t rank too high on supertaster lists either. Because of their salt concentration, olives have a particularly extreme taste to those with the gift. This might mean they hate them, or it might mean they appreciate them more than most. I have always found olives to be the most polarizing food – people either adore them or despise them. Not a lot of middle-ground with olives.
The quinine in tonic water is particularly harsh to supertasters, so I suppose they’d prefer their gin in martini form instead. Except that certain alcohols are also a little too much for the supertaster tongue. I’d guess gin, along with vodka, tequila, and any assortment of the hard stuff could fall on the no-no list.
I suppose it’s wrong to bemoan my lack of supertaste. I’ve got enough active taste buds to kick me into a lustful swoon at the feet of a perfectly barbecued cut of tenderloin, or through the soft but disciplinary essence of Belgian hops.
And I can still fire back a solid punch of good tequila. So maybe the middle ground ain’t so bad.