“…laden with mocha, loamy soil, charred herbs, pencil shavings, roasted hazelnut. Dense like characters that make it perfect for cellaring, however it is drinkable straight away once you expose it to the earth’s atmosphere” – The Wine Wankers
If you’ve ever read a wine description and wondered, “HOW do those people come up with that stuff?” While the previous example might be a bit reaching, much like any other factor influencing final result of a wine, science is also at play with the flavors you experience in wine.
I’m not going to attempt to discuss why wine might evoke flavors of “charred herbs and pencil shavings” but there is a reasonable explanation for why someone does experience flavors that others might call complete hoo-ha: they simply don’t experience flavor the same way.
Clusters of bulbous nerve endings, or taste buds, are the science at play here. And literally, the physical number of taste receptor cells on your tongue will account for your sensitivity to flavors. Yes, its really that simple — more taste buds results in a greater sensitivity to flavors, and less taste buds results in a lessened sensitivity. Generally “tasters” are grouped into three categories: super tasters, average tasters, and non tasters.
Curious what kind of taster you are?
Nothing phases this crowd: Daring when it comes to cuisine, you probably enjoy your tacos with fire sauce, coffee black, and wine big, bold and the more tannic, the better. About 25% of people fall in this category.
Nothing pleases this pack, who are likely to assert that ketchup is too spicy: You probably enjoy your coffee with sugar and cream, and savor your wines light and sweet. Your friends and family probably call you “picky eaters” – but, be proud, fussy friends! Your over-active papillae and are the best tasters of them all. About 25% of people fall in this category.
Accounting for half of the population, and falling smack in the middle of the previous pupils: You probably enjoy your coffee with either sugar or cream, and hot sauce, middle of the road.
Put your taste buds to the test
Rather than guessing based on your perceptions, let’s actually count your taste buds!
- A friend (you can’t count your own taste buds – trust me, I tried)
- Blue food dye (best, because its contrasting to the color of the surface of your tongue)
- Paper punch
- Paper (paper, wax paper)
- Bright light, magnifying glass (depending on your eyesight)
- Punch a hole in a 2″ x 2″ square piece of paper.
- Rinse your mouth with water and swallow a few times until dry.
- Add 1 drop food coloring to your tongue and swallow a few more times.
- Rinse your mouth several times with water. Be generous, you’re not likely to wash away too much of the dye, trust me!
- Place the paper with hole punch on your tongue.
- The papillae should remained unstained, while the rest of your tongue is colored blue.
- Find an area near the tip of your tongue and place the paper with the hole punch on it.
- Count the number of the largest clusters of unstained tastebuds.
- For best results, take the average of 3-5 different areas.
- Here is an example of calculating an average: If you count three areas that had 10, 15, and 25 taste buds,
- Add together the three numbers: 10 + 15 + 20 = 45
- Next, divide the total by the number of areas you counted samples from: 45/3 = 15
- Your average is 15 taste buds.
Non-Tasters will rack up an tally under an average of 15 papillae.
Super Tasters will rack up an average of 30 or more papillae.
Average Tasters will have somewhere between 15 and 30 tastebuds.
I scored square in the average area, at 25 which probably explains why I like coffee with cream and can’t stand it without – too bitter, gack! My husband, scored smack in the middle of average, which doesn’t account for his preference to big, bold wines, super spicy foods and black, black coffee. I could have sworn with some of the food pairings he comes up with that clearly, he can’t taste a thing. Knowing he does actually have taste buds really makes me wonder, now…
A more scientific (and less messy) way to test your taste
You can get taste testing strips online for a few dollars that test for for “6-n-propylthiouracil”, also known as “PROP” which is a more precise determination:
Non tasters can’t taste PROP, but super tasters have a strong reaction to the “adversely bitter” taste.
Average tasters are able to taste PROP, but its bitter taste is not enough to be irritating.
In Wine Professional school at Saint Paul College our class tested our taste using PROP strips, we ended up with a whole bunch of average tasters, a couple non-tasters and ZERO super-tasters. Yup, a whole bunch of people aspiring to be great tasters of wine, on the average to low end of the sensory scale.
So, are super tasters better wine tasters?
The only tastes your tongue can technically experience are sweet, bitter, sour, salty and savory (umami). Many of the flavors you experience in food are actually through a retronasal passage at the back of your throat — i.e. via your olfactory sense, or sense of smell.
So, would being a super taster make me better at wine evaluation? My opinion is that super tasting would seem to be a handicap! Imagine if everything you tasted was so sweet, so sour or so salty it was hard to stand? No thanks, I’ll take my average taste buds.
So, if you’ve ever read a wine description and wondered HOW do these people come up with that stuff?! Science suggests they might really just have a better than average sense of smell. And, while it is possible to be a “super taster”, its really only referring to your sensitivity to sweet, bitter, sour, salty and savory. It might just be the case that people with “bland taste” who prefer to play their flavors the most safe, just might have the strongest sense of taste of us all!
Did you count your taste buds?
Let me know in the comments – what kind of taster are you?!