Are Wine Critics Hypertasters?
In the recent issue of the Wine Enthusiast, Steve Heimoff penned an article titled, “Hypertasting? No
Thanks.” The thrust of the article was whether wine critics who are hypertasters are better tasters, and
if so, which critics are hypertasters? No critic has come forth in the press and admitted their genetic
predisposition. Hypertasters are also referred to as “supertasters,” a term that should be avoided as it
connotes a certain superiority over regular tasters which in fact, is not true.
There are genetically three separate types of tasters in the population: ‘Hypertasters’, who possess two
dominate genes, are hypersensitive to basic tastes, and have more taste buds including fungiform papillae
on the tip of their tongue; ‘Regular tasters’, who have a moderate response to sensual pleasures
and possess one dominate gene and one recessive gene; and ‘Non-tasters’, who are blind to the intensity
of many sweet, sour, or salty foods. About 25% of the population are hypertasters, 25% are nontasters,
and 50% are regular tasters. More women and Asians are hypertasters. The taste genes determine
how many taste bud receptors a person has for sweetness, sourness, saltiness, and bitterness.
The number of taste buds can vary from a few hundred to tens of thousands. The defining tests to
determine the class of taster is either count the number of papillae on the tongue (using blue food
coloring and Q-tips) or record the sensitivity to 6-n-propylthiouracil or PROP( a tablet used to treat
hyperthyroidism - non-tasters will taste nothing when the tablet touches the tip of the tongue, regular
tasters will taste a small amount of bitterness, and hypertasters will be quickly repulsed by a strong
bitter sensation). Interestingly, every week taste buds wear out and are replaced, but after the age of
45, they are replaced less frequently, causing more people to become regular or non-tasters.
Hypertasters do not like the strong tastes of many fruits and vegetables and when tasting wine, they
would not be expected to like strong tannins and heavy alcohol and would be more sensitive to sweetness.
Regular tasters presumably prefer “average” flavors and find sugar more palatable, high
alcohol less bitter, and tannins less repulsive. The non-tasters might enjoy sweet wines more and be
more forgiving of strong tannins and alcohol.
It is highly unlikely that wine critics will come forward and reveal the type of genetic taster they are.
Since 75% of the population are regular tasters or non-tasters, there is a good chance that some critics
fall into those two categories. A more likely scenario would be that critics who are hypertasters (who
probably would prefer the term supertasters because of the implications) would announce their
“superior” genetic heritage. The topic makes for an interesting discussion, and certainly might allow
the consumer to align his or her self with a critic with the same genetic tasting category. The reality is,
as Steve Heimoff points out, experience is probably more important than heredity in tasting wine. One
is not born to taste wine. Ann Noble, wine quality expert at U.C. Davis, said, “None of this is very relevant
for wine tasting. People learn to taste (wine); they are not born that way.” The truth is, hypertasters
are not better wine tasters, only more sensitive to tannins, alcohol and sweetness. According to
a 1997 report in Wine Business Monthly, “Researchers privately have joked that hypertasters might
even prefer the industrial winemaking process, with its heavy fining and racking procedures which
have long been known for stripping out flavonoids and other chemical compounds that make up the
unique taste of wines.”
In the end, the only thing that is relevant is the drinker’s seasoned palate and learned preferences.
Regardless of genetic predisposition for tasting sensitivity, it is the drinker’s experience, his proclivity,
and his love of the grape that dictate his ultimate drinking experience.
I don’t consider myself a wine critic, for I have an aversion to disparaging wines. For what its worth, I
am a regular taster, but a hyperlover of Pinot Noir.