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The Flavors in Wine are Yours Alone

I do not need to tell you that I'm a geek of the first degree when it comes to wine, but you may not know that my interests in the minutiae of life extend beyond the wine world into lots of other areas. When it comes right down to it, I just love knowing how things work. And why.

Which is why I absolutely fell for Harold McGee when I first encountered his book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, which might as well have been titled: The Geeks Guide to the Kitchen. McGee took a scientist's approach to deconstructing most of the chemical and physical processes of the kitchen.

Occasionally McGee turns his attention to the world of wine. Today he published an article summarizing some research on a compound with the lovely name of Rotundone, which is the chemical responsible for, among other things, the peppery taste found in wine. This is not particularly breaking news. I wrote a bit about the discovery and research into Rotundone in wine last year.

What caught my attention about McGee's article, however, were the adjunct (or perhaps separately researched) findings that everyone perceives Rotundone with different levels of sensitivity, and about 20% of people may not be able to perceive it at all.

That's right. One out of five people may not be able to perceive one of the signature flavors in tens of thousands of wines from around the world from Australian Shiraz, to Central Coast Syrah, to Cotes du Rhone. And some people who are hyper-sensitive to the compound may think some wines with elevated levels of Rotundone taste downright nasty, while the rest of us may just enjoy the spicy qualities of the same wine.

Research like this makes me giggle. I privately believe that the more research we do, the more we'll find out that there is quite a lot of variation in the way that people perceive the complex and particular flavors in wine.

I delight in the fact that such random (and/or genetic) physiological variation in what we taste completely undermine the notion that wine tasting is objective, or that some people can be thought of as authorities on how wines taste. Sure there are a few objective measures that can be used to distinguish sound wine from flawed, but if a large portion of the wine drinking public (including some critics) can't taste something in wine, does it really matter?

Perhaps more realistically, just because I say that a wine smells like bacon-fat and tastes like raspberry-jam does that mean it really does? The answer, it seems to me, increasingly becomes: only if you happen to taste and smell the same things.

So remember that the next time you read a tasting note or a score from a critic. There's only one way to figure out what you will like, and that is to put it in your mouth. Whether you can trust someone else to help you narrow your choices should be purely a matter of trial and error.

Comments (10)

Arthur wrote:
06.05.08 at 2:00 AM


I've sent you (and posted here) research that gives evidence that this "great physiological variance” is, if not a total fallacy, profoundly overstated.

To not offer that research as a counter point in this post smacks of pushing an agenda in a very biased way.

You can do better than this.

Rich wrote:
06.05.08 at 11:35 AM

I'm with Alder on this one, based on decades of experience (not scientific per se, but much more than anecdotal). That's why I try to refrain from giving detailed tasting notes, other than to refer to the producer's notes, if any. For more support, take a look at . I found it interesting.

Rich wrote:
06.05.08 at 11:37 AM

I was trying to get you to the Budometer at http://www.budometer.com/search/reviews.html. I hope this site reference gets through this time.

Alder wrote:
06.05.08 at 11:48 AM


Don't take this the wrong way (I have a lot of respect for you and value your contributions as a reader) but perhaps you are mistaking Vinography for a peer reviewed scientific journal? :-)

This post of mine does three things:

1. Points readers to an article published in the New York Times
2. Shares my opinion of the article
3. Shares my opinion about the value of tasting notes and scores to the average consumer, which relates to some of the facts of the article.

I have no responsibility, nor interest in this particular case, to do anything more than that. Don't hold me to a standard that I do not aim for myself.

You are, of course, more than welcome to express your own opinion on the subject, but don't chide me for sharing mine.

Arthur wrote:
06.05.08 at 1:33 PM

Rich, The Budometer failed miserably at predicting people's preferences at a state/county fair some months ago.

Noble effort, but misguided.

Arthur wrote:
06.05.08 at 1:53 PM


I know this is not a peer review publication. However, you are viewed as an authority and have many people's ear. What you say has a lot of impact.

I believe that with a highly visible platform comes the obligation to give equal time to both sides of an issue or to state clearly that you are only giving personal opinion on a topic.

To point your readers to only one opinion or a set of data supporting only one conclusion on a particular issue (without even acknowledging that there is evidence to support a contrary conclusion) and using words like “fact” is incongruent with your assertion that you are only sharing your opinion on the article.

When you say:
"I delight in the *fact* that such random (and/or genetic) physiological variation in what we taste completely undermine the notion that wine tasting is objective", it is much more of an assertion than saying:

"I believe/(it is my opinion) that this research supports the notion that such random (and/or genetic) physiological variation in what we taste completely undermines the notion that wine tasting is objective".

If you, permit, I’d like to post the links to the articles which indicate that if there is variability in sensory acuity, it is not limiting and can be overcome with exposure and training.

While these are pretty dense research papers, a good start is the Abstract whose conclusions usually contain the bottom line. Certainly there are some studies that do not agree, but the preponderance of this evidence speaks for its validity.

Firstly, as Alder wrote some time ago when the first research about Rotundones was published, they are not responsible for the aroma/flavor of spiciness. They are markers or other (yet unknown factors) that give this sensation.

Check out the third comment from the top:


As to research showing that variability is not as great as Alder suggests can be found here:








The list of research demonstrating this is very extensive, just google: androstenone, specific anosmia, repeated exposure

Arthur wrote:
06.05.08 at 3:42 PM


Let me just say here that I intended my post to be both emphatic and respectful. If I failed in the latter, I apologize. It was out of respect for you that I said: "You can do better than this".

For the benefits of the readers, I am enclosing some additional comments relevant to these publications:

Rotundones, are not really aromatic compounds, but markers for the presence of some other unidentified compounds which are responsible for the perception of pepper in Syrah.

The argument that one cannot apply androstenone to wine assessment is as valid as the one that you cannot apply this rotundone piece to support the contentions in your post. The reason why androstenone and other less common aromatics are used in this type of research is because the population is less familiar with them than with, say, the smell of blueberries or honey or burning rubber or banana or vanilla.

These compounds are the workhorses of olfactory research and yet the conclusions of these studies are applied to what has become "conventional wisdom" regarding wine assessment.

However, the conclusions that are key here have to do with brain plasticity and the ability to learn to recognize aromas you once were not able to recognize. This ties into the discussion in that fMRI paper from Caltech: that while a higher-level processing is responsible for enjoyment (and can be modulated by external cues), the registration of the actual smells and aromas is invariable and if one is able to learn to separate those external cues and personal/emotional reactions to what one smells and tastes, the assessment of any drink or food becomes far more objective and far more informed – and informative.

Nancy wrote:
06.06.08 at 5:30 AM

All I can say is, thank you for reminding me of the name of Harold McGee. Is this the same man quoted years ago in the famed Joy of Cooking (not the newer edition, rather the edition from the '70s)? I gave away my copy of the Joy some years ago, because I found the book of little practical value, but lately something jogged my memory and I wanted to find the name of the author -- I knew he had some "geeky" name like Herbert -- who was mentioned somewhere in the opus as having written a great kitchen book. I think you've found him for me, in Harold McGee. Good grief -- is the dear man less than a thousand years old?

Alder wrote:
06.06.08 at 8:49 AM

Nancy, if you're interested, Harold has a (very good) blog: http://news.curiouscook.com/

Rich wrote:
06.06.08 at 11:54 AM


All I know is the Budometer pegged me pretty good. I'm sure it isn't as scientific as a state/county fair, but I found it informative and fun. Anyway, I'm glad you are passionate about something.

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