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06.04.2008

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.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.