Should you pay attention to wine ratings by experts?

If an expert’s ability to taste wine is different from yours, should you listen to their recommendations?

Asparagus? Strawberries? Perhaps a wine expert can discern those tastes in a glass of wine, but can you? According to a team of researchers from Penn State and Brock University in Canada, a wine expert’s acute sense of taste might mean that expert ratings and recommendations aren’t relevant to you, if you can’t discern small differences in the taste of wine. The research team published their results in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture in March 2012.

John Hayes is assistant professor, food science, and director of Penn State’s sensory evaluation center. He said in a release from the university:

What we found is that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different. And, if an expert’s ability to taste is different from the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations?

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In the study, participants sampled an odorless chemical – propylthiouracil, also known as PROP or prope. It’s used to measure a person’s reaction to bitter tastes. According to the researchers, people with acute tasting ability will find the chemical extremely bitter, while people with normal tasting abilities say it has a slightly bitter taste, or is tasteless.

The researchers said that wine experts were significantly more likely to find the chemical more bitter than non-experts, indicating their extreme sensitivity to tastes. Hayes said:

Just like people can be color blind, they can also be taste blind.

The researchers also found that people who were more adventurous in trying new foods were also more willing to drink new types of wines and alcoholic beverages, but this food adventurousness did not necessarily predict wine expertise. While wine experts were more likely to try new wines and alcoholic beverages, Hayes said they were not more likely to try new foods.

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Hayes said that previous studies have shown that biological factors may explain the acute taste of experts. Many wine experts may be drawn to careers in the wine industry based on their enhanced ability to taste. While learning plays a role in their expertise and other factors matter, such as how they communicate their thoughts and opinions on wines, some wine experts may have an innate advantage in learning to discern small differences in wine. He said:

It’s not just learning. Experts also appear to differ at a biological level.

Bottom line: The acute taste of wine experts may mean that expert recommendations in wine magazines and journals might be too subtle for average wine drinkers to sense. That’s according to a team of researchers from the U.S. and Canada whose findings were published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture in March 2012.

Read more at Penn State’s website