Never let a man pick the wine! 

When it comes to talking wine at dinner parties, knowing your ‘tannins’ from your ‘terroir’ might make you sound like an expert. But is that what really matters when it comes to detecting the subtle flavours in your glass?

In fact, everything from your gender to your genetics, even how much sleep you’ve had, can affect your assessment of a wine. A Yale University study, for example, found women are more likely to have sensitive palates than men.

The study of gastrophysics — the factors that influence us when we taste food and drink — is a relatively new one. And it’s fascinating.

Forget wine terms like ‘legs’ and ‘length’, here’s what you really need to know to impress guests and get the most out of your wine.

Wine expert Helen McGinn shared facts about the beverage (pictured) to impress guests with at events this summer (file image) 

SO WHAT MAKES A WINE IRRESISTIBLE?

A bottle of wine contains mostly water, then alcohol, then flavours — deriving from grape varieties, oak barrels in which wine may be aged, natural acids, sugars and tannins. The balance of these gives the liquid its distinctive taste — and, even more importantly, smell.

When judging wine, tastebuds take a back seat. Nasal receptors are what really matters.

You use your nose to ‘taste’ a wine in two ways. First, there’s what’s called ‘outside’ smell, or orthonasal olfaction, when you stick your nose in a glass of wine and take a long sniff.

But when you swill the wine around your mouth, although your tastebuds pick up key tastes (sweet, salty, sour, and so on), it is receptors at the back of your nasal passages that pick up sophisticated differences in flavour. This is called retronasal olfaction, or ‘inside’ smell.

ARE WOMEN REALLY BETTER AT TASTING?

The average male wine buff won’t want to believe it — but many studies show that women, generally, have a more sophisticated palate than men.

Take the Yale research, that found about 35 per cent of women are ‘supertasters’ — people very sensitive to taste due to a much higher density of tastebuds than normal. Only 15 per cent of men are supertasters.

But what about smell? Well, women are better at that too.

Professor Charles Spence, an Oxford University gastrophysicist, says his wine tastings study found women are better at identifying aromas, too.

Studies claim women have a more sophisticated palate than men and their ability to smell may have evolved to also be more sensitive (file image) 

Studies claim women have a more sophisticated palate than men and their ability to smell may have evolved to also be more sensitive (file image) 

He said: ‘Women are more able to acquire a sensitivity to odours, especially biologically significant ones, than men.’

A 2014 study found female brains, on average, had 43 per cent more cells and almost 50 per cent more neurons in their olfactory centres (related to smelling) than men’s. Why? Well, women may have evolved to be sensitive to smell as it could help them choose a healthy mate.

Men, in contrast, are better at detecting rapid motion — which would have helped with hunting.

Marcia Pelchat, a sensory scientist at Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia, U.S., thinks nurture could also play a part. ‘Women are more likely to do the laundry, the cooking, the cleaning — they worry about whether a cloth smells of mildew or if food’s gone bad,’ she says. ‘So they may actually have more experience with odours and flavours.’

DO YOU HAVE A SMELL ‘BLIND SPOT’?

No matter how many taste buds you have or how sensitive your palate, you are almost certainly unable to detect certain aromas.

Professor Spence says we are all partially ‘anosmic’ — lacking a sense of smell — for certain compounds. Each person’s nose has about 400 receptors, each sensitive to a few smells and controlled by a particular gene.

Professor Spence revealed no two people have the same receptors and therefore each person has a smell 'blind spot' (file image) 

Professor Spence revealed no two people have the same receptors and therefore each person has a smell ‘blind spot’ (file image) 

But no two people have exactly the same receptors, or genes. We all have a smell ‘blind spot’.

Many of us will never notice this — but it can really make a difference. For example, one person in a hundred is unable to smell vanilla as they lack the gene needed to do so.

This explains why some people can’t detect that vanilla-like oaky smell in wine, while others can spot an oaky bottle as soon as the cork is pulled.

CHEMICAL CLASH THAT RUINS DINNER

Think how orange juice tastes after brushing your teeth. Horrible! The same principle applies to wine — what you eat with it changes your perception of the food and the wine. That’s why there are food pairing ‘rules’ — such as red wine with red meat and white wine with fish.

But how do the rules work? It can be explained, in part, by interactions taking place between chemicals in the food and wine. Tannins in red wine bond with protein and fat in red meats, softening both the wine and the meat flavours. And an acidic white wine acts like a squeeze of lemon, making white fish taste better and fresher.

Experts claim everything going on in the room around you can influence your perception of flavour. A study suggests rooms with red lighting brings out the sweeter notes (file image)

Experts claim everything going on in the room around you can influence your perception of flavour. A study suggests rooms with red lighting brings out the sweeter notes (file image)

Having said that, modern, lighter reds can work brilliantly with tuna and salmon.

Richer whites or rosés can work as well as a red with lighter meats such as pork. But try a tannic red with white fish and you might encounter a metallic taste, owing to a higher iron content.

MUSIC TO YOUR TASTEBUDS?

Everything from the room you’re in to what’s going on around you can influence how you perceive flavour. That’s why part of a wine critic’s job is to filter out distractions. One expert wears ear defenders to cut out the sound of conversation.

A 2014 study asked 3,000 wine drinkers to try wines under different lighting. Red light brought out sweeter and fruitier notes while green made them experience fresh, sharper tastes.

This is because we have such a strong sense of what each colour is ‘like’ — red is rich and juicy, like berries, while green is acidic, like citrus — that it can change our idea of what we’re drinking.

Professor Spence claims classical music can make a wine taste more expensive (file image)

Professor Spence claims classical music can make a wine taste more expensive (file image)

Professor Spence says music also plays a part: ‘Classical music makes wine taste more expensive, tinkling, high-pitched tracks bring out sweetness. Low-pitched music brings out bitter notes.’

The weather can also affect the taste of a wine — if air is too dry, for example, the lining of the nose will dry out and decrease the sensitivity of your nasal receptors.

DO YOUR SENSES IMPROVE WITH AGE?

Just as our eyesight deteriorates with age, so do our senses of taste and smell. The number of tastebuds and sensor cells in our noses decreases.

There’s one exception: women of childbearing age are much more sensitive to flavour than those older or younger — perhaps because they need to be alert to toxins their child, or unborn baby, may ingest.

However, there are no studies that prove that the type of wine we like changes with age, or that our palate becomes more refined. We tend to stick with familiar tastes — maybe from habit.

And, there’s no right or wrong way to judge a wine. No two people experience taste in the same way because tastebuds vary. So what seems bitter to one person may not taste bad to another.



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