Act I – The Set-Up
Not including extrasensory perception, we humans use three of our senses to imbibe and interpret wine: Sight, Smell and Taste. For those who do use ESP to interpret wine, you’re either a “Zen sommelier” or should be using the spit bucket more at wine tastings.
It’s generally known that certain species in the animal kingdom have stronger sensory perception abilities than others. We know for example that dogs have a sense of smell a thousand times greater than humans. Cats have a stronger sense of smell than humans too, but only about 14-times stronger. So dogs are superior to cats, at least when it comes to their ability to smell. But do sensory perception differences extend to humans, more specifically, to gender? Are there physiological differences between men and women—in our critical wine-tasting abilities of sight, smell and taste—that could help us answer the eternal question: which sex is superior when it comes to tasting and interpreting wine, men or women?
I decided that the Frank Talk On Wine audience deserved to know, so I did the research and filed this report.
Act II – The Eyes Have It
Sight is an important, though often under-appreciated, sense for interpreting wine, and is usually the first sense we engage when using a deductive wine tasting approach. Think CSI. You’re Horatio Caine. Your primary objective is to collect and evaluate a series of clues to solve a mystery; namely, what’s in the glass in front of you. What we see can tell us a lot.
The color of the wine, the concentration of that color and any variations in the color all contribute to helping us develop a preliminary hypothesis.
- For red wines, is the color ruby, garnet or purple? If you put your finger behind the glass, can you see it through the wine? Does the wine along the rim of the glass look similar to the color of the wine in the center of the glass, or is it a different shade? The answers to these questions can not only begin to reveal the type of grape that was used to make the wine, but where the wine was made and even when the wine was made.
- For white wines, is the color pale straw, yellow of gold? Do you see hints of green, or copper?
But are the ladies better equipped to answer these questions? Research conducted by geneticists at Arizona State University and the University of Maryland found that our ability to perceive the color red is strongly correlated with the X chromosome and that women have two X chromosomes, while men have one. This “X-Factor” gives women a clear advantage in discerning colors in this part of spectrum. The research further concluded that this physiological distinction also accounts for the fact that eight-10% of men in the U.S. suffer from red-green color blindness. So as a population, women can discern important wine colors and shades more accurately than men.
Act III – It Might Depend if Women Smell Better
You may already be aware, but our sense of smell is by far our most important sense when it comes to interpreting wine. So much so, there would be greater truth in labeling if wineries called those places where guests convene to imbibe and interpret wines as “smelling rooms” instead of “tasting rooms.” On second thought, that would be a little creepy, so let’s stick with tasting rooms. Better imagery.
Why is our sense of smell so important to our ability to interpret wine?
- First, humans are able to detect and distinguish up to one trillion aromas—many, many more than flavors we can distinguish through taste.
- Secondly, our sense of taste is highly correlated to our sense of smell, or more technically referred to as “retronasal olfaction.” Okay, you’re right, we can actually see “wine geekdom” just off in the distance, but I promise to keep this simple. Think about the smell-taste connection this way—remember the last time you ate something when you had a really bad cold and stuffed up head? Were you nursing yourself back to health with a bowl of cream of tomato soup, or cream of mushroom soup? You probably would have had a tough time telling the difference. Still not convinced? Then go out and buy a bag of flavored jellybeans. Pop one in your mouth, pinch your nose closed and what do you taste? Is that banana? Or is that tutti-frutti? Or licorice? (Ugh, I hate licorice jellybeans. They’re the devil’s bean work.)
- Lastly, our sense of smell is particularly important because it is strongly linked with our limbic system (i.e., our “emotional brain”) and our ability to recall memories. And this is r-r-e-eeally important when it comes to our ongoing wine experience and journey because we are continually taking mental photographs of the aromas and tastes of the wine we consume, then storing then somewhere in our limbic system and eventually recalling them in the future to help us recognize a particular wine. How do you explain that master sommeliers have that amazing ability to sail through blind tastings and accurately name the wines, the regions, the producers and even the vintages? Were they just born wine idiot savants? Uh, no. It’s simple folks—they’ve consumed truckloads of wine and have assembled inventories of thousands of mental wine photographs to pull from. So back to that glass in front of you. Are you developing mental connections between the smells of lemon and minerality with that glass of Chablis? Or the butter and toasted oak with that glass of California-style chardonnay? Or the fact that your grandfather always had a small glass of Chianti when grandma made homemade pizza? The memory-building process is complex and more often than not, the “nose knows.”
Which clues can we compile during this portion of our wine fact-finding mission? Fruit aromas. Floral aromas. The smell of different herbs and spices. Basically, the profile of the wine in the glass in front of us. And there is a wide range of aroma profile possibilities, and each additional fact further builds the case to solve the mystery of the wine in the glass in front of us.
When it comes to gender distinction in the area of smell, a study published last year in PLOS ONE—a multidisciplinary blog for peer-reviewed articles—found women’s brains have up to 50% more olfactory neurons—in other words, women have more brain matter, where it matters, so to speak. And women use this additional mental horsepower to not only detect a broader range of aromas but to better distinguish between different aromas.
Strike two guys.
Act IV – Maybe It’s a Matter of Taste
Though our sense of smell may well be the “mac daddy” of our perceptional abilities in interpreting wine, our sense of taste still plays a vital role. After all, it’s called “wine tasting” for a reason, right?
Humans detect taste with taste receptor cells, which are largely located on the surface of our tongues. Each taste bud contains 50-100 taste cells that represent five primary taste sensations: salty, sour, sweet, bitter and something called umami (a response to glutamates, often found in savory foods, discovered by a Japanese researcher in 1908). While it was once believed that our five taste sensations (except for umami) clustered in different areas on the surface of the tongue—i.e., sweetness on the tip of the tongue, sourness and saltiness on the sides, and bitterness ion the back of the tongue—this is now largely disputed, and it is now believed that our taste sensations are actually randomly dispersed throughout the surface of the tongue.
As part of our wine fact-finding mission, we are primarily using our sense of taste to either confirm or refute what we smelled. Did the white wine smell like lemons and apples, but tasted like pineapple and mangoes? Are you suddenly tasting baking spices that you hadn’t smelled? Those differences need to be reconciled in your mind and the answer might shift your initial conclusion for the type of wine in the glass in front of you.
Additionally, we use our sense of taste to evaluate the “structure” of the wine. Structure is one of those terms that many people feel has been pulled from the pages of the wine geek encyclopedia, but it’s actually an important term to understand and quite easy to comprehend. Think of structure as the four pillars that hold up the wine: Sugar, Acid, Alcohol and Tannin. For now, think of tannin as less of a taste and more of a sensation. Think black tea that has been steeping for a long time. That sense that all of the moisture has been sucked out of your mouth. Or that your teeth are wearing wool socks. That’s tannin. And tannins in wine either come from the grapes or from the oak, if any was used, but that’s enough to know for now. Let’s get back to structure. Like a table or a building or any other structure, if the legs or pillars holding up the structure are out of balance, then structure will either be uneven, or possibly fall flat. And if the sugar, acids, alcohol and tannin are out of balance, then the same will be true for wine. Quality wines are usually “balanced” and/or “integrated” and what you’re tasting should simply be delicious, and not a pronounced taste of any one of the four structural pillars.
Lastly, we use our sense of taste, more broadly, to seek out even more clues that could help us interpret the wine. One way we do this is through what is called “mouth feel.” And mouth feel is what you think—how the wine feels in your mouth. Does it feel light or heavy? Does it feel more like skim milk, whole milk or cream? The answers to these questions can aid us considerably in collecting more clues.
When it comes to the physical sense of taste, once again, the scientific evidence is that the female sex is superior. In studies, including one conducted by Linda M. Bartoshuk of the Yale School of Medicine, women were found to be better at determining the differences in tastes — and even better at describing how things taste. Bartoshuk and her team also found in other studies that women are more likely to be what are called “super tasters,” that minority of people who experience the sense of taste with far greater intensity than the general population on average. The science is a little less robust on the reasons for this, but an increased sensitivity to bitterness and the fact that women tend to have more taste buds are thought to be contributing factors.
Act V – And The Winner Is …
We embarked on a scientific journey to see who really is superior when it comes to tasting ad interpreting wine–men or women? We looked at the human senses of sight, smell and taste to identify any physiological differences that would enable and/or impede either gender. Here’s what we discovered.
In summary, we found that women are better equipped to discern important colors in the wine color spectrum than men. Women have up to 50% more olfactory neurons than men, enabling to detect and discern wine aromas more effectively. Research further showed that women have more taste buds than men and are more able to detect a wider range of flavors. They also have comparatively more developed “emotional brains” where they can store and recall wine memories more easily and effectively. Lastly, additional research found that women are much more skilled than men at effectively communicating what they sense.
An objective, fact-based conclusion? Yes, at least when we look at populations as a whole, research suggests that women on average possess physiological traits that make them superior wine testers. Clink, clink, ladies.
But don’t despair men. There is some redeeming news. Based on additional research that I conducted, we still clearly have the edge in picking up and putting down really heavy objects, show a consistent passion and ability for breaking and smashing stuff, and our edge in the all-important category of sophomoric humor is unassailable.
So let’s face it, guys still rule.