Sex, sight and pregnancy influences wine judging ability
“Nearly 300 wines were judged over two days by a blind panel of international and national wine judges.”
This was the startling introduction to a recently received press release promoting success at a wine show. Where did they manage to find so many unsighted wine judges? Is it true that if we lose one sense the others are heightened?
I’ve never judged with CP Lin, the well-known unsighted Canterbury winemaker who spent 16 years making wine for Mountford Estate before launching his own label. He has a pretty good reputation as a wine taster and I certainly like his wines.
“If blindness heightened the senses of taste and smell then there would be more blind winemakers and chefs”, explained Lin. “It’s true that when you lose one sense you use the others more, but it’s probably a born-with ability and you need the talent to put this to the right use… blindness is just a director.”
Does sex make a difference? Or to put it more politely, are women better tasters than men? Yes, says Robert Bath, a wine and beverage studies professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley.
“I’ve seen (women outperforming men) enough times to know it’s there,” he says. “Probably females are better at accessing olfactory memories, but I don’t know why. Maybe men don’t pay as much attention?”
Linda Bartoshuk, a professor at the University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste, has found that super-tasting abilities are more common in women than in men. She says it’s hard to come up with a good estimate. But in one study of 4,000 Americans, she found that 34 percent of them were super-tasting women; by comparison, super-tasting men were 22 percent of the study population.
What’s a super-taster? A super-taster is someone who has more than 30 taste buds in the size of a hole punch on your tongue. Super-tasters have a heightened sense of sweetness, bitterness and astringency. If broccoli, grapefruit and coffee taste bitter you could be a super-taster. If you find most foods bland and unexciting you would be a non-taster. Average tasters occupy the middle ground.
I think that sensitivity to aromas and a good palate memory are more important than having 30+ taste buds (you can easily measure these by getting an imprint of your tongue and counting them). Practice is another key factor. Tasting wine is like hitting a tennis ball at a garage door 1000 times, the more you do it the better you get (as someone who tastes a dozen or more wines every day, that’s my trump card). I haven’t counted my taste buds if you are wondering.
An English supermarket group rather controversially advertised for pregnant women to join their wine buying team because pregnancy is supposed to heighten taste sensitivity. I guess that would be an asset if the supermarket chain was deliberately selecting wines that would appeal to pregnant woman, although I’d suggest that pregnant wine drinkers are a rather small and uneconomic target market. Pregnancy does indeed appear to heighten taste sensitivity but anecdotal evidence suggests that it also distorts taste perception.
If you want to improve your wine tasting ability you could try losing one or two senses. Men should consider a sex change and, if it’s on the cards, pregnancy is an option. On the other hand, it might be more effective to simply taste more wines.