Our tastes aren’t stable: when it comes to tasting wine, don’t forget intra-individual differences
We are familiar with the idea that people differ in their taste biology, and this means that they could be experiencing different things when it comes to tasting the same wine together. We call these inter-individual differences. [In truth, even if we all had the same subset of taste and smell receptors, and the same salivary flow rates, and the same levels of salivary glycosidases, then we’d still experience the same wine differently, because our prior experience affects our perception.]
But we differ in our own tastes with time: our tastes aren’t stable, and this is even when we rule out the role of experience. This is because we are biologically programmed to acquire new tastes. There are a subset of taste preferences that are more-or-less held in common among all people. These are preferences for foods that contain a lot of what we need. For example, fat, protein, sugar, salt. These are pre-programmed, universal tastes.
But then there’s this ability we have to acquire new tastes, even those that we initially find aversive.
We find some tastes aversive for a reason. We shy away from bitterness, because many plant toxins or antifeedants taste bitter. Tannins taste bitter and astringent, for example, and plants make them to stop animals eating them. Because tannins are good at binding proteins, and digestive enzymes are proteins, if we eat too many tannins, we can’t digest. And some poisons are bitter, too.
But some of these aversive compounds might be masking valuable energy resources, so we have this ability to investigate foods that don’t taste very nice, and then if they don’t make us sick (smell is closely tied to memory for this reason) we have this ability to grow to like things – to acquire novel tastes.
Another example might be cheese. It’s a way of preserving milk, creating an energy-rich, protein-rich food that can last. But the smell of microbial activity is initially off-putting, and so cheese is one of those things that many people have to grow to like.
In seasonal climates, preserving food from a season of abundance is an important practice, and sometimes the results of pickling, salting and fermentation can be a little off-putting at first. But we have the ability to grow to love these challenging flavours. Likewise, one way of saving energy into the winter is by growing animals, and then killing them in times when otherwise food is scarce. The ability to eat all of the animal is important, so we are able to grow to love food made from otherwise unpleasant bits of the carcass.
What about wine? Certainly, when I first started drinking wine, I found it a bit of a challenge. Some wines were more suitable as beginner wines, and others were quite hard to like. But this ability to acquire flavours kicks in and suddenly you find yourself drawn to wines that initially were a bit more challenging. Tannins help preserve a wine, but they also make it challenging to drink for novices. Hops do the same thing for beers.
This dynamic nature of our tastes certainly comes into play when it comes to wine appreciation, and our intra-individual variation needs to be taken into account. It makes an already complicated subject just a bit more complicated.