How much do our taste buds influence our perception of wine?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

How much do individual differences in taste buds influence how we perceive wine? I have a completely different reaction to some wines than my buddies do.

To me the wine might go down with a burning sensation, or I have cottonmouth when no one else does. I generally stick to white wines. Nevertheless, it has led me to feel like most wines go down like medicine, and I’ve concluded that I have rogue taste buds not built for wine.

—Lynn, Chicago

Dear Lynn,

Our taste buds are as unique as our fingerprints: No two sets of taste buds are the same. Their arrangement and composition are a result of our DNA, but our tasting likes and dislikes are also shaped by environmental factors and personal experiences. Genetics are also largely responsible for taste sensitivity: Some people are simply more sensitive tasters than others, meaning something slightly sweet to an average person might be exceedingly sweet to someone more sensitive to sweetness.

These so-called “supertasters” literally have more taste buds than the rest of us (taste buds are the tiny, mushroom-shaped papillae on our tongues that house our taste receptors). Supertasters are actually usually pretty picky eaters, due to their heightened sensitivity—coffee and vegetables can taste too bitter, and spicy foods can taste painfully hot; supertasters can also find wine unpleasant, especially wines high in tannins and/or alcohol.

Conversely, there are also “non-tasters,” or people who have fewer taste buds than average. They tend to find many foods and drinks bland, and might be fond of “over” seasoning their food with lots of salt or hot sauce.

Based on your description of how wines frequently taste to you, it sounds like your palate is on the sensitive side. That doesn’t mean you have to write off wine entirely, but it will definitely impact which wines hold the most appeal for you. Consider avoiding red wines, which have more tannins, and which might taste bitter to sensitive tasters. Pick delicate wines with lower alcohol percentages. Oaky wines might not be for you. And keeping wines chilled will help keep the alcohol from seeming too “hot” to your palate.

If you want to learn more about your level of taste sensitivity, consider visiting an otolaryngologist, or ENT.

—Dr. Vinny

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