Ever wonder why you loved Twinkies and moon pies when you were younger and, now they taste way too sweet? When I was a kid I used to hate anything bitter, now I eat brussels sprouts and kale. What happened?
Your perception of taste changes as you physically mature and you rewire your brain through experiences. From birth up to around the age of ten or eleven humans are slow growing mammals. As children, we put “things” in our mouth that can kill us. So we are all more hypersensitive to bitter and sour to help us stay alive. Remember poisons are bitter and acids are sour. It is not genetically adaptive to eat poison, and acids can literally burn your throat. Some children are born more sensitive than the rest of us.
As you grow older you physically “mature”. Taste sensitivity tends to change with age depending on the unchanging number of taste buds you were born with and secondarily your positive and negative associative memories that come from what you experience.
Twenty thousand years ago humans lived in “food scarce” environments. This means they ate whenever they could find something to eat. The genes didn’t change much in 20,000 years. While you body is growing your brain recognizes simple carbohydrates (sugar) as “cheap energy”. So we tend to like to eat sweet things while our bodies are still growing. Sugar has only been cheap and plentiful for a few hundred years.
You reach physical maturity around twenty-five (some of us younger some older). When your body is fully grown your preferences for the taste sweet things can change. If you associate sweet foods with pleasure that tends to keep the preference going. If you have 11,000 taste buds, you like sweet wines because the sweetness masked bitterness and bitter things tell you’re mid brain stem to “spit out the poison”.
Men and women are different. Men are still genetically hunters and are testosterone poisoned from before they were born. Women are still genetically gatherers. A man hunting 10,000 years ago would decide whether the meat of the antelope he killed was “good” or “bad” by looking and smelling. No need to put the meat in his mouth to determine whether it was safe. So his sensitivity to bitterness was a somewhat mute point to survival. A woman 10,000 years ago would “gather” fruits, nuts, vegetables, and berries. If she gathered the “wrong” berry, because she was unable to taste bitterness, she and the rest of her tribe could die from poisoning. Non-bitter sensitive gatherers could eliminate a gene pool in one generation. This is one of the reasons women seem to like white wines more often and men like red wines. Eighty percent of supertasters are women.
Women are also hypersensitive to everything when they are pregnant. Pregnant women are vulnerable because they can’t outrun or outclimb a mountain lion. But they can out “sense” one. Their sense of smell, taste, hearing, vision and touch are at their peak when pregnant and to a lesser degree during menstruation.
So a “mature palate” has little to do with whether you will no longer like sweet wines. To a large degree your sweet wine preference is a built in result of gender and genetics. Sweet wine preference has nothing to do with your level of sophistication or knowledge about wine. It is to say the least nearly impossible to “wine educate” your genetics.
Your experience of wine comes primarily from your sense of smell.
Once the wine gets past your sense of taste “the gatekeeper” the details are almost all aromatic. Given a trained palette is a trained nose (olfactory system) the average dog can detect odors at concentrations nearly 100 million times lower than a human can. That hint of oak smells like an oak forest in a hurricane to a canine. According to Rachel Herz, a leading authority on olfaction, a dog’s ability to smell is equivalent to being able to detect the aroma of a drop of chocolate in an area the size of Philadelphia.
The typical human nose can discriminate the difference between 10,000 and 40,000 aromas. Professionals (Chefs, Perfumers, Master Soms) can discriminate up to one hundred thousand. Discriminate and describe are not the same. So humans have the advantage of being able to speak and describe an aroma, although there are some cultural differences that create problems. One man’s grapefruit is another man’s cat pee. The average human can describe about 1,000 different aromas, a sommelier about 2,500, and perfumer closer to 10,000 due to their primary focus on odors alone. Recent research demonstrates that humans have far more neurology dedicated to vision as a percentage of our cortex than dogs. Why, you ask.
Dogs have hundreds of millions more cells devoted to detecting smells than humans. Depending on the breed, dogs have between two hundred million and one billion receptor cells compared to the average human with six million. Yes the dogs with the longest snouts tend to have the most receptors. Dogs also have over 800 different kinds of receptors so they can encode more discreet information than humans. Think about that for a second. The human eye uses three receptors to draw the colorful scan of a Hawaiian sunset in your mind. With 800 receptors the possibilities for the “odor Landscape” are nearly beyond human understanding.
A dog’s olfactory bulb is not as large as one might expect given a dog’s dependence on their sense of smell to navigate the world. Their olfactory bulge takes up about 2 percent of a dog’s brain. Think of this as two pennies to a dollar vs a human’s bulb being one thirtieth of a penny. Of a dog’s total 19,000 genomes, almost 5% provide the blueprint for smell receptors. Dogs have 1,100 olfactory receptor genes, with about eight hundred of them being active. The inactive genes are called pseudo genes. Dogs have about 20% of their olfactory genes inactive whereas humans who not only have fewer olfactory receptor genes more than half are pseudogenes.
I wonder why one of the companies that trains bomb sniffing dogs doesn’t train some dogs to find cork taint (TCA). I could imagine a herd of miniature toy poodles trained to find the wines with cork taint with ease.
Two of the most common complications when you smell wine are adaptation and cross adaptation. A good example of adaptation is when Apple founder Steve Jobs worked at Atari he did not bath for days. Steve didn’t believe he smelled bad because he had “adapted to his own smell”. Steve is a genius but he could no longer smell his own “body odor” because he had adapted. His co-workers knew otherwise. So if you have smelled coffee or hot chocolate before you go wine tasting, you won’t be able to identify those aromas when you start wine tasting. As you taste wine you adapt to the aroma’s in the wine so you can no longer smell them. If you cook fish in your kitchen and then go outside to garden for half an hour and then come back into your house, you notice it smells like fish. While you were cooking the fish you adapted to the smell while you were cooking.
Cross adaptation occurs most commonly in a wine tasting room when a visitor is wearing strong perfume or has been smoking a cigar or cigarette. The aromas the visitor brings keeps you from experiencing the aromas in your wine because your sense of smell adapted to their aromas.
The Nobel Prize winning behavioral psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, is credited with introducing the term Theory-Induced Blindness to describe an all too common human tendency. Many of our theories of how the world works, make us blind to how the world really works. In the case of food and wine pairing if you believe the central tenants of this long held belief system (theory) of the wine industry, you will be “blind” to how food and wine actually interact. A secondary result is less wine being purchased in total. For a deeper understanding of how this occurs in a number of other areas of your life read Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow”. Traditional food and wine pairing, as defined by the wine industry, is in reality a half-truth mixed with a myth, a William Gibson ‘consensual hallucination’, or theory-induced blindness causing a number of attribution errors thereby creating a delusion.
The dictionary definition of the word “pairing” states the following: “Two corresponding things designed for use together like a pair of shoes”. This implies a rule that “must” be followed. A left shoe and a right shoe together create a “pair” of shoes. There is no scientific basis (physics, chemistry, or biology) for food and wine pairing as currently described by the wine business. None, zero, zip, nada, in fact quite the opposite.
The theory-induced blindness of food and wine pairing has a number of obvious negative consequences for the wine business. If you like steak but don’t like Cab or if you like seafood but you don’t like white wine, you are far less likely to drink wine with dinner.
Most wine and food magazines and most wine hospitality staff spend untold time and energy talking about “pairing” this wine with that food. Whenever I am asked, “What do you pair with Cabernet?” I respond by saying “If you like steak and Cabernet together then keep doing that, but understand that it has nothing to do with the color of the food, the varietal, or the weight of the wine. I drink whatever I feel like at the time, regardless of varietal”.
“Cheese and wine pair well together”. Not really. Cheese and wine pairings were studied by Hildegarde Heymann at UC Davis in 2005 (Google it). Her research discovered that pairing red wine with the cheeses did not enhance the flavor of the wine. The study used eight red wines, and eight cheeses. When the trained tasting panel members “paired” eight different cheeses, the taster’s perception of the wines did change. Two results that indicate the lack of “pairing included the bitterness of the wines was accentuated, and other sensory characteristics were blunted.
The wine industry “intelligentsia” often make the statement “Steak and Cabernet go together because they are both red and heavy”. When you actually think about this statement for a minute, it just doesn’t hold up. I actually cook my steaks so they are brown on the outside not red. Very few people I know eat steak tartare. If you want “heavy” wine drink Muscat or some other sweet wine. The higher percentage of sugar (BRIX) in Muscat ensures that the weight per cubic centimeter is far heavier than Cabernet. If you don’t believe me, pour a half a glass of Muscat into a half a glass of Cabernet and watch the Cabernet float to the surface. Physics works every time.
If you enjoy a Cabernet whenever you eat steak please continue to do so. The “theory induced blindness” of your belief in the rules of “food and wine pairing” cause attribution errors that create your delusion. Welcome to the human race — we are all delusional on a regular basis.
Just because your great steak and wonderful Cabernet occur on the table at the same time does not mean they are causal. Dean Kahneman’s human “fast brain” makes sense of the nonsensical world by “making things up that seem to make sense at the time”. As humans we make both fast and slow brain attribution errors all the time.
If you had a great steak and a great Cabernet on a night with a full moon, while you were sitting on red vinyl, do you need all these things to occur at the same time to have the same enjoyable experience? Only if you believe you do. So if you really believe steak and Cabernet go together and Chardonnay doesn’t then that’s what will happen for you.
A different way of thinking about this is from a human sensory science perspective — you are either avoiding a negative sensory adaptation or creating a positive sensory adaptation by what chefs call “flavor balancing”. An easy way to understand a negative adaptation is to brush your teeth and then drink some orange juice. Instead of being sweet and tart the orange juice will be bitter and sour. You have adapted to the taste of sweetness from the toothpaste so sweetness disappears in the orange juice.
This is why you need a “dessert wine” with a sweet dessert. If you have a Cabernet with a sweet dessert you will be unable to taste any sweetness in the Cabernet, Chardonnay, or other non-sweet wines because your sense of taste has adapted. You are not “pairing”, you are avoiding a negative adaptation.
All of your senses adapt (sight, sound, taste, aroma, and touch). If you go outside into a sunlit day from a dark room your eyes adapt to the brightness. If you get into your car after your teenager had borrowed it, you will likely turn the volume down because your teenager’s hearing adapted to his loud music. If you cook fish at home and then go outside for a few minutes, when you come back inside you will probably notice the apparent fishy smell you had adapted to.
If you have ever experienced a “floatation” tank, you feel like you are floating in air because the salt-water temperature is 98.6 degrees (the same as your body) and the buoyancy of the very salty water floats you above the bottom. You quickly adapt to the sensation and can no longer feel the water touching your skin. If you have never experienced a flotation tank then you should, a remarkable experience. John Lilly invented the tank, because he wanted to know what it felt like to be a dolphin.
Sorry, but I assign homework. When you get home I would like you to broil a small piece of fish, a piece of steak, and a piece of chicken, but do not season them at all. No salt, pepper, garlic, lemon juice, oil or sauce, just cooked meat. Now pour yourself a glass of your favorite wine. Take a sip of the wine and swallow. Next eat a small piece of any of the different colors of broiled unseasoned meat. If you like Cabernet eat a piece of the steak, if you like Chardonnay eat a piece of the chicken or fish. It doesn’t matter. Then take a sip of the wine again.
The wine will taste flat and metallic because you have adapted to the taste of glutamates and nucleotides (Umami or Savory) so that taste disappears in the wine. So the steak ruins the Cabernet and the fish ruins the Chardonnay. The more taste buds you have, the more you will notice. If you are a non-taster with very few taste buds, you won’t notice much of any difference because your taste sensitivity is minimal. It’s physics, fewer sensors equals less sensitivity.
Avoiding negative adaptations or creating positive adaptations with wine and food is called “flavor balancing”, a technique commonly used by European trained chefs (Google it). I like to simplify flavor balancing for non-professionals, and say you become a little Italian or Chinese. In Italy the cuisine includes a little lemon and salt on everything. Italy produces lots of lemons, but they don’t make them all into Limón cello. Italy has a warm climate and food tends to spoil quickly.
The acid in the lemon juice and the salt help prevent the food from spoiling. In addition, the acid in the lemon juice prevents the “negative adaptation” from occurring. Salt (just a little) naturally suppresses bitterness so the wine tastes smoother, and salt helps aromatic compounds become easier to smell. Any entrée or side that you put a little salt and lemon juice on will taste great with any wine you happen to want to enjoy and so will the wine. As long as the entrée or side does not have a sweet sauce. The Chinese use vinegar and soy sauce to accomplish the same thing. The only difference is soy sauce in addition to salt, has umami from the fermented soybeans.
Your personal experience of wine is individual and temporal because what you think of wine is determined by the intersection of three key variables: genetics, experience (beliefs and memories), and current environment. If the wait staff in a restaurant suggest a Cabernet with that steak you ordered, and you don’t like red wine, just smile and order your Chardonnay, Muscat, Rose, Pino Gri or whatever you enjoy and ask for a slice of lemon, there is usually salt on the table. Balance the flavors and enjoy the wine.
As the late, great dean of wine Harvey Posert says “You pair the wine with the diner, not dinner!”.