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There Are Super Palates, But No Perfect Ones

A good taster has more than just sensitivity

James Laube
Posted: November 15, 2005

It's time to bury some urban legends.

One myth concerns TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole, the chemical compound that creates the wine flaw known as "cork taint"). It's true that I am super-sensitive to TCA and can detect it at extremely low levels. But I'm not the only one. Not by a long shot.

I'm able to pick up the musty, chlorine-like and bitter aspirin character that TCA imparts in wines, whether it's from bad corks or funky cellars. I smell and taste it at levels as low as 1 part per trillion.

I know this because after years of tasting wines and suspecting that many had TCA, Wine Spectator had some of those wines tested by a chemical lab. The tests determined that the wines did indeed have measurable levels of TCA. They were low, but—as my blind tastings demonstrated—not undetectable.

This sensitivity led me to investigate sources of systemic TCA, where the taint had become established in wineries' cellars and then migrated at low levels to the bottled wines. Over time, at specific wineries, the level of TCA in certain wines not only increased, but in some instances doubled.

But ever since I began writing about this important issue, there's been a false notion that I'm the only one who can detect TCA at these "inhuman" levels. That's just not true.

These nay-sayers claim that TCA at 1 or 1.5 or 2 or 3 ppt is below human detection. I taste with editors at Wine Spectator who are nearly as sensitive to TCA as I am. I've also heard from, or read comments from, several dozen people who have found TCA taint in the same wines that I did.

The topic of TCA and cork taint came up the other night at an off-line dinner in Napa. One wine, the 1990 Dalla Valle Napa Valley Cabernet, smelled off to me. Others who smelled or tasted it simply found it dull or muted and not up to its usual standard. So while the wine was obviously corky to me, others just thought it was off—and were less sure of the cause.

We all have different thresholds when it comes to tasting and detecting TCA (or brettanomyces, or volatile acidity, or other flaws). Given the same wine, some people will be put off by the faults. Others don't perceive them at all because the levels fall under their thresholds. Still others don't consider these flavors to be defects. They no doubt wonder what all the fuss is about when wines are marked down by those of us who don't like those characteristics.

Which brings us to a second myth of wine: the "perfect palate." There is no such thing.

Taste sensitivity is an inborn characteristic. According to scientists, roughly 25 percent of people are considered to be "non-tasters," who don't have sensitive taste buds. About 25 percent are "super-tasters," and the remaining 50 percent are considered "normal" tasters.

Being a super-taster doesn't guarantee having a "good" palate in the sense of being able to detect nuances in wine. Au contraire—the super-tasters are so sensitive that wine (and coffee and broccoli and many other flavors) can be painful to them. And those who do have good palates still have points at which they are more or less vulnerable to varying levels of brett, bitterness or residual sugar.

What typically separates the great tasters is that they do indeed have very sensitive palates, but they also have excellent taste memories, exposure to a wide range of wines, and years of experience, along with an ability to concentrate and to focus on a wine's inherent character. They are also consistent in their likes and dislikes of certain styles of wine.

The bottom line is that we can only describe what we taste and try to convey those impressions by describing the wine. Since we all have different palates and points of reference, we will all have different reactions.

Finally, there is a narrow school of thought that some people can remember every single wine they've ever tasted. I suppose it's possible.

Still, even if one had total recall of tens of thousands of wines, one would have to grapple with issues such as bottle variation and wine as it matures and changes. Which tasting memory do you store, the great young bottle or the fading ordinary one?

Then again, if you can remember with precision every single wine you've tasted, there's no reason not to store them all.

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