Last October, an argument broke out on the Internet between two wine experts: What matters more, nature or nurture?\r\n\r\nWine journalist and author Jamie Goode and Tim Hanni, MW, entered a debate about how influential genetics are for wine preference. Hanni contended that we\u2019re programmed to like certain flavors. Goode agreed to an extent, but he said it was a more complex mix of genetics and acquired taste.\r\n\r\nAlthough the term didn\u2019t come up, in a way the disagreement was over so-called \u201csupertasters,\u201d defined as people who are more sensitive than average when it comes to taste. Scientists have been studying supertasters for decades, and estimate that roughly 25 percent of the population falls into this category.\r\n\r\nMost of the research on supertasters has focused on bitterness\u2014in part because of an accidental discovery that some people can taste certain bitter chemicals while others can\u2019t detect these same chemicals at all. (More on this in a moment.)\r\n\r\nFolks who can detect these bitter chemicals often dislike cruciferous vegetables, black coffee, dark chocolate, hot peppers and the sting of alcohol. In wine, supertasters are thought to prefer something sweet, and some research supports this idea. One large study of 1,010 American wine drinkers found that supertasters, broadly speaking, preferred sweet and fortified wines over dry table wines.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nTo understand whether being a supertaster really makes that much of a difference when it comes to wine, I ran an experiment on myself and nine family and friends using a simple supertaster test that you can buy online. I also interviewed half-a-dozen scientists\u2014including the woman who coined the term \u201csupertaster\u201d\u2014and pored over the scientific literature.\r\n\r\nIt turns out that I\u2019m a supertaster, despite the fact that I loathe sweet wine and once hated, but now love, Brussels sprouts. I have to agree with Goode: It\u2019s complicated.\r\nThe History of Supertasters\r\nTo really understand the term \u201csupertaster,\u201d we need to jump back to the 1930s, when Arthur Fox, a chemist at DuPont, spilled a white powder called phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) in the lab. His lab mate, as the story goes, complained that the powder got into his mouth and tasted bitter. Fox couldn\u2019t taste a thing. So the two took turns to sample the PTC. (As one does, I suppose.)\r\n\r\nThis set off formal research. It turned out that both Fox and his colleague were both right. Some people are genetically predisposed to taste the bitterness of the PTC, while others aren\u2019t. The scientists then labeled these people, respectively, tasters and nontasters.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nIn the 1990s, Linda Bartoshuk, an experimental psychologist at the University of Florida, delved into the intensity that tasters experience. She used a different bitter chemical thought to be a little safer to ingest, 6-n-propylthiouracil, or PROP. Bartoshuk grouped test subjects into three categories: nontasters, medium tasters and supertasters. Eventually, researchers linked PROP detection to specific genes, one group of which helps build taste buds.\r\n\r\nScientists continue to use PROP tests in taste research. The tests use small strips or discs of paper laced with PROP that are placed on a subject\u2019s tongue. Nontasters won\u2019t taste anything. Medium tasters detect a little bitterness. Supertasters may gag.\r\n\r\nBut Bartoshuk says that PROP tests don\u2019t prove you\u2019re a supertaster in the modern sense of the word.\r\n\r\n\u201c \u2018Supertaster\u2019 refers far more generally to people who perceive taste as very intense,\u201d she says. While her original experiments focused on PROP, \u201clong ago we realized it was way too narrow.\u201d\r\n\r\nStill, the term is misused.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe problem is when people extrapolate PROP supertasting and go too far,\u201d says Gary Pickering, professor of biological sciences and psychology/wine science at Brock University. \u201cThere are many other genes that explain other aspects of taste.\u201d\r\n\r\nScientists have identified around 25 bitterness genes, and there are yet other genes related to sweet, sour, salty and umami flavors. If you\u2019re a supertaster on a PROP test, you might not have the genetic makeup for heightened taste across the board. And just because you can\u2019t taste PROP, that doesn\u2019t mean you\u2019re a nontaster, only that you can\u2019t taste that single bitter compound.\r\nTwo Friend and Family Supertaster Wine Tastings\r\nThe genetic complexity of supertasting helps explain the results of experiments I conducted on my friends and family. In the first experiment, I tested friends with PROP strips from Supertaster Labs and then gave them a flight of wine with the labels hidden: a Chardonnay (Chablis), Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Tempranillo.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nIn the second experiment, I took leftover bottles of Riesling and Shiraz to an eight-person Thanksgiving dinner. I gave everyone a PROP test, and then took informal notes through the meal as they ate and drank as normal.\r\n\r\nThe Brooklyn results were mixed. I was a PROP supertaster and vastly preferred the Chablis and the Pinot Noir. I hated the Riesling. Another friend was also a supertaster. She preferred the Chablis and the Tempranillo, the latter she described as medicinal: \u201cIt smells like a hospital, but I like it.\u201d The third was a medium taster who said the test strip gave off \u201cstrong notes of Band-Aid.\u201d She liked the Shiraz the most, followed by Sauvignon Blanc.\r\n\r\nMy Thanksgiving dinner experiment wasn\u2019t any clearer. My test subjects included four supertasters, three medium tasters and one nontaster. Two of the supertasters (including me) disliked the Riesling, but had no major reaction to the Shiraz. One medium taster hated the Shiraz, but found the Riesling okay. The nontaster liked the Riesling. The rest either didn\u2019t drink wine or didn\u2019t report a preference.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nThe results from these experiments surprised exactly none of the experts.\r\n\r\nMost obviously, these experiments didn\u2019t have enough people. You\u2019d need at least hundreds of subjects to identify any real trends.\r\n\r\nBut there\u2019s more at play. When it comes to genetics, what applies to a population doesn\u2019t predict the characteristics of an individual.\r\n\r\n\u201cBiology is not predeterministic; it\u2019s probabilistic,\u201d says John Hayes, a food and sensory scientist at Penn State.\r\n\r\nIn other words, if you have the genetic makeup of a PROP supertaster, it increases the odds that you\u2019ll prefer sweet wine. But you can easily have other preferences, thanks to a complex interaction of your genes, socialization and more.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe fact is, there is variability in taste perception, smell perception, bitter perception and sweetness perception,\u201d says Hayes. \u201cWhen you add these together, it\u2019s difficult to predict an individual\u2019s wine preference.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe might be able to get there, but we aren\u2019t there yet,\u201d he says.\r\n\r\nOne important factor may be what sensory scientists call \u201cwine adventurous,\u201d says Pickering. This personality trait may help supertasters overcome an initial aversion to an intense flavor, and even learn to enjoy it.\r\n\r\n\r\nDoes Your Biology Even Matter, Then?\r\nWhile being a supertaster may not predict your wine preferences, your personal biology plays a role in what you like. This understanding can enhance your wine selections.\r\n\r\nResearch from Pickering and Hayes, for example, suggests that wine experts are more likely to be supertasters than consumers. This may mean that the average consumer\u2019s tastes don\u2019t always align with a wine reviewer or sommelier. If you can\u2019t detect a particular note in an award-winner, or if you don\u2019t really like the bottle that a restaurant paired with your meal\u2014that\u2019s okay. You may just have a different genetic profile from whoever recommended it.\r\n\r\nBecause of these differences, some experts promote a more individualized approach to assessing wines. Rather than to rely on standard wine benchmarks, Anna Katharine Mansfield, associate professor of enology at Cornell University, says: \u201cI want to teach people how to know their own equipment, to understand how their sensory equipment is allowing them to perceive the world.\u201d\r\n\r\nAfter hearing about the two above experiments, Mansfield suggested a better test might be an orange wine, a white wine that is made with an extended period of skin contact.\r\n\r\n\u201cThere are some white wine skin components that can be transferred to the wine that are quite bitter,\u201d she says. \u201cSo that\u2019s always been one I thought might have more potential to be pushed one way or another because of inborn preference.\u201d\r\n\r\nIt was possible that a supertaster wouldn\u2019t like a trendy orange wine.\r\n\r\nSo I bought a bottle. To me, it wasn't particularly bitter, rather it was smooth. I liked it just fine.\r\nDiscover more about how science is leading drinks into the future in our Wine & Tech issue.