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Ability to Detect Aromas is Inherited

Participants tasting wine during the 2013 Concours Mondial de Bruxelles
© AFP | Participants tasting wine during the 2013 Concours Mondial de Bruxelles
Study finds "everyone experiences their own unique ‘flavor world.’"

Could wine judges be DNA-tested to assess their wine-tasting ability in the future? It's not as unlikely as it sounds, following the publication of a study that suggests our genetic make-up has an impact on our wine-tasting prowess.

A report published by New Zealand’s Plant and Food Research, published in this week’s edition of the journal Current Biology, has found an association between our genes and what we can and can’t smell – and therefore taste.

The findings may go some way to explaining why we vary in our sensitivity to aromas, notes co-author Dr. Richard Newcomb. Anecdotal evidence has always shown that "someone may describe something that you just don’t detect. Even judges have known they have blind spots, but we have not known what the basis of that is.”

However, his team's latest research points to DNA as a cause. “Our ability to smell certain aromas is inherited,” reveals Newcomb.

What’s more, the subjectivity of wine tasting has been highlighted in the study. The participants each had many different combinations of sensitivities to odors – “supporting the notion that everyone experiences their own unique ‘flavor world.’"

As a result of the study's findings, a local tea and coffee company has asked if it is possible to screen its judges genetically to identify blind spots in their tasting ability. The logical conclusion, admits Newcomb, is genetic screening for wine judges.

The researchers tested the sensitivity of close to 200 people for 10 different compounds that occur in food and wine. They found that the ability of participants to detect four of the odors correlated to certain chromosomes.

One of the odors that had strong associations with an individual’s genetic make-up was beta-ionone, which has a floral – specifically violet – characteristic. It can be found in many red wines, particularly pinot noir and cabernet franc.

The violet aromas in pinot noir are particularly hard for some people to detect
© AFP | The violet aromas in pinot noir are particularly hard for some people to detect

 “Wines are very complex in terms of their flavor compounds, but beta-ionone is present in quite a few wines, particularly pinot noir,” says Newcomb.

However, some people simply can’t detect the violet character, the researchers found. They had spiked foods and drinks with the violet-scented compound to assess the panel’s reactions.

“We stuck it in chocolate and some people who can detect beta-ionone didn’t like it because it was a strange combination of flavors, but those who couldn’t detect it didn’t notice,” reports Newcomb. “Even at high concentration they just detect a sharp, pungent smell like solvent or petrol.”

The researchers have already set up a trial to test whether participants can detect – and like – the violet character imparted by beta-ionone in New Zealand pinot noir. “We are doing experiments with spiking beta ionone to up or down the violet note," explains Newcomb. The aim? "To see if people can or can’t smell the notes and how that relates to liking the wine.”

If you’ve inherited the wrong genes, you can train yourself to improve your tasting abilities. However, Newcomb says "you can only improve by a small amount” and will never be as sensitive to aromas as those who were born with the right nose.

Don’t fret, however. “Everyone will be good at detecting some compounds and less good at detecting others: you might be good at smelling A, B and C compounds but not D,E and F.”

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