There’s a wine revolution brewing, hopefully, and Tim Hanni, Master of Wine, is leading the charge with his new book, “Why You Like the Wines You Like”. Fed up with wine snobs (though he admits he was once one himself), rigid wine and food pairings (which have no basis in science) and lack of hospitality (defined as meeting guests’ needs, whatever they are) in the hospitality business. He bemoans the loss of vineyards of the previously highly prized ancient wines, which were often sweet, in favor of the current trend toward intense, high alcohol, extremely dry wines. Those are great for some palates, but there are millions of disenfranchised wine drinkers who just give up because of such a narrow focus, drifting toward cocktails and beer in an effort to find something that suits them. Not only does this result in huge losses of potential revenue for the wine industry, it’s just plain rude to continually chide lovers of sweet wines with subtle or not-so-subtle comments like, “That’s a beginner wine”, or “You’ll eventually work your way into a preference for dry wines”. Maybe, maybe not.
In “Why You Like the Wines You Like” Hanni traces his own evolution from childhood food geek to adult wine professional, ultimately becoming one of the first two Masters of Wine in the U.S., along with Joel Butler (though there are now more, but not many). Though his head was full of knowledge he was often baffled by what he found, puzzled by the different reactions people had to food or wine, and especially to both. After digging a little deeper into the science behind taste, and partnering with scientists he began to formulate a completely different way of thinking about wine preferences, one that focuses more on the drinker. Yes, preferences are shaped through learning, experiences, culture and society, but there is a fundamental sensory sensitivity that each person is born with that is a strong foundation. This work has been influenced by studies of taste, such as that described in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “People Who Taste Too Much” by Sumanthi Reddy, demonstrating that about 15% of people fall into a Supertaster category. This is characterized by a large concentration of fungiform papillae on the tongue, which house the taste buds (home tests are available). Supertasters tend to be very sensitive to bitterness and taste certain flavors intensely, finding some vegetables and black coffee extremely distasteful.
Borrowing from the scientific word “phenotype”, which means how an organism exhibits genetic traits (“genotype”), based on environmental factors, he coined the word “Vinotype”, a combination of physiological and environmental factors that determines wine preferences. These can be divided into four main groups, though these are not precise and there are many variations. The four main types are as follows.
1. Sweet: Highly physiologically sensitive to taste, and perhaps to other sensory stimuli as well. They seek sweetness to counteract the intense bitterness and burn of alcohol in wines. They also tend to use a lot of salt, which masks bitterness, in food, and cream and sugar in their coffee. As children they might have doused everything in ketchup. Adults prefer White Zinfandel and Moscato. 21% of women; 7% of men.
2. Hypersensitive: Sensitive to taste but less than Sweets so they prefer their wines a little drier, but still on the aromatic side, seeking dry Reisling, Chardonnay and light red wines. They may even enjoy intense red wines but only those of the highest quality that exhibit exceptional balance and smoothness. 36% of women, 37% of men.
3. Sensitive: They can go either way and they are open to anything. They can appreciate the more delicate wines but also tolerate the most intense reds, though not with the same degree of enjoyment as the next category. 25% of men and women.
4. Tolerant: Oblivious to high levels of tannin and bitterness they don’t understand the wimpy white wine drinkers, and they certainly have a blind spot toward the Sweets. This is the group where current marketing efforts are directed, but interestingly, this is not where the highest proportion of wine professionals exist—a goodly number of them are closet Sweets! 16% women; 32% men.
You can take a quick version of the quiz to determine your Vinotype online at MyVinotype or a slightly longer version in the book. I’m somewhere between a Sensitive and Hypersensitive, which explains why my palate can discern so many more nuances in white wines, and especially Alsatian varietals, compared to the big reds, which overwhelm my taste buds. Luckily my husband is a Sensitive so we can both enjoy rich, buttery Chardonnays and delicate Pinot Noirs, along with the occasional Cabernet Sauvignon if it’s especially smooth. It’s no wonder we settled in Sonoma, where our favorite wines are produced, instead of Napa, which is known for its big, intense reds.
As I read through my review copy I thought about my co-worker, who gets dragged along to wine country team-building events and hates wine. I was always respectful of her preferences and coaxed her into tasting some dessert wines, followed by a whole new world of Moscato, sweet Riesling and Gewürztraminer, but I have to admit that I always assumed if I kept at it I could “move her up the dry scale”. Now I know she is an extreme Sweet, but there are wines even she can enjoy. Her timing is unfortunate—in the 1938 book “Larousse Gastronomique” hosts were instructed to offer a variety or reds, whites or sweet wines with a meal, and the wine recommended with oysters was often a sweet Sautern.
Food balancing is an important topic covered at length in the book. It boils down to providing an adequate balance of acid (e.g. vinegar or lemon juice) and salt to mask the inherent bitterness of some foods and wines. Leave the salt shaker on the table for the Sweets and Sensitives, consider adding a dish of lemon wedges and you’ll find that all kinds of wines pair well with almost any kind of food—reds with fish, whites with steak and so on. The sky’s the limit. If you entertain a lot you’ll find yourself worrying less about which wine to pair with what course and more about opening a variety of wines all at once for your guests to choose from.
The book is filled with charts, graphs and illustrations but it’s an easy read. Seven appendices at the end provide references, links to other websites and essays written by experts to support many of Hanni’s concepts.
“Why You Like the Wines You Like” is a fascinating book and should be required reading for all wine professionals, restaurateurs and enthusiasts. Anyone who drinks wine can benefit from understanding his or her Vinotype and the brow-beaten Sweets and Sensitives will get their sweet revenge.
“Why You Like the Wines You Like”
by Tim Hanni
Available at Amazon and other retailers
Lists for $22.50