Analyzing the Science of Wine Tasting: Does DNA Play a Role?

Science of Wine Tasting

Companies are using the science of wine tasting to predict whether you will like a particular wine based on your DNA profile. Photo Credit: Pixabay CC user valelopardo

 What if scientists could pinpoint the perfect bottle of wine for your palate, based only on the genetic makeup of your DNA? A Silicon Valley technology company, Helix, claims that they can do exactly that. Using a DNA sequence and a short quiz, the company says that they can help their customers find their ideal wine style without ever picking up a glass of wine. But how reliable is this new technology, and could it really replace a wine tasting session? The science of wine tasting is still a complex and rarely-studied field, so before you get your genome analyzed, take some time to learn about why we prefer the wines we love, and what you can do to find your own perfect bottle from the comfort of your home.

How the New DNA Test Works

To dig into the mystery of wine preferences, Helix partnered with Vinome to create their Wine Explorer kit. Customers who buy the kit start by answering a series of taste-focused questions, such as whether they prefer sweet snacks to savory ones, or whether they like fruit more than chocolate. You likely have taken a similar quiz before, or been asked similar questions by a sommelier at a restaurant. After you take the quiz, the company builds a basic taste profile for you. For an additional $110 fee, you can send the company a sample of your saliva, which they will analyze in their lab and compare to your taste profile. Since the taste and smell receptors we each have can differ in structure and in the way they respond to chemicals from food and drink, the way we perceive tastes can differ from person to person, too. The Vinome test looks at DNA markers that have to do with your sense of smell and taste in an effort to determine what those markers say about your receptors. It’s a good idea to keep in mind that the company says many of these tests are for entertainment purposes only, and are not necessarily definitive.  

Why DNA May Not Tell You Everything

So, are quizzes and DNA sequencing the future of wine tasting? Probably not. To start, users of this new DNA sequencing kit say that the results aren’t always accurate. When wine journalist Liza B. Zimmerman looked into the details of the DNA test, she found that the test didn’t always account for rare varietals, and seemed too basic in its understanding of wine flavors. For instance, Vinome CEO Ronnie Andrews told her that customers who love black coffee are more likely to prefer bolder red wines with high alcohol content. Zimmerman pointed out, though, that she prefers her coffee black yet rarely enjoys high alcohol wine. However, Zimmerman did not take the saliva test to find out how much it actually got right.

The truth is, scientists still don’t understand enough about DNA and its impact on our taste preferences to make DNA testing a truly useful tool for those looking to learn about their ideal wine. Geneticist Jim Evans explains, “I’d put this in the same category as DNA matching to find your soulmate. We just simply don’t know enough about the genetics of taste to do this on any accurate basis.” Moreover, your preferences for wine are based in large part on environmental factors, past experiences, good and bad memories, and even your mood that day. If you had a transcendent experience tasting your first great wine in a Bordeaux vineyard, you might lean toward wines from that region. If you spent most of your 20s only drinking big California reds, then your palate might not be prepared for the more subtle flavors of a German Riesling. This isn’t because you’re destined to dislike Riesling based on your DNA; you simply lack tasting experience, and need more time to grow accustomed to the varietal.

Taking the Science of Wine Tasting Home

Although a DNA sequencing kit can’t necessarily tell you what your favorite wine will be, you may be able to use this and other at-home tests to refine your palate and push you to try new wines. For instance, Business Insider’s Lydia Ramsey took the DNA test, which told her that she’s likely to prefer an unfamiliar red wine to an unfamiliar white wine. As a fan of Pinot Grigio, this result surprised her. However, it made her more willing to try new red wines at restaurants that she ordinarily would have avoided, and she discovered that there were many new red wine varietals that she loved. So, while the science of wine tasting based on DNA still hasn’t been proven, it can be an entertaining excuse to try new varietals or break away from old wine habits and get out of your wine rut.

Ultimately, the best way to figure out your wine personality is to just try as many wines as possible and focus on learning to identify the typical flavors in different varietals. Whether you’re relatively new to wine tasting, or have been collecting wine for decades, you should know how to identify the iconic flavors in each of the following varietals, at a minimum:

  • Riesling (like Schloss Johannisberger): apricot, pear, rose petal, flint
  • Cabernet Sauvignon (like Hourglass): blackberry, bell pepper, oak, black cherry
  • White Burgundy (like Louis Jadot): apple, vanilla, oak, truffle
  • Red Bordeaux (like Cos d’Estournel): licorice, plum, smoke, vanilla
  • Chardonnay (like Peter Michael): butter, citrus, oak, pineapple
  • Viognier (like Chapoutier): orange blossom, honey, mango, anise
  • Pinot Noir (like Leroy): cherry, violet, truffle, coconut
  • Super Tuscan (like Guado al Tasso): red cherry, spice, rosemary, licorice
  • Chenin Blanc (like Huet): honey, grass, grapefruit, chalk
  • Sauvignon Blanc (like Lail): passion fruit, lime, sage, grass
  • Shiraz (like Hundred Acre): blueberry, black olive, spice, black currant
  • Sangiovese (like Soldera): cherry, tobacco, thyme, fig

If you haven’t tried one of the varietals above, or you find that you dislike a particular style, I recommend focusing on tasting more of that type of wine. Try one or two new bottles every week for one month; if by the end of the month you still haven’t found a vintage or producer that you enjoy, then you can choose to skip that grape or style in the future. However, it’s important to go into this tasting test with an open mind, and make an effort to understand the wines sitting in front of you. Taking good wine tasting notes will also help you remember which flavors you did or didn’t like, and which ones you found in the wine or had trouble finding.

By learning how to identify each of these flavors and aromas, even in wines that you normally dislike, you’re more likely to find subtle notes in the wines you do like. Even if you never cultivate a fondness for the wines you dislike, you can at least develop an appreciation for their craftsmanship, and for the artistry of a good blend, which will serve your palate well in the future. Scientific advances like DNA sequencing may improve over the next few decades, making it easier to find the perfect wine, but ultimately, nothing can replace a quality wine tasting session. Trying new wines will always be a worthwhile effort. Rather than letting a DNA test dictate which wines you should and shouldn’t drink, take scientific forays into wine tasting with a grain of salt. Your own nose and palate are still the best way to learn what you like.  

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