We’ve all heard it said a hundred times—women are better at tasting wine than men. But can that possibly be true? For most of my professional wine career I, for one, have been skeptical of the idea. But in honor of International Women’s Month, I thought we should take a look at the current research. The findings may surprise you.
On balance, research suggests that women as a group do indeed have a gender-based advantage when it comes to smelling and tasting.
As one example: using a new technique called isotropic fractionator, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the University of Sāo Paulo, and the University of California/San Francisco discovered that women have, on average, 43% more cells in their brains’ olfactory bulbs than men. Counting neurons specifically, the difference reached almost 50% more in women than men. The fact that few cells are added to the brain throughout life suggests that women are born with this olfactory advantage; it is not developed later.
Research conducted by sensory scientist Marcia Pelchat PhD at Monell Chemical Sciences Center in Philadelphia, found that women tend to taste, smell, hear, see colors, and feel textures more accurately than men. Importantly, the research showed that women of childbearing age taste flavors more intensely than younger or older females, and that sensitivity also increased during pregnancy.
Also, from Monell Chemical Senses Center, work by Charles Wysocki, PhD, revealed that compared to men, women can more readily increase their sensitivity to odors through practice. With six to ten repeated exposures, women (of reproductive age), not men, increased their sensitivity to an odor by 1,000 to 10,000 times. Said Dr. Wysocki, “I would speculate that if you had a woman judging wine, early on she would be as sensitive as a man, but with repeated exposure to the same wines, the woman would become able to make finer distinctions.”
Research by Kathrin Ohla and Johan Lundstrom of Monell Chemical Senses Center and the Department of Clinical Neuroscience Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, respectively, showed that women allocate more attention to potentially noxious nasal stimuli than men do, and that causes them to assess nasal irritants differently than men. The researchers also note that women exhibit higher trigeminal nerve sensitivity (the trigeminal system governs sensations such as burning, cooling and tingling). Further, women are more reactive to nasal stimuli that are perceived as emotional, unpleasant or threatening.
Some of the original research in the field comes from Yale University where famous researcher Linda Bartoshuk PhD conducted research that lead to the sensory division of the population into non-tasters, tasters and supertasters. Bartoshuk has shown that about 35% of women but only 15% of men are supertasters. Supertasters have up to four times as many tastebuds as non- tasters. It’s important to note here that supertasters are especially sensitive to bitter tasting compounds and often have an aversion to strong tasting substances—brussel sprouts, espresso, and grapefruit juice, for example.
So in the end, it appears that women (especially those of childbearing age) do indeed have sensory skills that on average give them an advantage over men in wine tasting. But much depends on the individual. And as every good wine taster knows, tasting with someone else who’s driven to excel sensorially (woman or man) is the most exciting kind of tasting of all. Ana Matzinger, owner/winemaker of Matzinger Davies winery (Oregon), sums up the situation well:
“I believe these are organismic skills nestled deep within our biology for the purpose of ensuring the perpetuation of species, which is, after all, the point. To be in a profession where one is called upon to regularly exercise these sensory skills feels quite lucky. But it’s a gift we all have as humans, the potential for greater discernment and appreciation within our sensory world, and we open ourselves to it by just paying a bit more attention.”
A toast to that.