No, That Oral Microbiota Study Did Not Invalidate The History Of Wine Tasting

Let’s start with the short version: we all need to calm the hell down.

If social media reaction is any indication, the wine world is losing its shiz over the potential implications of an interesting study highlighted recently on The Academic Wino blog by Becca Yeamans-Irwin. Why we seem to go through this in April of each year I don’t know, but maybe the pursuit of an answer to that is worthy of its own study?

Anyway, according to that blog post, a 2015 study from the journal Food Chemistry suggests the following (quoted from the article):

“…it is possible that the perception of different wine aromas can be altered by physiological factors like mouth temperature, saliva composition, or the oral microbial community present in each individuals’ mouths.”

The study found that an individual’s unique oral microbiota makeup is capable of hydrolyzing certain compounds found in both grapes and in wine, thus changing how the wine’s flavor and aromas are perceived on an individual basis. The process potentially gives some scientific explanation as to why individuals perceive different aromatic and flavor aspects when tasting the same wine. All of which lead Yeamans-Irwin to conclude that

“This [sic] result could have profound implications on how we understand wine tasting and the perception of aromas and flavors for any given wine.”

The problem is that a lot of people seem to be ignoring the “could” part of her statement…

First, we need to take a collective deep breath understand that the idea that mouth chemistry impacts how we individually perceive wine is not new news. We have known this type of chemistry to be a potential explanation for tasting differences for years.

Next (and I can hardly believe that I am actually writing this), we need to remember some things about both statistics (the specifics of which many of you will have been told in undergrad) and the scientific method (the specifics of which many of you will have been told in about the fifth grade) that impact any conclusions that should be drawn from the oral microbiota study results.

First, the statistical part:

The oral microbiota study had a sample size of three volunteers. Three. Generally, while small sample sizes do not preclude statistical analysis or obviate results, they are notorious for having abnormally high amounts of variability. The bottom line? You need much larger sample sizes to have a high enough confidence in a study’s results that you can start to base conclusions on them. That includes the oral microbiota study; let’s see it done on (a lot) more people before we start talking in definitive language about how humans taste their vino.

Next, there’s the scientific method. This one is easy; results need to be repeatable, and tested in a way that tries to disprove one’s hypothesis (for a refresher, I recommend watching this very amusing and totally NSFW take on scientific testing).

What this all means for our oral microbiota study is that anyone shouting from the virtual rooftops that it’s the death-knell for wine reviews and wine competitions (because, hey, we all taste every wine differently anyway!) is doing so very, very, very prematurely.

A lot more work has to take place before any serious conclusions can be drawn from the oral microbiota study, and if you happen to be proven right (that it really is the death-knell for how we’ve traditionally reviewed/described wine) then you were only correct by coincidence. Bear in mind that, even if the results pass further testing with flying colors, they may only explain a very small portion of the differences in how we perceive wine. We just don’t know yet, do we?

Don’t shoot the messenger, folks; if you’re old enough to legally drink wine in the U.S., you’re old enough to have already been taught everything I pointed out above.

Keep calm, and expose some of your own oral microbiota to more wine.


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