The human palate is
extremely adaptable. This is largely because thereís a huge learning
component to taste. Innately, the sorts of flavours we are drawn to
are obvious ones. A child will opt for foods that are sweet and
accessible. Itís only later that we acquire a taste for more
challenging flavours Ė those with an element of bitterness, texture
or subtlety, for example. Thereís also an intellectual or cultural
level to tasting, where we think carefully about what we put in our
mouths. Horribly subjective, but very important, too.
But most people are, as one Spanish winemaker I once spoke to
put it, Ďsensorially illiterateí. We donít really think about
what we put in our mouths. We need Ďbigí flavours to stimulate our
lethargic senses; the food equivalent of brain-numbing prime-time TV. In this
sense, thereís an element to which most people havenít trained
I found it remarkable to learn that French children are
actually taught about food; it seems that the French recognise that we
donít appreciate the more complex or enduring tastes without being
shown them and given a chance to understand them properly. Some sort
of palate education is required. Thatís an enlightened approach.
Of course, thereís a very strong cultural and qualitative
element at work here. You need to develop a context from which to
appreciate a classic cuisine, just as knowing a bit about the history
of art probably enhances oneís enjoyment of the paintings in the
National Gallery. And whoís to say that classical French cooking is
Ďbetterí than fast food? I think it is, but to suggest this seems
to have a tinge of snobbery or elitism about it, and I can think of
occasions where fast food is probably a more appropriate choice than
Back to wine. From this, youíll gather that I think itís
necessary to learn to taste wine. Put a serious wine in front of a
non-wine drinker, or even someone relatively new to wine, and they
wonít appreciate what it is that makes this wine great. Iíd extend
this even further with a more specific example: put a great red Burgundy in front of someone
experienced in wine but unfamiliar with Burgundy, and they wonít
really understand why this is a great wine. This understanding only comes
from having the correct context; this is acquired by learning.
Letís try to unpack this idea a little. Go to Australia,
and spend a few weeks touring round the key wine regions. Then repeat
the same in the classic regions of Europe. Youíll see two quite
contrasting cultures of wine, both valid, but both quite different.
Thereís some overlap, but the Australian winemakers unfamiliar with
European wine styles would have a hard time understanding whatís so
great about the top Alsace whites, Mosel Rieslings or red Burgundy.
Conversely, French winemakers unfamiliar with new world styles would
be perplexed at some of
the leading Australian wines. For both, a period of learning to adapt
to a different wine culture would be needed if they were to make sense
of their counterpartís wines.
A possible exception here could be that some of the
characteristics of new world wines, and in particular the sweetness of
fruit that many of them possess, appeal at an innate sensual level to
the untrained palate. But more serious new world wines often have
levels of tannin and acidity that, while providing balance to the
sweet fruit, may well be off-putting to newbies.
How do you learn to taste? At the simplest level, you need to
drink a broad range of wines in a semi-thoughtful fashion. Iíd add
that it helps to try to drink these wines in differing contexts: big
tastings are valuable, but itís also important to drink wines at
home and in, if possible, in situ Ė where they are made. Complement
this tasting experience with liberal wine reading and ample discussion with
fellow wine nuts. The importance of discussion, a two-way process in
which you participate, over simply taking in received wisdom from an
expert, cannot be emphasized enough. One helpful practice is comparative tasting of a
number of wines from the same region. Iíve found it useful to major
on the wines of just one region or country for an extended period
(weeks or months).
Finally, because of the plasticity of the sense of taste and
smell, with its strong learning component, youíll probably find that
your palate changes over time. This isnít just a preference issue.
Instead, itís likely that what you will actually be perceiving as
you sniff and slurp will change as you gain experience. This adds an
intriguing level of complexity to the whole process.
For a fairly thorough overview of the senses of taste and
smell, and how they relate to wine tasting, see a piece I wrote for UK
wine trade magazine Harpers
, which can be found here.
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