your palate change with experience?
I have a confession to make. I drank wine for years without
actually liking the stuff. As a student beer was the drink of choice,
and I only turned to wine when the occasion demanded it. And then, I
was usually bottom feeding. These were the 1980s, the era of the EEC
wine lake, and typical student wine consumption was usually an effort
to drain it. Remember, a lot of plonk was actually quite nasty in
those days; now it tends to be just dull in a rather neutral sort of
way. But even on the rare occasions where I drank better stuff, it
really didn’t do anything for me.
My point? Wine is largely an acquired taste. The sorts of
flavours typical of wine – acidity, tannin, savouriness and so on
– are not tastes that we are naturally drawn to. Give a child a sip
of wine and the chances are they’ll find it unpleasant. Of course,
many new world wines are deliberately made in a sweetly-fruited low
tannin, low acid style that is more accessible to non-wine drinkers,
but the fact remains: the tastes that are hardest to acquire are also
some of the most enduring.
Think about fine wines. Give a complete novice a table of
expensive classics – first growth Claret, Grand Cru Burgundy, top
Barolo and so on – and I bet they’ll wonder what the fuss is. Slip
in a few mid-priced new world brands, with up front appeal, and these
may well steal the show. But let this novice develop into a full blown
wine geek, and a decade or so later they’ll no doubt choose the
classics, or at least the more structured, serious new world
offerings, over the industrial branded wine. It’s clearly not a
testable hypothesis, but I suspect this rings true for many readers.
I remember my early forays into wine appreciation, back in
the early 90s. I had no agenda, I just liked what I liked, and was
open to trying pretty much anything. Every now and then I’d drink a
wine that would really flick all the right switches. It would be a
rare occurrence, and each occasion used to set me off in a largely
futile attempt to replicate this great wine drinking experience. One
such occasion was a wine gathering I hosted for some chums, one or two
of whom knew a bit, but most who were just like me: keen but ignorant.
Among the wines served were a Charles Melton Shiraz (late 80s,
possibly 1989?) and a rather tannic 1975 Château Montrose. But the
wine that did it for me was a 1985 Forest Hill Cabernet Sauvignon from
Western Australia, with its full, sweet, lush fruit, and soft tannins.
This wine haunted me. In an attempt to reproduce the high it
induced, I popped down to the local wine shop. This was the wonderful
(but now extinct) Wine House in Wallington, an independent shop run by
a chap called Morvin Rodker. The deal here was that I explained what I
wanted, and Morvin or his wife steered me towards what they thought
I’d enjoy. I didn’t know enough to make browsing the shelves
worthwhile, and he was a great guide for a newbie like me. This time
his wife was in the shop. She asked me what I was after. I explained
that I wanted a red wine with sweet fruit, lots of concentration and
very low tannins. Her response? ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t rather
have fruit juice?’
This question is less cruel than it sounds. The point I’d
been missing is that tastes that appeal immediately are rarely the
most enduring. The sorts of flavours that make wine so interesting,
and such a good foil for food, are initially quite challenging. These
tastes need to be acquired, and each wine newbie who starts on the
very accessible, commercial new world styles at some point has to jump
the hurdle of acidity, tannin and savouriness in order to graduate on
to more serious styles of wine. I’m not suggesting that wines that
have an immediate appeal can’t be serious, but I would go so far to
say that you need to develop the context within which to appreciate
more complex styles. It’s not going to be love at first sip.
Let’s put it another way. Are you relatively new to wine?
Have you just started cellaring wines for the future? If so, I’d
urge you to consider one of the anorak’s golden rules for wine
newbies: don’t fill your cellar up too soon with things that appeal
to you at the moment. Why? Because in five years’ time the chances
are your tastes will have changed and a large proportion of your stash
will be wines that you are no longer keen on. I know there are wines
that excite me deeply today that I would have disliked barely a decade
ago. And as I’m still very much a learner (who isn’t?), there are
plenty more discoveries I have yet to make: what I’m dead keen on
now may well not be a passion for me in five years’ time.
This is something I find when I begin exploring a new region.
Initially, some of the flavours can seem a bit odd or unusual.
There’s a point at which you just have to grit your teeth and keep
on experimenting. Usually, after a while the wines become less
‘educational’ and more enjoyable. This is often when enough
context has built up for me to understand the intricacies and
subtleties, and the source of variation in the taste of the region’s
Learning is a huge component of wine appreciation. For those
prepared to make the effort to explore unfamiliar territory, I’d say
that their palate preferences will almost certainly change with
experience – more so at the beginning, but also to a less marked
extent on a continuous basis. This is why the process of
‘benchmarking’ is important: trying wines that are supposed to be
classic, top-notch examples of their type. These act as marker posts
for the palate, providing the necessary context for progression to
full geekhood. But whatever stage you are at in your own wine journey,
the good news is that there’s plenty of unexplored territory yet.
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