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Does 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 wines.

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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May 2002