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Friday, 14 October 2011

On Developing One's Palate

Recently, Luke Tyler of Australia's d'Arenberg posed the following question via the company's Twitter account, @darenberg.

- does improving one's palate increase your enjoyment or merely reduce the amount of wine you can enjoy ?

At the heart of this question is the fairly fundamental idea of what makes us happy, so it is worth taking the time to unpick some of the issues.

As, say, a casual wine drinker, you may buy fairly ordinary wine at the supermarket and think it's alright; it doesn't cost you a lot of money and it's not spectacular, but then you probably don't know that as you've never actually had a spectacular wine before.

Indeed, you may even have had a theoretically superior wine and found you didn't like it as much as a more basic version because it was perhaps extensively oaked and therefore full of tannins and lacking in primary fruit.

If this is the case, you probably are the sort of person whom wine snobs rather look down on as having an unsophisticated palate.

But you are not alone and are in fact probably in the majority in this country.

In the days before I became a wine enthusiast, I remember trying bottles of wine that were supposedly special and finding I didn't much like them - whites that seemed too acidic, reds with too much tannin - and rather preferred cheaper, less-challenging, more fruit-driven wines.

At that time, I firmly believed that price was no guide to quality and that enjoyable wines could be had for not too much money at all.

These days, I'm less convinced by that argument, but I do still believe it has some merit even if it is not universally true.

The difference is that I have, for better or worse, developed a palate.

The flavours and aromas in a wine can be primary (up-front fruit), secondary (less obvious, more subtle fruit along with spices, tobacco, liquorice and that sort of thing) or tertiary (minerality, yeast, nuts).

As well as aromas, we also have texture and structure - texture being the tannins in a red, structure being the acidity.

Finally, there is intensity, complexity, finesse, elegance and balance.

With an unsophisticated palate, we are generally looking out for simple fruit and a sensible amount of balance - give us a fruit-driven, easy-drinking quaffer and we are happy; I know I was.

It is perhaps not surprising given our ancestry as hunter-gatherers that we react positively to the flavours of ripe fruit and have an instinctive inclination towards them.

But just as my children need to learn to hold a pencil and do their times tables, we can learn to take a more sophisticated approach to wine and appreciate the subtlety of secondary aromas or a dense tannic structure.

But there are pros and cons to doing this.

On the negative side, better wines usually are more expensive and developing a palate will inevitably mean that we find cheaper, more simple wines no longer as enjoyable.

Moreover, I'm not convinced that we actually enjoy better wines to any greater degree, but rather I feel that we merely enjoy them in a different way, perhaps with a different part of our brains.

It is, of course, actually impossible to quantify enjoyment in absolute terms, but my point remains - not more enjoyment but different.

So, it will cost more money, increase the number of wines you don't like and not increase the amount of enjoyment you get from a wine to improve your palate. So we could argue that ignorance is bliss.

And yet, and yet ...

It is in our nature as hunter-gatherers to compete - to outwit the woolly mammoth or wild boar into falling into a trap, to find the bush with ripe, juicy edible berries before the birds get them all.

This is the same drive that gave us Mozart's symphonies, the internal combustion engine and the PC. It is literally part of our DNA to challenge ourselves and strive for improvement.

Having been to a certain type of school and played a lot of sport, I am naturally quite competitive - perhaps more so than the rest of my family appreciates or finds appropriate.

And ever since I became enthusiastic about wine, I have wanted to know more about them, to try better wines and be able to appreciate them, to know what makes them so great.

It is, in one sense, a struggle for the acquisition of knowledge and experience, and perhaps it is no co-incidence that it started not long after I finished my last-ever formal exam as a Chartered Accountant over a decade ago.

As my formal studies for a career finally ceased, I found myself replacing that with informal study of an area of interest.

Developing one's palate, then is a bit like mountain climbing - it's hard work, cold and wet, with not much of a view when you get to the top; but we - some of us - still do it because it's what makes us human.

Despite living in as flat a place as Cambridge, I enjoy hill walking when I get the chance.

I'm sure a serious mountain climber would look down on me pityingly as never having experienced the extremes of climbing a mountain, but I choose to take things a little easier.

Developing one's palate is rather similar - overall, it's a Good Thing to do, but it's not for everyone and those that do have a go, do it to varying degrees.

The Master of Wine qualification, the highest level of wine accreditation, is held by only around 300 people worldwide and is therefore extremely narrowly held - much more so that my own professional certification.

Below MW, there are various WSET courses, tutored tastings and any number of local wine appreciation societies.

So, yes, developing or improving one's palate will most probably reduce the number of wines you can enjoy, cause you to spend more on wine than otherwise and perhaps mean that you will only enjoy wines in a different way - but for me, the journey so far has been worth it.

Main image credit: http://www.lux-limo.co.uk/limo-articles/wine-tasting.jpg

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