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Learning to taste

The human palate is extremely adaptable. This is largely because there’s 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. It’s only later that we acquire a taste for more challenging flavours – those with an element of bitterness, texture or subtlety, for example. There’s 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, ‘sensorially illiterate’. We don’t really think about what we put in our mouths. We need ‘big’ flavours to stimulate our lethargic senses; the food equivalent of brain-numbing prime-time TV. In this sense, there’s an element to which most people haven’t trained their palates.

I found it remarkable to learn that French children are actually taught about food; it seems that the French recognise that we don’t 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. That’s an enlightened approach.

Of course, there’s 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 one’s enjoyment of the paintings in the National Gallery. And who’s to say that classical French cooking is ‘better’ 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 haute cuisine.

Back to wine. From this, you’ll gather that I think it’s 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 won’t appreciate what it is that makes this wine great. I’d 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 won’t really understand why this is a great wine. This understanding only comes from having the correct context; this is acquired by learning.

Let’s 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. You’ll see two quite contrasting cultures of wine, both valid, but both quite different. There’s some overlap, but the Australian winemakers unfamiliar with European wine styles would have a hard time understanding what’s 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 counterpart’s 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. I’d add that it helps to try to drink these wines in differing contexts: big tastings are valuable, but it’s also important to drink wines at home and in, if possible, in situ – 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. I’ve 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, you’ll probably find that your palate changes over time. This isn’t just a preference issue. Instead, it’s 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.

Further reading
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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