Thursday, 26 November 2015

Wine for Beginners: Born to do it - is a good palate in your genes?


What is so difficult about tasting wine? You pour it, slurp it, give it the thumbs up or thumbs down and either cast it into wine oblivion, never to be bought again or put it on the 'must get again' list. 

Not brain surgery, you would say.

Well, it seems that the power of wine critics in the world and the fact that the overlord of all critics, Robert Parker, has insured his taste buds for a cool $1 million means that having a pinpoint sense of taste and sensory skill can make you a lot of money in a world obsessed with immediate gratification.

With such power (quite literally) at the tip of their tongue, it makes you wonder how they got such talented tonsils in the first place. Was this something that they achieved through serious commitment to their chosen profession, slurping and spitting delectable vino on a daily basis? Or were chromosomes that made them up just geared towards having a Superman-esque palate?

Firstly, you have to know what the word 'palate' actually means.

There is no muscle, bone or ligament that is called the palate, it really is a combination of all the senses that a human being possesses to evaluate food or drink (smell & taste in tandem), and also the ability to actually verbalise the tastes you are getting.

The creation of the Wine Aroma Wheel back in the 80's (remember them?) helped people who probably had a fantastic palate, but who had no idea how to actually describe the flavours, into the demi-gods of wine tasting with a simple turn of a paper wheel.

So, lets have a look at the biology aspect of it.

You pick up many different aspects of a wine from the sensors within your laughing tackle. The sides of your mouth and tongue pick up the acidity of the wine (the more your mouth waters after drinking it, the more acidity the wine has), the tannins (or the structure/grip) of a wine is picked up on the gums (if they go furry or dry, the higher the tannins in the wine), the alcohol level you feel on the back of the throat (and the pounding in your head the morning after), but most importantly the sweetness of a wine is felt on the tip of the tongue (where the majority of your taste sensors are).

These amount of these 'sensors' (called Papillae) apparent on a tasters tongue is directly representative to how good the taster is. A study was conducted back in 2003 showed that 25% of the people tested were considered 'non-tasters' (or had very few papillae on the tip of their tongue), 50% were average tasters and the other 25% classed as bona-fide 'super-tasters'.

The same can be said of the nasal receptors (nostrils to you and me). The more 'sensors' you have there, the more you will be able to pick up and therefore the better your overall palate will be.

But what of us mere mortals, who are lacking in the papillae department and have nostrils the size of a petit pois? Well, as the old adage goes, its not the size that matters, its what you damn well do with it...



Experience seems to be key when it comes to developing a palate that would make a wine merchant swoon in longing. The more liquid that passes your lips, the more your senses pick up on what they like and what they don't, thus meaning you can start to pick up what the hallmarks of a bad/good wine are.

Palates evolve. What you taste first time round, may not be what you taste second time round, 2 months later, 6 months later, 1 year later, etc, etc... By trying different wines from different climates, countries, altitudes, your senses tune themselves to spot oddities and nuances that were not apparent in other wines you may have tried from other spots in the world.

The bite at the end of the tail and the story that will make all of us budding wine maniacs live in hope of our day in the spotlight is that it doesn't matter how much of an 'expert' someone proclaims to be, there is a massive slip up just around the corner. Back in 2002, a researcher from Bordeaux invited 54 eminent tasters to a 'grand' tasting of some Bordeaux wines. However, he used this opportunity to conduct a few cheeky cons on them and prove the saying of 'do not judge a book its cover'.

In one of them, he poured some wine in the glasses of the judges and labelled it a prestige, grand cru, top dollar wine. Reactions such as 'woody', 'refined' and 'complex' were spouted. Cue the same wine being poured into the glasses, but labelled as a cheap, run-of-the-mill, plonk. Reactions here were 'weak', 'flat' and 'had a sting'.

The statement trying to be made here? You taste what you think you should be tasting. If you think you are tasting the pinnacle of winemaking, you will go overboard in your praise. However, if you think you are tasting an ordinary drop, you'll not exactly explode in your enjoyment.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that its easy to get caught up in the thinking that someone has that 'thing' in them for high class tasting. Its in their bones, its in their DNA.

However, if you kick a football against a wall all your life, you'll end up being good at football; if you sing into the mirror every morning, you'll be able to hold a tune and if you enjoy a glass or two every know and again, not only will you get tipsy, you may just become a dab hand in this game we call wine.

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