Basics of “palate” training

December 1st, 2009

Keying Up - the Court Jester. By William Merritt Chase. From:

Keying Up - the Court Jester.

I am a strong proponent of the idea that education is the best way to empower people as wine consumers. That certainly is a challenging task, which is why so many take the lower-resistance path of “democratizing” or “de-mystifying” wine.

These approaches often end up oversimplifying the subject as to not challenge anyone. Many approaches end up telling people that there is really no consensus about wine character and thus there is no way to organize and assimilate information which would quality benchmark for wine.

Combine this with the idea that wine writing must somehow be entertaining and you either end up with material straight out of Idiocracy, or find yourself putting more of your efforts into the shtick rather than the message.

Nevertheless, all approaches seem to endorse some notion of training one’s “palate”. Now, it’s been a while since I graduated from med school, but I’m pretty sure that the palate is not an organ of olfactory or gustatory sensation.

OK. So I’m being pedantic (and snakry) there, but it seems that any wine education approach should distill correct and accurate information while making it accessible to the average person. At the same time, those writing and teaching about wine should not be afraid to challenge and push their audience. If you have their attention, you are likely to get them to learn something new.

Last week, I wrote about how I learned to taste wine. In the past, I also published a piece incorporating the basics of human anatomy and physiology with wine tasting tips. I want my readers to have access to this information. Some will use it and some won’t.

Many attempt to help people “train their palate”. However, many of these approaches are…. suboptimal. The general construct of these different approaches indicates either 1) a philosophy of wine that dismisses some very basic facts or 2) unawareness of them.

The point of this post is to offer a framework for teaching people to understand wine. This is a reasonable and reasoned approach that aims to make the information accessible without stripping away key facts. This approach lays the groundwork for the consumer to be able to draw meaning out of all the sensory descriptors.

The tools necessary to understanding and learning wine consist of:

1. A decent wine glass

2. Reference aromas

3. Reference flavors

4. Reference foods which have distinct textural qualities

5. A few bottles of decently priced wines (preferably those made from a single grape variety)

6. Some resource which lists the typical aromatic, flavor, body and textural characteristics of wines made from particular grapes.

You do not need to eat dirt or chew on gym socks, although it can be entertaining to watch someone do it.

No matter how the message is packaged and delivered, there are some basics that should be found in any wine education material:

1. Wine has a myriad of aromas. These can be experienced primarily through sniffing.

2. Wine can only have five flavors. These can be experienced by sipping and swishing.

3. Wine can produce a number of textural sensations. These are also experienced by sipping and swishing.

Any wine learning exercise should focus on smelling, sipping and swishing as these three actions address the basic sensory modalities affected by wine.

1. To learn the aromas in a wine, smell the reference aromas alongside the wine. Read about the grape and see if you can detect the typical aromas.

2. When it comes to flavors, focus on sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory. Remember not to confuse retronasal olfaction with flavor. Spice and heat (from alcohol) are touch sensations, not flavors.

3. When thinking about textures, look at analogies like silk, satin, suede, leather, dust, chalk, grit, etc. In many ways, these are related to astringency but astringency is often described in terms of dryness. It is also a good idea to try and distinguish between bitter (a flavor) and astringent (a touch sensation). Beyond these, wines can feel oily or viscous, creamy, etc.

Some may be quick to complain that this approach “takes the enjoyment out of wine”. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Enjoyment is a personal response to sensory information. It is a function of personal preference. This approach to training one’s senses actually helps people identify, describe and seek out more of the wines they prefer. It is based on the principle that all those aromas, flavors and textures actually mean something – about the wine and for the consumer.

Ultimately, practice (the practice of identifying and recognizing sensory components of wine, in particular) is the pathway to understanding wine. With more practice, one learns to discern more nuances. Even if the goal of this exercise is not to become a Master of Wine, connecting the smells, flavors and textures of wine with the language that describes them can aid one in selecting a wine to suit one’s preferences or one’s meal.


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2 Responses to “Basics of “palate” training”

  1. Fran Clow Says:

    Hello, Arthur…

    I like the palate training basics and, as suggested, won’t indulge in dirt and sock experiments.

    A votre sante,

  2. Mark Greenaway Says:

    Do you have resources or references for your reference aromas, flavors and foods that you mention in your article