Is a Great Wine Palate, God Given, Learned or Bought
Lettie Teague talks to wine collectors, olfactory researchers and reviewers to get to the bottom of the oenophile’s quest: Can a great palate be acquired?
The Wall Street Journal
By LETTIE TEAGUE
Jan. 2, 2015 8:59 a.m. ET
WHEN ONE WINE lover wants to compliment another, the words “great palate” are often bestowed. An oenophile with such a palate is perceptive, discerning and often possessed of an extensive if not expensive wine cellar—or so it seems. (I’ve read one wine lover’s waggish suggestion that the greatness of someone’s palate is directly proportional to the value and size of his or her wine cellar.)
The Merriam-Webster definition of the word is pretty straightforward: “the roof of the mouth separating the mouth from the nasal cavity.” The Oxford Companion to Wine defines “palate” a bit more broadly as “the combined human tasting facilities in the mouth and sometimes nose.” I would amend the “sometimes” to “always,” since the vast majority of what we perceive about a wine is aroma and not taste.
While a palate is a physical fact, a great palate seems much more abstract. What are the criteria? Does someone with a great palate possess a superior ability to recognize aromas and flavors or simply a better-than-average capacity to describe them? How much is innate and how much can be learned? I put these questions to a few talented amateurs as well as experts in the wine and olfactory worlds.
My first call was to Dr. Gary Beauchamp, emeritus director and president of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Dr. Beauchamp has made a broad and extensive study of the olfactory and taste systems.
Although he didn’t offer specific guidance as to how a great palate can be achieved, Dr. Beauchamp does think a palate could be improved, especially by repeated and focused tasting. “If you have lots of experience with particular smells, you might be able to pick them out better,” he said.
Wine drinkers can take other specific steps as well to develop what Sue Ebeler, a professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at University of California at Davis, calls “more sensitive palates.” These include tasting a wide range of wines, talking with wine drinkers about their perceptions, blind tasting with others and buying a Wine Aroma Wheel, which will “provide you with terms that you can learn to apply to standards,” said Prof. Ebeler.
The Wine Aroma Wheel was created by her colleague Ann C. Noble, a sensory chemist and professor emerita at UC Davis (now retired). Prof. Noble is famously the first female professor hired in the University’s Viticulture and Enology department and an important member of their wine-sensory group. Her now much-imitated aroma wheel, developed in 1984, was the first graphic presentation of wine-tasting terms. It’s a deceptively simple device: A laminated plastic circle breaks down wines into 12 broad categories (e.g., floral, spicy, nutty) at the center, then moving outward to the edge of the disk, subdivides those categories into more specific aromas (e.g., orange blossom, anise, walnut). A wine drinker with a wheel will, theoretically, have a better vocabulary to describe various aromas and flavors.
But what of wine enthusiasts lacking large vocabularies? I asked Richard Jennings, a Silicon Valley-based wine taster who samples up to 8,000 wines a year and has over 40,000 tasting notes on the popular CellarTracker website. Does someone have to be as articulate as he is to have a great palate?
Not necessarily, said Mr. Jennings. “I know people who have really good palates who can’t pull out the words to describe [wines],” he said of these naturals. “They’re not geeky, but they know what’s good.” Dr. Beauchamp attested to the inverse: The more verbally dexterous drinkers don’t necessarily have better palates. “It just means that they’ve learned how to attach words to sensory experiences,” he said.
Mr. Jennings offered this advice to wine lovers looking to improve their ability to “know what’s good” and talk about it: They need to taste widely and patronize good wine shops. “Your best friend is your fine-wine store—ideally one that holds frequent tastings,” he said.
‘‘I know people with really good palates who can’t describe [wines],’ said one expert. ‘They’re not geeky, but they know what’s good.’’
The importance of tasting widely came up over and over again in conversations with my wine-collector friends. They all agreed that exposure to a range of wines is key and perhaps even more important than an extensive tasting vocabulary. My friend Andy, a Westchester-based wine collector, said his wife, Holly, has a great palate—perhaps better than his own—in part because they taste a lot of wine. He also attributes his wife’s palate to “her physical ability to distinguish smells and tastes well,” adding that she too lacks “a wine geek’s vocabulary.”
Andy was with his friend Evan when I called for a chat. Andy and Evan are in the same “serious” wine- tasting group, although “Evan has a more refined palate than I do,” said Andy. “He can pick up subtleties that I can’t.” Evan demurred but allowed that he has more experience. The men recalled their first shared bottle—a Ridge Zinfandel, from California—and agreed that their palates have evolved from those early days. They now prefer what they called more nuanced, European-style wines.
The evolution of one’s palate is another favorite topic among oenophiles, and it usually describes a movement away from one type of wine to another. This progression generally begins with simple, fruity young wines and moves to more complex, structured and often well-aged wines. One of the most typical evolutions I’ve come across is of a wine drinker who begins with California Cabernets and Zinfandels, then moves to the red wines of Bordeaux and ultimately Burgundy grand crus. (Needless to say, this sort of evolution requires a certain “evolution” of the pocketbook, too.)
Does a great palate need to be evolved? I asked the two men whether a person who drank only the same sort of wine repeatedly could have a great palate. They thought not. Or as Evan put it, “I think it’s hard for your palate to evolve if you only drink California Cabernet.”
And what of the quality of my own palate? It has certainly evolved. I don’t drink the same wines I did 20 years ago, but that is partly because there are so many more wines in the world. I also have more money to spend on wine than I did in those early years—not to mention a professional obligation now to drink as broadly as possible. I can describe wines fairly well, although I’ve never owned an aroma wheel and I’m no Richard Jennings when it comes to tasting notes.
I think what I have—and what most serious wine drinkers possess—isn’t a great but an educated palate. In fact, I’m not even convinced that a great palate exists. Those two words imply a kind of universal capability I’m not sure is possible in the vastness of the wine world today. I think there are oenophiles with a great affinity for and deep understanding of particular wines and particular regions who are effective at transmitting those impressions to like-minded wine drinkers: a great palate for German Rieslings, for example, or a particularly keen understanding of Bordeaux. They’ve developed a natural talent with schooling and hard work, and like pianists who cannot possibly master every piece of classical music, must focus on one area close to their heart.