You know your taste in clothes, shoes, food and cars, but do you know your taste in wine? If you had asked me ten years ago before I started living in Italy, I would have said, "No." and "Who cares? Wine snobs are boring."
Now, I care more about what wine I drink and why, but I still find wine snobs to be boring (because tasting and learning about wine is inherently a personal and cultural adventure). Anyone can enjoy pleasures of the palate. Here are a few things I've learned:
1) Palate Basics
Your palate is a complex combination of four senses: sight, smell, taste and feel. When you pick up a glass of wine, look at it and take a sip, your brain gets a tsunami of information. Stop and notice the specifics:
-Visual: Shade of Color, Intensity of Color, Still or Bubbly?
-Smell/Taste: Flavors through a combination of nasal and tongue sensors
-Taste: Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Salty (taste of Minerals-Minerality)
-Sensation: Cool/Warm, Heat (Alcohol), Astringency (Tannins), Fizz, Consistency
2) Your Palate: Memory Trained and Ready
Over your lifetime, your palate has automatically (and mostly unconsciously) developed likes and dislikes. For example, If you grew up drinking milk, then, moved to Coca-Cola, and finally, cocktails, your palate is used to creamy consistency, sweetness, cold temperature, fizziness and heat (alcohol). Write down a list things you liked to eat/drink when you were a child, adolescent, and now, as an adult. Note their characteristics. What are your palate preferences?
3) Cultural Influence on Your Palate
Your palate preferences are strongly influenced by your culture. A lot of Americans have developed a palate similar to the one in the example above.
In Italy, palates are different. This explains why Caramel, Cinnamon and Pumpkin Spice coffee flavors are popular at Starbucks in the U.S,. and why Americans tend to order cappuccino as an after dinner drink. Italians, on the other hand, tend to drink cappuccino only as a breakfast drink and espresso straight up otherwise. Neither is right or wrong, better or worse, just different
4) The American Wine Palate
American wine producers largely cater to the American palate. They have historically picked grapes later to yield sweeter, fruitier wines and used oak barrels (and other techniques) to soften tannins (astringency). They also concentrate on a few familiar grape varieties.
In a recent article on his Vinography blog, Alder Yarrow noted that "...93% of [Sonoma and Napa] acreage is planted with just eight grape varieties, in descending order of acreage: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel." ("California's Other Seven Percent", May 20, 2015, Yarrow) It's no wonder that some Italian producers add Cabernet or Merlot to their wines and/or use small oak barrels to make their wines softer and more familiar to the American palate .
5) Expert Palates Giving Advice
In the 1980s, America's most famous expert, Robert Parker developed a system of point scoring for wine that swept the industry. He has a strong preference for big, fruity, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines, very much in line with the American palate. Keep this in mind if you consult the "experts".
6) Non-Expert Palates Giving Advice
With the onset of TripAdvisor, Uber and Airbnb, we are in the era of democratization of every form of taste. Vivino and many other apps offer popular ratings of wine. If you use them, notice how they, too, are skewed by the factors above: "Cultural Palate" and "Expert Ratings".
7) How Tasting Order Affects your Palate
Your palate is a highly sensitive mechanism designed to detect both subtlety and intensity in different wine types. But once you expose it to intensity (big, heavy, red wine), you won't taste subtlety (light white). If you want your palate to work well, go in order from light white to heavier white, then, from light red to heavier red and then, to sweet or liquored wines.
8) How Food Pairing (or Lack Thereof) Affects Palate
The cocktail culture (drinking alcohol before a meal) influences American wine culture: better to find a wine that is easy drinking (harmonious without a lot of acidity or tannins) so it can stand on its own without food.
This is the exact opposite of Italian wine culture where wine is served in the context of food:
-a crisp white wine with lots of acidity or minerality to clear the richness of a risotto.
-a light red with some acidity to go with bread and cheese at lunch
-a structured red wine to counter the fattiness and weight of a big meat dish.
If you want to train your palate to "real" Italian wine, try food pairing.
9) Experimenting with Taste
It takes some effort to learn about Italian grape varieties and to get to know different regions and their wines. But once I dove into the diversity of "real" Italian wine, I was hooked.
10) Evolving Taste
As you get to know your palate and begin experimenting with unfamiliar wines, your tastes will evolve. Remember, vino è piacere. (Wine is pleasure.) Enjoy the pleasure of playing with your wine palate.