John JuergensTuning up Your Palate

In a previous article I talked a little bit about how wine makers can determine the style of a wine by whether they make the wine in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks, and whether they age the wine in clean containers or on the yeast sediment left over from the fermentation process. These processes yield distinctly different wines that range from light and delicate to heavy and robust. Depending on what kind of palate you have, you may prefer one style over the other. Oops! That sounds like one of those snooty wine terms. Let me explain.

I suppose there is some specific physical or psychological basis to our taste preferences, but I'm not sure what it is and I won't bore you with the details if I find out. Suffice it to say that we all have preferences for certain kinds of tastes. When it comes to wine some people prefer the light, delicate, and more subtle style that usually is associated with French wines, and others prefer the big, bold, "in-your-face" style that is so common to California wines. Still others will enjoy either style or something in between. Here's a fun and easy exercise to tell which kind of taste preference, or "palate", you have. It is best to do this with a group of friends (6 or so) to illustrate how evenly preferences are divided within the population, and because you will have to invest about $20.

Go to your favorite wine shop and buy the following two wines: Kendall Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay, any of several French Chardonnays such as Barton & Gustier or Fortant de France. Chill the wines to about 50-55 degrees --about 45 minutes in the refrigerator-- and set out two glasses for each person participating in the exercise. It is best to have the wines "blind", that is, covered with bags so that the labels do not show. This also lends an air of intrigue to the exercise. If you serve the wines blind, be sure to label them so you can identify them later. Pour a sample of each wine side-by-side for each person and then have everyone compare the smell and taste of each wine noting to themselves what they like and dislike about the aroma and the taste of each wine.

After everyone has had a sufficient amount of time to evaluate the wine, have them announce which wine they prefer and their reasons for their preference if they have specifics. Some people might say they like both wines, but try to get them to decide which they like best. Remember, there is no right or wrong answer; this is just a way to identify individual preferences. Tally up the votes for each wine, and if you have six or more people participating I think you will be surprised to find that about half of the people will prefer the French wine and half will prefer the California wine.

I have done this test many times and it usually comes out this same way for a diverse group of people-- half the people will have a "California palate" and the other half will have a "European palate". Of course, those who preferred the European wine usually start crowing about how sophisticated they are, but you usually can muzzle them quickly by telling them they liked the cheap wine best.

This phenomenon usually extends to red wines as well, but the tannins and other components sometimes complicate the preference decision and the results might not be as clear cut. Once you find out what kind of palate you have, you can then apply this knowledge in finding wines you prefer. Reading the back labels of American wines frequently will give you clues about what style of wine it is. If the notes indicate that the wine was aged in oak barrels, has buttery or vanilla flavors, or was aged on the lees, there is a good chance this will be a bigger style wine that will appeal to the California palate. On the other hand, if the notes on the back label talk about stainless steel tanks and light, delicate, or crisp flavors, this probably is a wine for European palates.

Wines from other countries also will tend to follow this pattern. Australian wines frequently will out do the Californians in terms of robust style, and white wines from Italy, Spain, and some of the South American countries will tend to be lighter and more crisp along the lines of the French wines. Of course, there will be exceptions to these rules of thumb in every country, but I'm not going to tell you now what they are, but will provide a list in a future article listing my picks for both styles of wines. I don't want to make it too easy for you and take away all your motivation for exploration and discovery. Happy tasting!

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