What exactly is a good wine palate? Do you have one? Of course, you do.
It is just that everyone's palate is different. The ability to identify off-balance wines, high-oak wines or high-acid wines is indeed useful for pairing wine with food.
Winemakers particularly need to be able to identify chemical irregularities in winemaking that can affect the taste and shelf life of a wine. There are wine geeks who are "super tasters" and can identify producers and styles of wine blindly. But to the typical wine consumer, too much is made in the wine world about the "quality of one's palate."
Let me suggest that you spend less time worrying about the quality of your palate and more time simply enjoying your palate and refining your understanding and what you like in wines. The process is fun and simple. First, read all you can on a wine varietal. Second, if you're able, visit the region the varietal is known for and enjoy a learning vacation.
Nothing like a trip to Spain to learn about Tempranillo. A weekend in the Anderson Valley or Sonoma Coast region of California will refine your pinot noir palate for sure.
Can't afford that trip right now? In that case, you have to conduct your "extended study" at home. But again, the process can be enjoyable, and there is no test or humiliation that often accompanies blind wine tastings.
Simply take the next 60 or 90 days and drink only two varietals of wine. For example, if you want to refine your palate on sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, then for the next 60 to 90 days drink all of the different sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs you can find, and be sure each are from different regions, countries and price points. New Zealand, California, France and Austria all make great sau blancs. See how the varietal differs from country to country or region to region. Then do the same with the red varietal. Drink several of the multitudes of pinots from New Zealand, California and Oregon. Might as well throw in a nice French Burgundy as well.
Not only will you enjoy the wines more, but at the end of your extended journey into the varietals, you will have refined your palate on these two varietals as well as any expert. You will be more than familiar with the pricing of the wines and will certainly be able to identify your favorite source for the varietal in question when asked at the next wine tasting or dinner with friends.
Trying a multitude of wine varietals in contrast will only confuse you and cause one of those shocking credit-card bill moments when the bill arrives. Your palate will be overwhelmed, and the lack of an in-depth study in any varietal will leave one with a superficial wine palate as well.
The above method of staying with two varietals for a lengthy period will build your knowledge base, but more importantly, the varietal will "imprint" in your memory and last. You can only learn so much if you learn in small sips, but if you focus and concentrate on simply two varietals over a lengthy period, you will accumulate a complete understanding of the varietal, and the memory and palate will last.
Everyone's palate is different as well. As Terry Theise notes in his excellent book, "Reading between the Wines" (University of California Press, 2010), "Each of us relates to our palates based on our own temperament: a geek will have a geeky relationship with his palate, a right brainer will have an elliptical and inferential relationship with his palate, and a linear, cataloguing person will organize his palate like a well oiled machine. No single system is 'best'; it's important to have the relationship that comes naturally. If you try to force it, you'll be doomed to frustration."
We are all born with the same taste capabilities for the most part. How you arrange what you taste and catalog it will be your palate. Describe the wine as you wish. Enjoy what you enjoy. Don't rush the learning, and enjoy the process. Taking notes and an exam are not necessary. Oh, so many wines and so little time.
Time to get started.
Vic Poulos is owner of Zin Valle Vineyards.
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