It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Do wine palates progress upward naturally to a more sophisticated stage?

In a previous article (Archives, October 24, 2011), I summarized the findings of an extensive, multi-year consumer research study by Constellation Brands that analyzed the wine purchasing habit of Americans.

Constellation came up with the following six-way classification of wine buyer types: 1) the intimidated and fretful, 2) the bargain-shopping, savvy shoppers, 3) the image-seeking, high price buyers, 4) the traditionalists who never vary from their favorites, 5) the satisfied sippers, who drink wine but are rather unmoved about it, and 6) the passionate, knowledgeable wine enthusiasts.

Oversimplified? Maybe. But it does inform us of the motivations at work for those who regularly buy wine. However, one aspect that was not mentioned, if even identified, was to what extent do wine buyers move from one category to another toward greater knowledge and sophistication? In short, is there validity to the notion of “progressive wine palate?”

This view holds, in a very general fashion, that neophytes, particularly those with a budding interest, travel an ascending pathway of learning points and palate refinements. Most people, especially those of us with a “Cola-trained-palate,” react positively to food and drink that have a pleasant, sweet component to it, and more often than not, following on that, one’s entry-level, first choice for wines usually reflects that palate preference.

As such, beginners have an initial predisposition for simple, soft wines. “Soft” is the operative word here. For whites, it means low acidity and a tendency toward sweetness; for reds, it means very low or absent tannins and, again, a tilt toward sweetness. Also, beginners usually start with soft white wines such as White Zinfandel and California Chenin Blancs and Rieslings. Red wines, because of their challenging structural aspects, are typically not the first choices for beginners.

Moving to the next level, the emerging enthusiast’s palate begins to evolve and move toward the mature preferences of more complex and dry (less sweet) wines. This notch up the palate stepladder points toward California or other New World styled Chardonnays that, while technically dry, still impart that pleasing and slight impression of sweetness because of the ripeness of the grapes. Those who prefer drier, livelier whites will show a preference for Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Grigios or similar crisp palate cleansers. And others starting to feel the tug of red wines will likely begin with those that are simple, inexpensive and quite low in tannins—basic Beaujolais, anonymous proprietary blends, and low cost Pinot Noirs and Merlots. They typically will manifest little if any varietal character and/or complexity, but they will occasionally impart a hint at the pleasures that lie beyond.

While the first two phases typically are transitory, this next stage for a developing palate is an ongoing and continuing pursuit, which—for all practical purposes—never ends. This plateau of wine education involves moving beyond one dimensional reds and whites to an enlarged field of more complex and interesting options from a wide variety of New and Old World producers. Books, magazines, classes and the Internet are all accessed for the most current information. Now definitely committed, the enthusiast begins to take note of the personality traits of the grape varieties and/or the appellations that underlie the wines being assessed. Reds are compared and contrasted, as are whites, and an awareness of the similarities and differences are grasped. Most importantly, each is appreciated for what it is, and what it is not.

This is where one becomes aware of and comfortable with the notions of acidity, tannin, alcohol, dryness, and body style, while additional insights emerge as one also learns about the relevance of structure, typicity and varietal character. It is here where the enthusiast tacitly defines his/her palate and begins to search out options within that broad category of preferences. One might settle on rich, ripe and fruity while another might settle on the more subdued of lower alcohol, more acidity and more food friendliness. And it is during this period that the enthusiast understands that lofty prices and 95+ point ratings seldom, if ever, deliver a wine that matches the aroused expectations, including the likelihood that it will pair well with a wide variety of food.

In closing, one can debate the validity of the Constellation categories, and another can certainly find exceptions and inconsistencies in the progressive palate theory. However, there is no question that nothing, absolutely nothing, beats being informed about what’s in your stemware.

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