The Cyrano Wine Column: Keeping an Open Palate

February 7, 2024

Do you usually try a wine and then decide right away whether or not it tickles your fancy? Are your wine selections based solely on their ratings? Do you know what you want from a wine when you’re picking one out? Read this week’s post from behind the curtain to learn about how a little bit of patience can go a long way in helping you enjoy wine both in the short- and longterm.

Keeping An Open Palate

There is often a good deal of talk about a wine needing to “open up”, to flesh out and show what it has to offer, to shed the tannin and acidic structure and become this other product altogether.

It is placing the blame squarely on the wine.

Although there is some truth to the fact that the wine needs to open up and breathe, there is a complete discounting of the consumers’ role. I think that it is a meeting in the middle, where one’s palate opens up to the wine as much as the wine opens up to the palate (not unlike most meaningful relationships). In my experience there have been numerous times where I was not truly ready to taste what was given to me and made a rash judgment, only to find that as my palate became more accustomed to what the wine had to offer, well, it had more to offer.

But I have learned to be patient, to allow that it may be me that should come the wine’s way a bit as well. And it has led me to be more leery of effusive, immediately pleasing wines which seem to over-deliver at the outset.

It is not that these wines are not inherently “good”, they just fill me with doubt. Are they pandering to the easily compliant parts of my palate? Broad and easy and not too challenging, like a politician desperately trying to curry their constituents favor? Or are they just being themselves, natural and comfortable being all they can or were meant to be?

The Scores

What is very disconcerting to me is that I see this principle being used when wines are scored in the trade press as well. Wines are generally tasted in large groupings in fairly rapid succession. Notes are taken in very broad strokes and the end result is that wines that really deliver a wallop stick in the mind of the reviewer (as well the wines that truly suck) and get the rave reviews. This is an unsustainable model for a long term relationship.

Have you ever met someone at a party who was gregarious and immediately likable only to find that after an half an hour they had nothing new to say and were quickly boring you? That’s what some of these very high scoring wines are like for me - just loud brash bores.

Currently the big ones get the 94+ ratings and there is a mad stampede to acquire them. Everything else kind of gets lost in the shuffle and this is where most of the true values are found. I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up an 89, 90 or 91 was a good score in anything based on the 100 point scale. Now, that is kind of like failing.

Very few wines are reviewed on potential as opposed to immediate impact.

I need more promise of development, of growth, in wine (in my glass and in the cellar) and often the most precocious do not have the finesse to develop into anything more interesting.

Practical Application

When choosing wine at a restaurant or retailer, we should keep in mind what our end goal is and how we intend to reach it.
- Do we want to be bowled over or gently pushed down? Depends on your mood. Sometimes you just want to be entertained, other times engaged.
- Do we go solely by the reviews (and by that I mean the scores, no one actually reads the words) or find some other arbiter? Trust your palate, if you like it, you like it. To hell with the press.
- Would we like the wine to complement our food or is that irrelevant? I like having the wine go with the food, lighter with lighter and so on, but sometimes great wine and great food are just that, whether they complement each other or not.

What I am trying to say here is to be open. Not just open to trying different wines but also to the possibility that while you may not appreciate all the wine has to offer on the first taste, it may end up hitting all the right notes. There are any number of factors that affect how a wine tastes to you the first time. What you had to eat or drink before, the weather or your mood can all have significance and it takes a bit of practice to be able to read between the lines.

I’ll admit it seems a bit risky to pick wines based on potential but I think that it will be more than rewarding. In the short term you may find yourself liking wines you had previously dismissed based on a first blush experience. In the long run, if you are collecting wines, you can avoid ending up with the vinous equivalent of parachute pants in your cellar.

The wine business has trends just like fashion. And like fashion, not all of them should be followed.

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