How to Train Your Palate

Our senses of smell and taste are amazing things. They can bring intense feelings of joy, sorrow, disgust and delight, as well as evoke sharp memories of times past. However, like any other part of our body and brain, they need to be trained and exercised, challenged and pushed in order to reach their full potential. If you’re interested in wine, and want to develop your palate further, there is plenty that you can do to train yourself to unlock the subtler features of your favourite bottle. Training and expanding your palate will bring you more enjoyment when it comes to drinking and experiencing wine, and will allow you to join in those fascinating conversations people have about their own individual way of receiving the myriad sensory encounters each wine presents.

It helps, of course, if you already have a naturally attuned wine palate, or are already open to picking up on the subtler flavours and aromas hidden in each wine. Have you ever taken a sip of wine, and suddenly found yourself thinking of a very specific flavour or scent? Perhaps you were taken – in your memory – to a musty forest, littered with soft, overripe fruits. Or perhaps you caught the taste of parma violets, or ground ginger, or pipe tobacco. If you’ve ever experienced that rush of recognition, the chances are you’re already well on your way, and can benefit from the six simple techniques we will go through in this article. If not, there’s no doubt you can still train your palate to enhance your enjoyment of wine drinking.

But what is your palate? Quite simply, it is the combination of your taste buds, the roof of your mouth and inside of your cheeks, your tongue as a whole and – most importantly – your nose. In order to develop and train your palate, you need to be able to pay attention to what is happening in these various sense zones. Here are six simple methods you can try, in order to enhance your own palate, and become a real wine taster.

1. Take your time

Wine is not to be rushed. Imagine you’re eating your absolute favourite food – a shard of rich, dark chocolate, perhaps. Do you wolf it down and get it into your tummy as quickly as possible? Of course you don’t. You let it sit on your tongue, you roll it around your mouth. You savour it slowly, making it last, eking out every drop of pleasure you can. Doing the same with wine is enormously important – it allows all those different sensory zones to encounter the wine and the various features it possesses, and gets our brain used to picking up the signals it sends.

2. Step By Step

First look, then smell, then finally taste. The appearance of the wine may not be as important as the taste or the aroma, but it does play a part. Deep red wines prepare our brain for a richer taste experience, just as very pale white wines get us ready for a more acidic, zesty sensation. All of our senses work together, to piece together the puzzle of what we’re about to put into our mouths. This has been proven in fascinating ways by blindfolded taste tests, where subjects weren’t able to distinguish accurately between white and red wines when their eyes were covered. Training yourself by using your eyes first will help develop the analytical part of your brain which is key in pushing your palate to new heights.

3. Using visualisation

Before you take a sip of your wine, take a moment to close your eyes and inhale the aroma. After some practice, you should be able to construct a strong visualisation, based upon the various scents your nose can pick up. A seasoned wine drinker will be able to isolate each scent, one by one, and get a good picture of what is going on in the wine. For example, when I take a sniff of a good Bordeaux, I first get a hit of red and black berries, followed by plums. Then, one by one, I start seeing, in my mind’s eye, those berries surrounded by autumn leaves, and a little bit of woodsmoke… etc etc. By isolating each of these images through the aromas I encounter, I’m able to recognise the various components which make up the overall nose the wine possesses. It’s a joy to do, and something I’d recommend all wine drinkers take a moment to try before drinking.

4. The first taste

It’s very easy to get stuck on one main flavour when you’re tasting or smelling wine. Most wines will have a dominant flavour, but there’s always something else lurking underneath. Once you identify one flavour or aroma, ask yourself – so, what else is there? – and seek out the next one. Use your memory and your previous sensory experiences to explore every facet of the wine, and notice how the flavour changes as it reaches different parts of your palate. There’s an element of what is increasingly being called ‘mindfulness’ in wine tasting; it’s all about experiencing everything in the moment it arrives, and then putting that moment aside and welcoming the next one.

5. Body and Texture

It isn’t all about flavour and aroma. Wines have their own textures, too, and the ‘fatness’ or ‘thinness’ of a wine, or the silkiness or weight the wine possesses are definitely things to keep in mind. One of my favourite wines – Viognier – is generally quite oily and slippery on the palate. This is one easy way to identify this particular varietal, and moving your tongue around in your mouth to experience the tannins and various textural features of the wine will also bring out more secondary characteristics.

6. Build on your memory

A huge part of wine tasting and palate training is about the development of your memory. This comes with time and practice, and from taking a moment to commit to memory the different features of each wine you come across. Again, it’s something you have to do by experiencing wine tasting as a series of moments. There are some flavours which will stick in your memory more than others – for me, the earthiness of Rioja wines, and the elderflower hit of my favourite Hungarian white wines are the ‘unforgettables’ which I recognise each time I come across them. If it helps, note things down – writing the images and tastes you come across is a great way to improve your memory and generally train your palate to remember different flavours.

My final piece of advice is to get out of your comfort zone. Try wines you think you don’t like, and try to understand what it is you don’t like about them, or whether your first impression might have been wrong. There’s a whole world of wines out there, thousands of styles and blends and experience – go forth, and taste!

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