As discussed I’ve got a ‘Palate Problem‘. With blind tasting part of the WSET Level 3 it’s a problem that requires solving. So in my usual fashion, I’ve trawled through numerous sources and pulled together a list of methods to improve my palate. The next few articles in my WSET series will discuss the advice I’ve found and my experience applying it. As always I hope that others find the information useful.
To make the information more digestible I’ve broken the methods down into three articles: –
- General Advice – These are methods that can be adopted starting today. They should become part of the general routine. They aim to improve the palate across the board. This is what we’ll be discussing in this article.
- Palate / Taste – Article two will focus on improving things such as acid, tannin, body identification etc. Namely page one of the lexicon (excluding aroma & flavour characteristics).
- Flavour Identification – Article three will focus on how to improve flavour identification, particularly via smell. Pretty much what you see on page two of the lexicon.
By the end, and with a lot of hard work, I hope to have a Palate an Epicurean would be proud to own.
Slow Down & Think!
We’ll start with advice that you can implement today, advice that seems to be nearly universal when it comes to improving the palate.
Slow down and think about what you’re eating and drinking. Now, some people already do this. You know the ones, those that listened to their mother when she scolded them to “slow down and chew your food!”. I didn’t listen to my mother (sorry Mum!) so I didn’t grow up mastering this method.
However, the older I’ve got the more I’ve learned to appreciate my food (and wine) so naturally I’ve started to slow down when tasting.
But that’s not enough, I’m working on slowing down even more, really taking my time with each bite and sip. When out for dinner with your friends you should be the last person to finish their meal, ensuring everybody else wait to get the bill…..don’t worry, everybody loves that guy.
Slowing down provides the opportunity to work through the below steps.
1. Set Expectations
Before tasting, use all information available to set a list of mental expectations concerning the food or drink you’re about to introduce to your palate.
Where does the information to set these expectations come from? From anywhere; your senses (except tastes at this point), past experiences and even other peoples knowledge.
See the curry being served has a distinctive orange color? Expect to taste turmeric when you bite into it. Smell dark fruits on a wine? Add flavours such as blackberry, blackcurrant, etc., to your list. Your dinner companions decide to go with a Cabernet Saviougion? Use your experience to look out for the high tannins that are common with this variety.
Add all these to the expectations list. This list provides a guide, a set of training wheels so to speak, that can be used to provide focus when it comes to tasting.
As time goes on we can start to remove these training wheels one at a time, for example removing the sense of sight by blind tasting. However, initially diving straight into tasting without a guide can mean becoming bewildered by the blend of smells, tastes and flavours.
At the start, your list of expectations may be short. However, with practice, experience and deeper knowledge it becomes longer and more detailed. Don’t be put off, just keep at it.
2. Confirm (or Deny) your Expectations
We have our list of expectations, now comes the tasting, where we edit the list.
When I talk about tasting I’m not talking about ‘how to taste wine’ in the sense of how to hold the glass, swirling the wine just so or sucking air through your teeth so you look, and sound, like a pretentious muppet.
Numerous times during my research I came across articles that just recited the mechanics of tasting wine (type of glass, swirling, aeration etc) as a way to improve your palate
Now, for the teasing in the previous paragraph, I do believe the proper mechanics does help and should be put into practice. But I’m guessing that if you’re doing your level 3 then holding a wine glass is something you’ve already got down. What I’m looking for is ways to improve your palate – in my experience swirling a wine may release more of the aroma, but without a suitably refined palate identifying those aromas is still going to be tough.
When I talk about tasting wine (or food for that matter) I’m referring to actually getting it in your mouth, chewing and/or drinking. This allows us to compare our list of expectations with reality.
Are those heavy tannins present in the wine? Are they softer than expected? Was there a strong taste of turmeric in the curry? Or was it overshadowed by something else? How is reality matching your expectations?
The search for other flavours occurs here. Are unexpected flavours coming through? Can those flavours that couldn’t quite be pinned down now be confirmed?
Still getting flavours that can’t be pinned down? Try describing them in broad terms; fruity, smokey, spicey. If that doesn’t work, don’t worry, move on. Rather than getting hung up on unknown flavours better to move onto others that can be identified.
Also consider other aspects. What’s the texture like? How is your mouth actually responding to what you’ve just put in it? Is it watering (acid)? Is there a prickly burning sensation(chemesthesis)? How would you describe the overall mouthfeel? Again, use broad terms if needed but try to come up with some type of descriptor.
Beware! Look out for the temptation to make reality bend to your expectations. Just because something is on your expectations list doesn’t mean it should be confirmed. If it turns out that Cabernet Saviougion has low tannins be sure to mark the reality down rather then just sticking to your expectation.
What we end up with is an edited list based on our original expectations. It’s almost like we’ve created the building blocks for a set of wine tasting notes.
3. Associate -> Memorise
We should now have a list of smells, reactions, tastes, flavours and general descriptors. Now we need to associate these with a memory of the thing we ate or drank. This allows us to draw on that memory in the future when we come across a similar combination again. This builds up a palate that can consistently & correctly identify what we’re consuming.
The above is reasonably straight forward with single favours (we will discuss this as part of improving flavour identification). However, the difficulty comes when aromas, tastes, textures & flavours are jumbled together.
Picking out a single subtle ingredient when there are sixth other ingredients competing for your attention takes thought and practice. Hence the need to Slow Down & Think.
‘Taste’ Lots and Lots of Wine…..Woop!
This piece of advice is a bit more up my alley. To improve your palate, specifically for wine, taste lots and lots of wine.
Wait wait! Before you go running out of the room to start downing every bottle you can get your hands on did you notice my choice of verb? It was taste….not drink…lots of wine. Now, nothing is stopping you drinking lots of wine (obvious health risks aside!), so long as you’re tasting the wine at the same time. However, from experience, I’ve found my ability to taste decreases in direct correlation with the amount I drink, so beware.
So are there any tips for how we can get the most out of tasting wines? Well, I’m glad you asked!
This one is suggested by the WSET themselves. Each person has a different ‘taste’ memory bank to draw on, tasting as a group allows others to help you identify unfamiliar flavours, and you, in turn, can help them.
The ability to describe what you’re ‘tasting’ so that others understand & agree is a core skill. When you say a wine has medium(+) acidity it should align with what others call medium(+). Tasting with others helps provide practice with calibration and verbalizing wine descriptors.
It also makes tasting a lot more fun and cost-effective. Having a group where each person brings a bottle of wine means you can taste multiple wines for the cost of one bottle.
Try to taste more than one wine at the same time. Comparing the difference between two or more wines in real-time helps highlight the differences.
For example, have problems identifying oak? Grab a Rioja Gran Reserva and a Beaujolais Nouveau and taste them side by side. They won’t complement each other, but it will give you great practice seeing what oaked wine does to your palate.
Blind Tasting, tasting wine without knowing it’s identity, is an activity that, since it’s part of the WSET Level 3 exam, you should get as much practice with as you can.
Blind tasting can be combined with group tastings by asking everybody to keep their wine wrapped up. I plan to have Ewa start buying me a selection of three wine varieties, keeping them out sight until after I’ve taste them.
The benefits here are pretty obvious. Tasting blind forces you to work with less information pushing you to develop your senses to fill in the gaps.
As usual Wine Folly has some good advice – ensure you take notes when tasting wine. You can do this anyway you like. As per Wine Folly you can buy a custom designed journal. Although if you’re looking for cheaper alternatives I’ve listed some below:-
- WSET App – The WSET have their own mobile app for recording structured tasting notes. It’s tailored to WSET Level 2 but could still be useful as it allows you to capture specific levels for tannin, acid, sweetness etc
- Vivino & Delectable – Both of these are mobile apps for recording wines you’ve tasted. The great feature is that you can use your phone’s camera to snap a picture of the bottle and the app will look up the wine for you. Tasting notes can be written for each wine but there is no option to capture specific levels for tannin, acid, sweetness etc.
- Notebook – An old fashioned notebook. I know the Wine Folly version looks lovely, but if you want to save a few dollars it’s tough to beat a blank notebook.
- Google Docs / Word Template – Create a tasting notes template in either Google Docs or Word. Both have mobile apps so you can use them on the move. The benefit is that you can easily save notes and search through them later. An extra benefit, google docs is free.
My personal preference is a combination of a notebook for when I’m on the go or want to write more detailed notes about the wine’s location/history, a custom google docs template for when I’m doing a systematic tasting and finally Vivino to quickly lookup and record details of the wine I’m tasting.
Drink wines you don’t usually drink
Finally, taste wines that you wouldn’t usually try. For me, that covers most white wines. We all have our preferences but the exam blind tasting won’t take these preferences into account. As such you need to expose yourself to as many different wines as possible.
With that said it’s probably a good idea to start with the most popular varieties and those covered in the WSET Level 3 textbook. Get as much exposure to these varieties as possible.
The final piece of advice is, like the rest, deceptively straight forward. As the following article states, build up your knowledge about all aspects of food (or in our case, wine). This includes: –
- The Wine Making Process – Research different methods of winemaking. Understand why winemakers do what they do. For example, why do winemakers use malolactic fermentation (MLF)? How does it impact the wine? Can you get your hands on a wine that’s gone through MLF and one that hasn’t to taste the difference for yourself?
- Chemistry of Wine – Why is PH important to wine? What’s are Methoxypyrazines and why are they important to a wine’s smell? Having some basic knowledge of wine chemistry can provide a guide when it comes to tasting the wine.
- Variety, Region & Vintage – Having done level 2 you should know how popular varieties should express themselves. But can you remember how the region impacts a wine’s expression? What about vintages? You may not be tested on vintage but again it can provide clues when tasting. Also, it’s always impressive being able to rattle off a region’s top vintages from memory.
- Experiment – Build up your knowledge via experimentation. What does an oxidized wine taste like? Try leaving one out for a few days to find out. We will cover some of the ways we can experiment to improve our palate in the next couple of articles, but this doesn’t stop you running your own and gaining knowledge by direct experience.
And in reality does this all work?
Regarding my direct experience on implementing the above you should understand that I’m a systems thinker, I like to break the world down into discrete pieces. As such, I’ve presented the above as nice, self-contained systematic steps.
The problem is the world rarely works that way. For example, the three steps described in Slow Down and Think! often blend into each other or occur simultaneously. You may find yourself going backwards and forwards through the steps. However, even though the above doesn’t always match reality it has provided me with a structure to work from. I’ve noticed this initial structure has made it easier to incorporate the steps into a tasting routine.
Additionally, although the above advice sounds simple it’s actually mentally taxing. Spending energy on an activity that was previously an enjoyable way to relax after a long day, is tough. It’s still enjoyable, or else I wouldn’t be doing this, but no longer the relaxing activity it used to be. Now it’s an opportunity to learn.
I try not to beat myself up if I don’t always follow each piece of advice. The idea is to build up habits, and as with most habits, it’s initially difficult. Now and again give yourself a break, just enjoy a glass of wine without thinking about it too much.
Advice from others that I’ve come across often assumes access to people, money and a wide selection of wine. Now when I had a full-time job and was living in central London, attending a tasting or organizing a group blind tasting where each person brings wine from a different part of the world wasn’t much of a challenge.
However, I’m currently living in a small village in south Italy, I’m still learning the language and I’m on a budget. I’m pretty sure I’d have to drive about an hour to get my hands on a wine that wasn’t Italian! Attending a group tasting with wines from around the world isn’t, sadly, an option.
You could be in a similar boat. Initially, I was disheartened, however, as is often the case, there are ways to adapt an idea to fit the situation. For me, I plan to try organize tastings where people can contribute to a wine fund. I’ll use the fund to order wine online from around the world. We can then get together to do a tasting. To get around the language barrier I’ll advertise on expat web forums. The hope is there are like-minded people out there in the Molise region. Will it work? Who knows but doesn’t hurt to try.
Totally unrelated, if you do live in the Molise region and would be interested in attending wine tasting events don’t hesitate in contacting via the contact button above!
Does this advice (and advice from the following articles) work? Well, don’t expect miracles. We often hope for that Eureka moment where everything falls together. I can only speak for myself; now and again I have a Eureka moment (Having problems with identifying bitterness? Eat a big handful of rocket) but more often progress is incremental, slow and takes work. I feel like I’ve still got a long way to go but I believe I’m moving in the right direction. Work with what you’ve got and try to adapt the above (and the advice in future articles) as best you can – it’s worked for me – I hope it does for you.
As always, any feedback on the above or comments on your own experiences feel free to comment or send through to me.
- How to Develop Your Wine Palate
- Wine Tasting How to Train Your Palate
- 5 Smart Ways to Develop Your Wine Palate
- How to Train Your Wine Palate
- Tasting With WSET Level 3
- Wine Palate: Improving Your Wine Experience
- How to improve Your palate