Your palate is probably much more sensitive than you think when it comes to both food and wine.
Each of us is born with some pretty sophisticated detection equipment which is perfectly capable of spotting trace amounts of chemical compounds in the air we breathe and the stuff we eat and drink.
Olfactory nerve cells in the nose and taste buds in the nose and throat are capable of outperforming gas chromatographs in discerning odours and tastes. We may not be as sensitive as dogs with some odorants, but we are much better than most of us might think.
The classic stereotype of the wine lover (or perhaps wine snob) is the fellow rattling off a string of amazing flavour descriptors of such imaginative intricacy that it is hard to believe they could be produced from simple grape juice. The companion character is the expert who is able to sniff a glass of unknown wine and specify the contents, who made it, where it is from and when it was made.
These are not just funny caricatures; there are many real people who can actually do these things. They are not faking it. I know some of them.
The main difference between such folks and the average wine drinker is experience and knowledge. While they may have better natural ability than average, they combine this with a deep interest in wine that has led to many years of study and tasting.
These sorts of people are professionals or serious hobbyists, for the most part. I have, for example, mentioned the Masters of Wine before in this column. A person must pass a comprehensive blind tasting exam as one step in gaining the designation of master.
You don’t need to be a master to enjoy wine, nor to be able to spot the differences between wines and the qualities of a wine. You may not be able to put a name to a wine, or what you are tasting in a wine, but you are able to take note of the flavours and aromas with a little effort.
I have hosted many tastings where different wines were offered. In every case, participants were able to spot the differences between wines and grape varieties, even if they couldn’t put a name to those differences. This sensitivity was evident at the Taste of Bordeaux event held by the NLC last weekend.
The tasting was a large selection of some of the finest wines from Bordeaux. Each wine was offered in two vintages — 2009 and 2010. During the course of the evening, I heard many comments about the softness of the 2009s and the fuller and less rounded flavours of the 2010s. I am pretty certain that having experienced this event, many participants would be able to tell you whether a particular Bordeaux wine was a 2009 or 2010, at least for a while before the taste memory faded.
These observations also say something about the importance of vintage (at least in higher-end wines). Similar differences between wines of the two years were fairly obvious across all the wines — not just to the “experts,” but to most of those present. Those vintage charts have a factual underpinning that everyone is able to appreciate.
Next time you lift a glass, make the effort to notice what your senses are telling you about the wine — you can do it!
I didn’t get a chance to check out all the wines available at the event, but my favourites of those I tasted included the Château Canon-la-Gaffelière, Château Pavie Macquin, Château Brane-Cantenac, Château Giscours, Château Malescot St-Exupéry and Château Labégorce (my best value choice of the night).
Steve Delaney is a member of the Opimian Society. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org