Feb 21 2011
All palates are created equal, but some are created more equal than others. No matter, with a bit of training and discipline you too can taste wine like an aficionado, using your skill to contribute to sighted and unsighted wine guides, holding court at fancy dinner parties and be able to sweep a recently Wine Judging Academy babe from her feet.
But it takes a bit of hard work, so be warned: honing a palate is not for sissies or persons unwilling to experiment with the things they put in their mouths.
I learnt my palate training regimen from the great Francois Engel, a bon viveur from Paris who could out-taste the best in the business Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ pre-Parker days, that is, and a chum of Roald Dahl. Once I saw Francois correctly identify 18 vintages of Calon-S╬ô├╢┬ú╬ô├«├ëgur, Bonneau du Martray and Les Chaignots in one sitting Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ blind.
And this while smoking a Gitanes between every second flight and rinsing his mouth with Vielle Prune.
This talent, Francois told me, was all the result of a rigorous palate training programme he had concocted himself. According to him, he could not identify the difference between Coca-Cola and Orangina when he was at university. Six years later, he was telling the cellar-master of Figeac which of his barrels had one stave of Hungarian oak.
So now I also employ FrancoisΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗s tasting programme, the basics of which I am delighted to share.
Step One Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ Lemon Juice
This was actually employed by Frida Podlashuk from the original Bellingham farm. Like Francois, Frida would rinse her mouth with fresh lemon juice every morning. This works just like the bracing effects of a cold shower. The jolt of sour, acidic lemon wakens the taste-buds, revitalising them after their slumber and preparing the fellows for the busy day ahead. When the lemon shot becomes a daily occurrence, the taste-buds take-on a sense of discipline, aware that their owner expects big things from them.
Waking up to a sup of umami coffee and a bacon sandwich raises lazy, slack and unwilling taste-buds.
If lemon juice is unavailable, young Swartland Chenin Blanc or distillation wine is a brisk second choice.
Step Two Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ The Nice Part: Fruit
Okay, so we all know that wine writers wax lyrical about the fruit flavours they so ably detect in a specific wine. But to know what you are talking about, you have to taste a lot of fruit. I mean, you just have to know your mango from your pawpaw, your gooseberry from your kiwi and your strawberry from your logan.
The second exercise, thus, entails grabbing a selection of fruit and tasting these blindfolded. Then you have to associate a fruit to a wine. If you suspect that what you are tasting is a granny smith apple, for example, you may want to call out Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├║M╬ô├╢┬ú╬ô├«├ëthode Cap ClassiqueΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├æ. A juicy kiwi will have you grabbing for Sauvignon Blanc, while a ripe strawberry could be linked to young-vine Pinot Noir.
Man Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ this is the fun part! Not only is it healthy, but you can drive home afterwards and laughingly stop at a road-block sans fear of spending the night gagging on the rancid banana.
Step Three Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ The Not-so-Nice Part: Soil and Stone
Up until now, most of us would think that tasters able to identify the soils from which the vines making a specific wine grew were blessed with mysterious powers. Not. Taste the bloody soil.
So now you have to get a collection of stones and soils where vineyards are found and learn to identify the different nuances.
First get the stones out of the way, as they are easiest.
Grab some smooth round river pebbles. A couple of pieces chickpea-sized granite. Some small chunks of Table Mountain Sandstone. Go on, place on or two in your mouth. Roll it around. Taste the cool minerality of each rocky morsel.
Think. Save that taste in your cranial hard-drive.
Then get messy.
A teaspoon of clay. Sand. Limestone soil. Gravel. Put each teaspoon in your mouth, roll your tongue around. Come on, itΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗s not worse than the cooking at the City Lodge! Once again, suck in the different flavours of soil, begin careful not to swallow anything unless you are in the presence of a fellow-taster who is a dab-hand at the Heimlich Manoeuvre.
Think this is a joke? Well, grab a bearded wine taster, of which there are many. Shave off that beard and you will find traces of vineyard soils from all over the world stuck to that skin which had until then been under that beard, trust me.
Do you think Dave Hughes actually wants that beard? He has half of Paardeberg, a chunk of Orange Riverbank and a hectare of Sandveld hiding behind it.
Embarking on this specific exercise once a week for six weeks will have you tasting the clay in a Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir, the Limestone in a DeWetshof Chardonnay and the sandstone in a Waterford Sauvignon Blanc in no time.
And that is very cool. Because when you start talking soil, the mere mortals dissipate.
Okay folks, that is Hard-core Tasting Regimen MasterClass Part One.
Next week, aromas.
But donΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗t think about your nose, yet. Get that stuff into your mouth. As the Bishop said to the actress: the more the better.