Finding Your Benchmark Wines, Calibrating Your Palate

During the early days of running the San Diego Chapter of WINO (Wine Investigation for Novices and Oenophiles) in the 1970s, my mission was to encourage people to try different wines with food and be comfortable with what they preferred. We cultivated an anti-snobbery approach to take the mystery and pompousness out of drinking wine. Our mantra was: “if you like it, it’s good.”

Over the years, too many wine drinkers, particularly new ones, tend to be intimidated by wine geeks and snobs. They don’t trust their own palates and have come to rely on ratings from various critics to pick their wines. Critics have different palates and sensitivities. One critic may prefer high-alcohol fruit bombs, another may be expert in the fine and varied Rieslings from the Mosel and others will have sensitivities from being weaned on classic Barolo, Chianti, Bordeaux and Burgundy wines with 12.5 alcohol and a sense of place, or terroir. Tim Hanni, master of wine, recently published a book called Why You Like the Wines You Like — Changing the way the world thinks about wine. He delves into defining personal wine preferences — your vinotype — to provide context for enjoying wines and not following the critics.

His vinotypes: sweet, hypersensitive, sensitive and tolerant. You can take the test online. Once you calibrate your sensitivities, you will be better equipped to sample different wines from all over the world. Follow your own palate, he advises. Don’t blindly follow the white wine with fish and red wine with meat commandments. He makes the case for matching the wine to the diner (you), not the dinner. Choose a wine you like as a reference point rather than something touted by the critics. If you are turned off by high-alcohol Zinfandel wines in random tastings, you will hate the wines with food, he writes.

Getting Anaytical

Getting Analytical Before Playing with Food

Hanni notes: “Personal wine preferences are determined by a combination of your individual sensory sensitivity quotient (which, by the way, doest not render you more or less capable as a wine expert or a taster) and the memories and expectations you have to go up to learning, life experiences, culture or society and the like.’

The good news: as with acquiring any new skill and advancing your capabilities in anything from golf to chess to repairing cars, you need to practice, practice, practice. The following tips can help you start wherever you are comfortable and continue expanding your organoleptic horizons.

Bracketing and Benchmarking

Start with a wine you like. It is widely available? You can start with something from a major producer. What are its characteristics? With a Chardonnay, the style can range from soft and made for easy sipping, to crisp like a Chablis from France, to a big, fat, oaky and higher alcohol version from California. With Pinot Noir, the brackets can include wines at different prices from Oregon, California, New Zealand and the Burgundy area of France.  Sauvignon Blanc wines come in a wide variety of styles and price ranges from California, New Zealand, South Africa and France (Sancerre and Graves are two fine areas).

Testing and Tasting

We enjoy tasting with friends who have a range of preferences and experiences with wine and food. For starters, we usually have a blind tasting with three to four wines. We put the wines into brown paper bags, number the bags and give everyone a 20-point UC Davis-style score sheet, which you can download here. After the tasting and scoring, we reveal the wines. This can be enlightening, such as when a $15 Cabernet from Chile is preferred over $20 to $100 wines from other parts of the world. You can also taste your sensitivities to aromas and styles by having two wines from the same area and then a third from another country but made with the same varietal and from a similar vintage. Looking for similarities and differences are always great topics for discussion.

The next step is tasting the wines with food. With a little more time in the air and being swirled in the glasses, the wines can open up and show more character.

Experiment with different food and wine combinations. We have several friends who love Rieslings, including with beef. Try a Pinot Noir or Rosso di Montalcino or Rhone-style blend with fish. The running joke is we use wine as an excuse to play with our food.

Documenting

Use the score sheets to keep track of the wines you taste and your impressions, both in the blind tastings and then with food. With more practice, practice, practice, patterns will emerge. From these early brackets and benchmarks, advance to the next level of tasting adventure.

Exploring New Varietals, Styles, Regions

From this always-growing foundation, plan to broaden your tasting experiences. Tell your local wine merchant what you’ve enjoyed and ask for suggestions. For example, if you like Rhone varietals (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre), the next areas of exploration could be Spain for Garnacha and Australia for Shiraz (Syrah). For Cabernet Sauvignon fans, the adventure should include Bordeaux-style blends (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petite Verdot and Cabernet Franc), which are made throughout the world. Then, pursue examples of those different varietals, such as Malbec from Argentina, Chile, South Africa and France (the Cahors region).

In white wines, go beyond Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to explore Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio), Rhone varietals (Marsanne and Rousanne for starters) and Riesling. Riesling, including wines with touches of residual sugar, can be a great match for oriental cuisine and spicier, more astringent sauces on meat and pork. Explore wines from the Mosel region of Germany to see how the fruit, sugar and acidity can vary from one terraced vineyard above the river to the next, based on the category of wine (Kabinett as the driest, then advances to Spatlese and Auslese).

Start with the benchmarking concept outlined here, keep analyzing your wine preferences and sensitivities, document, expand your horizons and repeat, including in visiting wine areas anywhere in the world. Fun, educational and great for enhancing your appreciation of foods of all types.

 

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