You’ve probably heard some food or drink described as being an “acquired taste”, implying that the average person would not appreciate the flavor. This is another way of describing what is called palate progression or maturing of the palate. As it pertains to wine, this means the progression from liking only sweet, white wines to being able to appreciate a complex, tannic red wine. The good news is that this is not something you have to work at, for most people it’s a natural progression that happens gradually and without their notice. When you drink wine, your palate encounters four sensations that contribute to the flavor of the wine: sweetness, body, tartness and astringency.
Sweetness : Sweet is the opposite of dry, that is a sweet wine is called sweet and a wine that is not sweet is called dry. We typically assume that sweetness is cause by the presence of sugar, however what I like to call apparent sweetness can also be caused by excessive fruitiness. Even though the two sensations are very different; sweetness being noticeable on the tip of the tongue and fruit coming mostly from smell, both can be perceived as sweet.
Body: Body is our perception of what is called a wine’s weight in the mouth. Wines are described on the one extreme as light, implying little or no feeling of body or weight in the mouth, and on the other extreme as full bodied, implying a significant feeling of body or weight. Note that body is a feeling, involving the sense of touch, rather than a taste. Body is mostly correlated with alcohol content, the higher the alcohol content the greater the sensation of weight or body.
Tartness: Tartness is caused by the acid content of the wine. Sometimes perceived as crispness, a wine’s acidity must be properly balanced; too much acidity and the wine tastes too tart; too little and the wine tastings heavy and uninteresting. Like body, acidity is more felt in the mouth than actually tasted, but it is critical to the overall sensation of how a wine tastes.
Astringency: Astringency is a puckering, dehydrated sensation that we get from some young red wines. This sensation is caused by something called tannins, which occur naturally in grape skins and seeds. Wine with an abundance of tannins is called tannic. In wine terminology, the opposite of tannic is soft. Because red wines are left in contact with the skin and seeds during fermentation, red wines are more tannic than white wines. Grape varieties vary in the amount of tannins they contain. As a rule the more fruity tasting grape varieties have the fewest tannins. For example Beaujolais Nouveau, made from the Gamay grape, is very low in tannins, while Cabernet Sauvignon has more tannins than most other wine grape varieties.
Using these four sensations I’ve described seven stages of palate progression. A wine drinker’s taste will generally progress through these stages as follows.
- Sweet, light body white wines (sweet white)
- Crisp, fruity, light body white wines (crisp white)
- Drier, crisp, medium body white wines (drier white)
- Fruity, soft, medium body red wines (fruity red)
- Soft, semi-dry, medium body red wines (soft red)
- Dry, full body red wines with mild tannins (dry red)
- Dry, full body red wines with pronounced tannins (big red)
The two words in parenthesis are the shorthand for these stages. Deciding which of these seven stages your palate is in can be useful. When asking a waiter or sommelier for a recommendation, it will be helpful to let them know the kind of wines you prefer. The little shorthand description above should be all they need to help you find something you’ll like.
If you always drink the same wine, your palate will not evolve. To experience the progression from sweet white, to big red wines, you must expose your palate to new taste sensations by trying different wines. As with most things, your palate will only improve with practice.