Wine evaluation: It all starts with a clean palate

We've spent the last couple of weeks exploring wine appreciation, including likes and dislikes and first impressions in color and bouquet. Today we'll look closely at the palate.

There are many ways in which the palate contributes to the evaluation of wine. I've been attending seminars for more than 42 years and am still amazed at the array and sophistication of schemes, methodologies and routines attached to the palate. But essential to all is to start with a clean palate.

When evaluating wine, try your best to stay away from salty or piquant foods that can really knock out a wonderful glass of wine. Cheeses are always nice to have with wines, as are nontropical fruits, unsalted nuts and unsalted crackers. There are wonderful choices for food pairing with wine that are easily sourced on the Web.

There is some debate about whether smoking obscures taste sensations. Smokers quite freely will tell you their habit does not interfere with their evaluation of wine. I think we need to take their word about this. On the other hand, I have spoken to numerous wine judges and others in the business who have told me that when they quit smoking, they felt they had come out of a great fog and that their palate appreciation skills became much, much sharper.

I like to make palate evaluation simple by breaking it down to three components: the front palate, the second palate and the third palate. Let's look at the three components briefly.

Front palate: This is where initial taste sensations take place, where we perceive blasts of fruit, wood and other flavors associated with specific varietals. For example, we begin to differentiate the lighter-tasting gamay from the more intense petite sirah. These initial sensations of intensity and concentration are to be locked in while the wine is still on the palate.

Second palate: I like to think of this part of the palate as the tactile sensory tool. Here is where we feel weight and density — light vs. heavy, grip and richness. To me, this part of the palate expresses the gravitas of the wine. A wine might have good initial flavors, but if the second palate tells me that the juice is thin or watery, no amount of flavor can help it. This is especially true of red wine, but also of white wines such as rich chardonnay or spicy Alsatian gewurztraminer.

Third palate: This is where all taste sensations need to come together in unity and enhancement, where there is no outstanding or edgy qualities. Balance and harmony are felt here.

Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and still works there part time. Reach him at

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