Taste Is In The Palate of the Beholder

A lot of fuss is made annually about numerous awards, about wine guide ratings, about what the learned critics say about any particular vintage from a specific cellar. Can these opinions be used as viticultural law? Should these opinions be used as the begin-all-and-end-all of our perceptions of a specific vintage?

The answer lays not in a yes or no, but rather in the question itself. These are in fact, opinions. Perhaps learned opinions, but a personal perspective nonetheless. Attempting to see these opinions as law, rather than as a guide, is an acute error of the palate; each human is an individual and thus, the palate is individualistic. What is excellent to one, may be mediocre or unpalatable to another.

A food critic who raves about seafood, is not going to convince a meat-lover that his/her favourite restaurant is the best in the world. The same goes for wine; a wooded Viognier lover will seldom convince the Chenin drinker that Chenin is too light and crisp on the palate and not an ideal supper compliment. Yes, there are some general guidelines in wine and food, but none of these are law, they’re open to personal interpretation.

I too have been guilty of wine snobbery, turning my nose up at wine with a higher residual sugar. “What, a sweet Cap Classique? That’s so Gauteng!” I’ve uttered those words before. Yet, I have to keep my Capetonianism in check, as my palate is not everyone’s palate and some of the larger, more promising, emerging wine markets may not be as receptive to the dry, sometimes wooded wines we might deem more ‘noble’ a vintage.

The South African wine industry has been lucky this year. With a poor European crop, despite a stagnant economy in the E.U., South Africa has experienced one of the best export years ever, as our exports made up for the European wine shortage. However, this may not be the case in years to come. As developed markets reach their saturation phase, if we want to grow our industry, we may need to appeal to non-traditional markets; this means, non-traditional wines. China, Bahrain, India and south-east Asia may not have our likes-and-dislikes.

This is the case. I looked at Du Toitskloof’s limited production Vin Deux, a sparkling wine produced for eastern export, that resembles Cold Duck more than our locally lauded Sparkling Brut. We may not purchase the former for our birthday or New Year’s celebration, but another market certainly will.

Does this mean a cellar has sold out on traditional concepts of quality, or does it mean its range appeals to a wider range of palates. In a globalised world, I sincerely believe it is the latter. The Cape, European, S. Australian or Californian idea of a good vintage just isn’t going to cut it as a point of departure for all wine production.

We’re entering a brave new world where we may be producing vintages we would not consume ourselves. However, success is thinking wider than our own needs and wrapping our heads around the palates of others’. This does not mean we should abandon our traditional, well-loved favourites. Diversity is the spice of life and a diverse portfolio makes for diluted misfortune; if our eggs are in many baskets, one basket falling in a specific year will do limited harm. Is it not wiser allowing the consumer to choose which basket he/she prefers more? We think so.

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